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Capital Punishment

Evolving Standards Of Decency

However, administration of capital punishment is not necessarily constitutional under all circumstances, against all classes of defendants, or for all types of crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that what may have been constitutionally permissible when the Eighth Amendment was ratified in 1791 might be cruel and unusual now, if application of the death penalty in particular cases offends the "evolving standards of decency" test. Under this test, courts will examine prevailing opinions among state legislatures, sentencing juries, judges, scholars, the American public, and the international community to determine whether a particular application of the death penalty is cruel and unusual. For example, in Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 109 S. Ct. 2934, 106 L. Ed. 2d 256 (1989), the Court examined many of these factors and determined that there was no clear consensus against executing mentally retarded defendants who had been convicted of murder.

However, just 13 years later, the Court found that "standards of decency" had evolved to a point where mentally retarded defendants could no longer be made subject to capital punishment without violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. ATKINS V. VIRGINIA, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 153 L. Ed. 2d 335 (U.S. 2002). The Court emphasized the fact that since Penry 18 states had passed legislation excluding the mentally retarded from the class of defendants who are eligible for capital punishment. Applying the same type of analysis in Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 109 S. Ct. 2969, 106 L. Ed. 2d 306 (1989), the Court found that there was no national consensus prohibiting the execution of juvenile offenders over age 15. But the Court did find sufficient proof of consensus against making rape defendants as a class that was eligible for capital punishment, stressing that only one jurisdiction in the country at the time of its decision allowed capital punishment for the rape of an adult woman. Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 97 S. Ct. 2861, 53 L. Ed. 2d 982 (2002).

Death by electrocution has been challenged several times as being inconsistent with "evolving standards of decency". In a series of Florida cases, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in appeals where the petitioner offered proof that during the execution the electric chair was engulfed by flames and that smoke had emanated from the inmate's head. But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death by electrocution does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual, citing evidence that execution by electrocution renders an inmate instantaneously unconscious, thereby making it impossible to feel pain when the electrical current is properly maintained. Provenzano v. Moore, 744 So. 2d 413 (Fla. 1999), cert denied, 528 U.S. 1182, 120 S. Ct. 1222, 145 L. Ed. 2d 1122 (2000).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bryan Treaties (Bryan Arbitration Treaties) to James Earl Carter Jr. - Further ReadingsCapital Punishment - Cruel And Unusual Punishment, The Costs Of Capital Punishment, Evolving Standards Of Decency, Capital Punishment For Dwi-related Offenses