The Burger Court (1969–86)
Criminal Law and Procedure
Major Death Penalty Decisions of the 1980s
Furman v. Georgia (1972): The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5–4 that Georgia’s death penalty scheme violates the Eighth Amendment. Three justices in the majority attack the death penalty in general, while Justices Potter Stewart and Lewis Powell focus on the fact that the death penalty law does not give jurors sufficient guidance as to which capital defendants should receive the ultimate punishment. Stewart writes that “these death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” This ruling leads to a halt on all executions in the country until 1977.
Gregg v. Georgia (1976): The Court rules that some death penalty statutes are constitutional because they provide sufficient guidance to the jury in terms of aggravating and mitigating factors. The Court writes that “the concerns expressed in Furman that the penalty of death not be imposed in an arbitrary or capricious manner can be met by a carefully drafted statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance.”
Roberts v. Louisiana (1976): The Court strikes down a Louisiana statute that required the death penalty for defendants who kill police officers and did not allow those defendants to offer any mitigating factors.
Woodson v. North Carolina (1976): The Court strikes down a North Carolina statute that required the death penalty for all criminal defendants convicted of first-degree murder.
Gilmore v. Utah (1976): The Court rules that Utah inmate Gary Gilmore could waive his rights to appeal his death sentence. Gilmore wanted to be executed but his mother and his attorneys had filed petitions on his behalf. He becomes the first person (in 1977) executed in the United States since the Furman decision. His execution becomes memorialized in author Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.
Coker v. Georgia (1976): The Court rules that a sentence of death for rape is excessive punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The Court writes: “Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder.”
Lockett v. Ohio (1978): The Court invalidates Ohio’s death penalty statute because it restricts mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase. The Court writes: “The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer, in all but the rarest kind of capital case, not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.”
Adams v. Texas (1980): The Court invalidates a Texas inmate’s death sentence because the trial judge dismissed prospective jurors who said they would be “affected” by the possibility of imposing the death penalty. The Court writes that “a juror may not be challenged for cause based on his views about capital punishment unless those views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.”
Edmund v. Florida (1982): The Court rules that a defendant cannot be sentenced to death for participating in a felony that leads to murder if the defendant did not participate in the killing, attempt to kill, or intend for killing to take place.
Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982): The Court vacates the death sentence of an inmate, who was 16 years old at the time of the murder for which he was sentenced, because the trial court refused to allow his attorney to introduce mitigating factors, such as his turbulent family history, beatings by his father, and emotional problems.
California v. Ramos (1983): The Court rules that a California trial judge did not violate the constitutional rights of a criminal defendant by instructing the jury that the governor could commute a defendant’s life sentence to a sentence with the possibility of parole.
Barclay v. Florida (1983): The Court rejects the claims of a Florida inmate who alleges his death sentence should be overturned because the trial judge allowed the jury to consider his criminal record as an aggravating factor.
Spaziano v. Florida (1984): The Court rules that a trial judge may sentence a criminal defendant to death even though a jury has recommended a life sentence. The Court writes that “the purpose of the death penalty is not frustrated by, or inconsistent with, a scheme in which the imposition of the penalty in individual cases is determined by a judge.”
Strickland v. Washington (1984): The Court sets the standard for determining when a death sentence can be set aside for ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court writes that “the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
Caldwell v. Mississippi (1985): The Court sets aside a Mississippi inmate’s death sentence when the prosecutor told the jury that an appeals court would review its determination of life or death. The Court writes “it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s death rests elsewhere.”
Ford v. Wainwright (1986): The Court rules that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of insane persons.
Darden v. Wainwright (1986): The Court rules that a prosecutor’s improper comments during closing arguments in a death penalty case did not justify vacating the sentence. The Court writes that a sentence should be set aside based on a prosecutor’s comments only when the comments “so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.”
Skipper v. South Carolina (1986): The Court sets aside a death sentence when the trial judge excluded as mitigating evidence the testimony of jailers regarding the good behavior of the defendant before his trial.