Death Penalty in America: Law, History, and Policy

Credit Hours: 2

The use of the death penalty as the ultimate punishment upon a conviction for a capital crime continues to spark heated debate in our courts, within legislatures and among the public. This course will analyze the law and history of the death penalty in the context of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, in addition to the due process rights and jury trial rights afforded to all citizens. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), Congress and state legislatures created death penalty laws and procedures seeking to limit the class of murders eligible for the death penalty to the “worst of the worst.” The Supreme Court has also revised the death penalty in several cases since Gregg with the effect of limiting the application of the death penalty: e.g, for juveniles; for those with low mental capacities; and by limiting how the death penalty may be imposed (juries only) and the manner in which the death penalty can be carried out. But the Supreme Court has not (yet) revisited the notion of abolishing the death penalty as unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Is the answer that the imposition of the death penalty in the appropriate case is lawful, constitutional and just? Or, will the Supreme Court abolish the death penalty? If so, why?