The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)
What was the position of the Rehnquist Court on the death penalty?
The Rehnquist Court did not invalidate the death penalty on its face. In fact, a solid majority of the Court refused to declare that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, the Rehnquist Court overruled a couple of its prior decisions with respect to the execution of mentally retarded inmates and inmates who committed their crimes when they were juveniles. For example, in 1989 the Rehnquist Court ruled in Penry v. Lynaugh that the Eighth Amendment did not forbid the execution of a mentally retarded inmate. However, in the 2002 decision Atkins v. Virginia, the Court ruled that the execution of a mentally retarded inmate did violate the Eighth Amendment. Likewise, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that it was constitutional for a state to execute an inmate who committed murder when he or she was sixteen years of age. However, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overruled its Stanford decision by ruling 5–4 that executing a juvenile murderer violates the Eighth Amendment.
The Court’s death penalty jurisprudence changed over time and many of the cases showed a deeply divided Court. Some other key death-penalty decisions of the Rehnquist Court include:
McCleskey v. Kemp (1987): The Court ruled that a death penalty defendant cannot invalidate his death penalty based on a broad statistical study showing correlation between race and the death penalty. Rather, the majority rules that the defendant must show “that the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose.”
Tison v. Arizona (1987): The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for a defendant who participates in a felony that leads to a murder.
Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988): The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to execute a criminal defendant who was fifteen years old when he committed murder.
Penry v. Lynaugh (1989): The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of a mentally retarded inmate.
Stanford v. Kentucky (1989): The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of a criminal defendant who was sixteen or seventeen when he or she committed murder. This decision was overruled by the Court in its 2005 decision Roper v. Simmons.
Coleman v. Thompson (1991): In a controversial ruling, the Court ruled that a federal court could not review a death sentence issued by state courts when the defendant’s lawyer in his habeas corpus appeal missed the appeal deadline by one day. The case is controversial because some believe the inmate in question, Roger Coleman, was innocent; later DNA testing, however, apparently showed that he was guilty.
Payne v. Tennessee (1991): The Court ruled that a death-penalty jury can hear evidence from the victim’s family during the sentencing phase. This case effectively overruled Booth v. Maryland (1987).
Herrera v. California (1993): The Court ruled that “actual innocence” is not a constitutional claim in and of itself in a federal habeas corpus claim. This means that a defendant is not entitled to federal court review of his death sentence unless he or she can show an independent constitutional violation that occurred during the original state court trial proceedings.
Romano v. Oklahoma (1994): The Court ruled that it was not a constitutional violation for a capital jury to hear evidence that the defendant had received a prior death sentence for another murder.
Buchanan v. Angellone (1998): The Court ruled that a capital defendant was not entitled to jury instructions on specific mitigating factors.
Atkins v. Virginia (2002): The Court ruled that a state cannot execute a mentally retarded inmate. This decision overruled the Court’s 1989 decision in Penry v. Lynaugh.
Ring v. Arizona (2002): The Court ruled that a jury, not a trial judge, should make the factual determinations necessary of the presence of aggravating factors in determining whether a defendant should receive a sentence of life in prison or death. This decision overruled the Court’s 1990 decision in Walton v. Arizona.
Wiggins v. Smith (2003): The Court ruled that a capital defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when his attorney failed to put forth any evidence of mitigating factors during his sentencing phase.
Roper v. Simmons (2005): The Court ruled that a state cannot execute an inmate who committed his capital crime when he was a juvenile. The Court overruled its 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky.