Limitations on the Death Penalty
Limitations within the United States
After World War II, many European countries abandoned or restricted the death penalty after signing and ratifying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties. The U.S. retained the death penalty, but established limitations on capital punishment.
In 1977, the United States Supreme
Court held in Coker v. Georgia (433 U.S. 584) that the death
penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for the rape of an adult
woman when the victim was not killed. Other limits to the death penalty
followed in the next decade.
Mental Illness and Mental
On June 20, 2002, the Supreme
issued a landmark ruling ending the execution of those with mental
retardation. In Atkins v. Virginia,
the Court held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on
cruel unusual punishment to execute death row inmates with mental
Race was again in the forefront when the Supreme Court decided a 1987 case, McCleskey v. Kemp (481 U.S. 279). McCleskey argued that there was racial discrimination in the application of Georgia's death penalty by presenting a statistical analysis showing a pattern of racial disparities in death sentences, based on the race of the victim. The Supreme Court held, however, that racial disparities would not be recognized as a constitutional violation of “equal protection of the law” unless intentional racial discrimination against the defendant could be shown.
The Court reaffirmed the necessity
of referring to “the evolving standards of decency that mark the
progress of a maturing society” to determine which punishments are so
disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual. The Court reasoned
that the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of
states, the infrequent use of the punishment even where it remains on
the books, and the consistent trend toward abolition of the juvenile
death penalty demonstrated a national consensus against the
practice. The Court determined that today our society views
juveniles as categorically less culpable than the average criminal.
The following year, the Supreme
Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death
penalty for crimes committed at age sixteen or seventeen. (Stanford
v. Kentucky, and Wilkins v. Missouri (collectively, 492
In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6(5) of this international human rights treaty requires that the death penalty not be used on those who committed their crimes when they were below the age of 18. However, although the U.S. ratified the treaty, they reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders.