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Seminal Case Decisions

In this section of the website site, you will find direct links to cases relating to pertinent capital punishment issues. The cases are divided into four categories, juvenile, foreign national, mental retardation and general death penalty. A brief synopsis of the case and subject context will precede the title of each case and the citation number.


The constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty was decided in Thompson v. Oklahoma. With Justice Stevens writing for the plurality, the Court held that there is an "evolving standard of decency" dictating that the execution of offenders fifteen years old and younger was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

The following year, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) (492 U.S. 361), with Justice Scalia writing for the majority, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of sixteen or seventeen year old offenders.

In 2002, although the Supreme Court did not grant Patterson cert in Patterson v. Texas (denial of cert), three justices dissented arguing that the issue of juvenile death penalty should be addressed as soon as possible.

Also in 2002, in re Kevin Nigel Stanford, the Supreme Court declined to hear an original habeas revisiting the issue of the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders. However, in a public dissent, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Stevens, and Souter, argued that given the recent decision in Atkins v Virginia, which dealt with the issue of mental retardation and capital punishment, and the movement of the states away from the juvenile death penalty, the issue should be examined immediately.

    In re Kevin Nigel Stanford

    On March 1, 2005 in the case of Roper v. Simmons, the US Supreme Court, held in a 5-4 vote that the death penalty, as applied to those under eighteen years of age at the time of the crime, violates evolving standards of decency and is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" of the US Constitution.

    Roper v. Simmons 125 S. Ct. 1183

Foreign National

The Vienna Convention on Consular Rights (VCCR) is a multilateral treaty that regulates the rights, privileges and duties of consulates and consular staff worldwide. Ratified by some 160, including the United States, the VCCR is the cornerstone of international consular relations. Article 36 of the VCCR recognizes and enshrines the right of consuls to communicate with and assist their detained nationals.

The Supreme Court held that Angel Breard waived his right to claim a violation of Article 36 of the VCCR by not raising the issue in the Virginia state court.

On 27th June 2001, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a binding judgment in the LaGrand case (Germany v USA) in which the Court ruled on the interpretation and application of rights conferred under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). The ICJ determined that the United States had violated all central provisions of Article 36 of the VCCR, thus incurring obligations both to Germany and to its detained nationals. The key elements of the ruling squarely contradict the legal position adopted by US authorities in the domestic courts, as well as the per curiam decision of the US Supreme Court in Breard v Greene.

Mental Retardation/Mental Illness

In Ford v Wainwright in 1986 (477 U.S. 399) the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of the mentally insane and required an adversarial process for determining mental competency. In 1989, however, the Court held that the execution of persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eight Amendment in Penry v Lynaugh (492 U.S. 584). Mental retardation would instead be seen as a mitigating factor.

In 2002, the Supreme Court heard the case of Atkins v Virginia and ruled that the application of the death penalty to defendants with mental retardation is per se "cruel and unusual".

General Death Penalty

In 1958, in Trop v Dulles, the Supreme Court determined that the Eighth Amendment contained an "evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society". Both Atkins v Virginia and Stanford v Kentucky were decided by means of this "evolving standard of decency" benchmark

In 1968, in Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court held that a potential juror's uncertainties about the death penalty were insufficient grounds to prevent that person from serving on a jury in a death penalty case.

In Ring v Arizona a 2002 case, Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority, ruled that any statute that allows the judge, alone, to determine a death sentence in the sentencing phase is unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. For a case summary of the decision in Ring v Arizona please click here.

The Supreme Court affirmed Leonel Herrera's death sentence, despite new evidence indicating Herrera's innocence. According to the majority written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Herrera's claims of innocence were irrelevant. [I]n the eyes of the law, petitioner does not come before the Court as one who is "innocent," but, on the contrary, as one who has been convicted by due process of law of two brutal murders. Federal habeas courts "sit to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution-- not to correct errors of fact."

The issue of arbitrariness of the death penalty was brought before the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia (1972). Furman argued that capital cases resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing. The Court set the standard that a punishment would be cruel and unusual it was too severe for the crime, it was arbitrary, if it offended society's sense of justice, or if it was not more effective than a less severe penalty. In 9 separate opinions, and by a vote of 5 to 4, the Court held that Georgia's death penalty statute, which gave the jury complete sentencing discretion, could result in arbitrary sentencing and thus violated the Eighth Amendment. Therefore, the Court in actual fact voided 40 death penalty statutes.

Four years after Furman, the Supreme Court held in Gregg v Georgia( collectively Gregg v Georgia, Jurek v Texas and Proffitt v Florida) that the death penalty statutes in Georgia, Texas and Florida were constitutional and not "arbitrary and capricious". The Court also held that the death penalty per se was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. In Gregg three procedural reforms were accepted by the Court. The first was a bifurcated system of guilt and penalty phases of a trial, second was the procedure of an automatic review of a conviction and sentence and finally, a proportionality review, a procedure that allows states to recognize and eradicate sentencing disparities.

In Batson v Kentucky ( 476 US 79 ( 1986)) a non-capital case, the politically volatile issue of race was addressed by the Supreme Court. The Court held that a prosecutor who, in selecting a jury, strikes a disproportionate number of citizens of the same race is required to rebut the inference of discrimination by showing neutral reasons for the strikes. Such use of race-based peremptory challenges violated the Equal Protection rights of the potential jurors.

In the 1987 case, McCleskey v Kemp, brings together the issues of race and the death penalty. McCleskey argued that there was racial discrimination in the application of Georgia's death penalty by presenting a statistical study which showed that defendants were far more likely to receive the death penalty when there was a black defendant and a white victim. The Supreme Court held that the study was insufficient to show an Equal Protection violation. Racial disparities would not be recognized as a constitutional violation unless intentional racial discrimination against the defendant could be shown.