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Capital Punishment: Legal Aspects - Growing Concerns About Fairness And Reliability

challenges death federal administration

For much of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court played a seemingly intensive, even intrusive, role in the regulation of capital punishment. It issued several significant opinions every year on constitutional challenges to the administration of capital punishment, and many perceived the resulting doctrines to be complex and confusing. Ultimately, however, the Court's constitutional requirements for valid capital statutes are fairly undemanding, and the Court has rejected a variety of more sweeping challenges that would have truly changed the nature and availability of capital punishment in America—such as challenges to the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, challenges to racial disproportion in capital sentencing, and challenges regarding the quality of counsel and the availability of federal review in capital cases. However, at least for awhile, the appearance of intensive regulation seemed to trump the reality of its absence, and complaints about undue judicial intervention in capital sentencing were widely heard and helpful in easing the passage of the "habeas reform" statute in 1996.

In the last few years of the twentieth century, however, concerns about the fairness and reliability of the administration of capital punishment seemed to grow significantly. In the year 2000, the governor of a state—Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois—declared a moratorium on executions, citing evidence that innocent people had been erroneously convicted and sentenced to death. More than two dozen municipalities—including Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—imposed similar measures, and President Bill Clinton, in the last months of his presidency, stayed what would have been the first federal execution in thirty-seven years to await the completion of a study by the Department of Justice on racial and geographical disparities in administration of the federal death penalty. In the same year, the legislature of New Hampshire—the only retentionist state with no one on "death row"—became the first state legislature in the post-Furman era to vote to abolish the death penalty; its vote, however, was vetoed successfully by Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

These developments suggest that the weakness of federal constitutional regulation of capital punishment is becoming more apparent both to political actors and to the public at large. It is possible that the new century may bring about a turn in the fate of the institution of capital punishment in the United States.

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