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 Intellectual Disability
In 1986, the Supreme Court banned the execution of insane persons in Ford v. Wainwright (477 U.S. 399). However, in 1989, the Court held that executing persons with intellectual disability, then referred to as "mental retardation," was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment in Penry v. Lynaugh (492 U.S. 584). Intellectual disability would instead be a mitigating factor to be considered during sentencing. On June 20, 2002, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling ending the execution of those with intellectual disability, then referred to as "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 intellectual disaiblities.

Race became the focus of the criminal justice debate when the Supreme Court held in Batson v. Kentucky (476 U.S. 79 (1986)) that a prosecutor who exercises his or her peremptory challenges to remove a disproportionate number of citizens of the same race in selecting a jury is required to show neutral reasons for the strikes. 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.

In March 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution.

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