Supreme Court Decision
Gregg v. Georgia
At first glance the Gregg decision, which reauthorized capital punishment in the United States, might be seen as overturning Furman v. Georgia, decided just four years before.
In actuality it affirmed Furman by recognizing the constitutionality of the death penalty as long as there are guidelines intended to prevent its arbitrary use. The decision supporting appropriate use of the ultimate penalty was more clear-cut than the contentious 5-4 decision in Furman, though the dissent stood fast in its original arguments.
The cases were remarkably similar to Furman. The lead case involved a Georgia man convicted of armed robbery and murder, and sentenced to die under Georgia's newly constructed guidelines. It was accompanied by two similar cases from Florida and Texas.
The state of Georgia had provided judges in capital cases with careful rules to follow in charging the jury, instituted a bifurcated trial in which the sentence was separately considered, and required juries in such cases to find beyond a reasonable doubt, in writing, that at least one of ten specific aggravating circumstances had attended the crime in question. The Georgia statute likewise required consideration of certain mitigating circumstances.
In accepting the state's new guidelines as constitutional, the Court specifically disavowed mandatory death sentences, and overturned such a law in Woodson v. North Carolina, decided the same day as Gregg.
In his opinion for the Court, Justice Potter Stewart found that, while the Eighth Amendment included a presumption of human dignity, the death penalty did not violate the Constitution per se, as claimed by Justices Brennan and Marshall in dissent. He further stated that the use of the death penalty need not be shown to be an effective deterrent, nor must the legislature specify the least severe penalty for a crime. Almost in paradox to the fact that conservative Christians are generally supportive of capital punishment, Justice Potter also found that retribution -- that most unChristian of motives -- is a justifiable aim of punitive policy.
Although Gregg succeeded in allowing states with carefully considered guidelines to again begin delivering justice to murderers, the decision is criticized for hypocrisy on the very issue it seeks to assert -- the construction of guidelines for the use of capital punishment.
In its Furman ruling, the Court pronounced against the arbitrariness of juries to whom no guidelines had been issued. In Woodson, it likewise struck down the very non-arbitrary concept of mandatory death sentences. But in Gregg it did nothing, beyond recognizing the acceptability of the Georgia statute, to further the understanding of which guidelines would and would not be acceptable, or to square the idea that the Eighth Amendment incorporates the "concept of human dignity" with the acceptability of retribution.
Few would quibble with the idea that juries should consider both aggravating and mitigating circumstances before arriving at a sentence -- or even a verdict -- in any case. But in all likelihood, allowing a mandatory death sentence for specific crimes, to be weighed against a very short list of specific mitigating and aggravating circumstances, would have created less potential arbitrariness than the current complicated state of affairs.
Meanwhile, as the arguments over human dignity and deserved punishment continue, perpetrators of the most heinous crimes still wait years in cruel and historically unusual limbo for their just rewards.
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Other decisions pertaining to Capital Punishment:
Furman v. Georgia [408 U.S. 238 (1972)] Burger Court
Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber [329 U.S. 459 (1947)] Vinson Court
Wilkerson v. Utah [99 U.S. 134 (1905)] Waite Court
Woodson v. North Carolina [428 U.S. 280 (1976)] Burger Court