Revisiting Furman: Is it time for America to reevaluate the death penalty?

by Ben Wright, Instructor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail:


The wheels of American government have, at times, been notoriously slow when addressing major aspects of society that are not consistent with American ideals and values.  Take for example, the issues of slavery, segregation, women’s rights, and today’s tenuous relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.  However, one argument that can certainly be made is that the idea of capital punishment may not fit within the realm of today’s American values.  The strained relationship between the death penalty and American society was especially evident in 2014 when there were numerous botched executions and seven offenders were exonerated from death row. 

As a criminal justice practitioner for 17 years with experience in the execution process, I am well aware of the issues surrounding current execution methods in the United States.  However, current debate over the proper method to perform the ultimate punishment is one that goes much deeper than whether execution methods violate the 8th Amendment.  As a recipient of those offenders who had received the death penalty, I often wondered what qualified this case to be a death penalty case.  Some cases involved a multitude of victims or the victims were children.  In such cases, it was obvious why the case was judged especially heinous and warranted consideration for the death penalty.  However, there were also cases that made me wonder why this person was sentenced to death when I could think of numerous other offenders whose crimes were much more heinous that were spared the death penalty.  I also began to notice that death penalty cases were regional – specific regions of the state were more likely to utilize capital punishment than others.  It was therefore not the degree of brutality of the crime, but other factors that appeared to lead to the utilization of capital punishment. 

This article will address current trends in capital punishment in the United States.  Furthermore, I shall also point to a number of factors that evidence the need to reevaluate capital punishment both within and beyond the realm of Furman v. Georgia.  This is a discussion regarding the principle and process of capital punishment in the United States and whether each may violate 8th Amendment provisions against cruel and unusual punishment.  This discussion is not a stance either for or against capital punishment.  Instead, it is a look at issues that continue to haunt the death penalty after the Furman v. Georgia[1] Supreme Court decision in 1972.  The biggest question that needs to be asked is if capital punishment can ever meet the cruel and unusual punishment standard.

Furman v. Georgia

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium on capital punishment with the decision of Furman v. Georgia.  Forty states had death penalty statutes at the time of the Furman decision.  At the time of the Furman decision, six hundred inmates across thirty-two states had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.  At the time of the Furman decision, there was also a significant decline in support for the death penalty in the United States.  In fact, public support for capital punishment in the United States hit a record low 42% in 1966.[2]


The Furman decision found the death penalty unconstitutional on the grounds of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  This decision disrupted the once consistent notion that the death penalty did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  The decision was not a challenge to the concept of capital punishment but instead cited that capital punishment statutes were unconstitutional because they left much discretion to judges and juries to impose a death sentence.  Such discretion was viewed as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s protections of due process and the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  In other words, the imposition of the capital punishment was seen as discriminatory and arbitrary.  The Court ultimately held that in order to avoid constitutional conflict, states must narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty. Therefore, states could once again legalize the use of the death penalty with a process of legislative reform that eliminated the arbitrary and discriminatory rules that previously guided the process.  By 1975, thirty states had passed death penalty laws and nearly 200 people were on death row.2

In the 1976 Supreme Court case of Gregg v. Georgia[3], the Court upheld new state statutes that established guidelines for juries and judges when deciding whether or not to impose the death penalty.  Essentially, Gregg once again legalized the death penalty.  Additionally, the Gregg decision also established death penalty reforms regarding strict sentencing guidelines, bifurcated trials, and proportionality (weighing aggravating versus mitigating circumstances) review.  In both the 1972 Furman ruling and the 1976 Gregg ruling, the Supreme Court ruled on a specific death penalty case, and their ruling set a precedent that was applicable to death penalty cases nationwide.   

As noted previously, at the time of the Furman decision, public approval for the death penalty was relatively low.  Additionally, the Supreme Court recognized that the application of the death penalty was arbitrary and capricious as it was negatively impacted by judge and jury discretion.  Essentially, imposition of the death penalty was guided by non-legal factors such as race, class, and geographic location.  The decisions in Furman and Gregg delegated constitutional authority to each state with the imposition of the death penalty.  Ideally, with the addition of new sentencing guidelines, bifurcated trials, and proportionality, imposition of capital punishment would be based upon appropriate legal factors such as seriousness of the crime and prior criminal history.  

As it will be demonstrated in this article, death penalty decisions today still suffer from significant influences of extra-legal factors such as race, class, and geography.  Additionally, this article will argue that a number of questions that were either prevalent at the time of Furman or represent new developments in the utilization of the death penalty need to be addressed.  Such issues include:  the changing public opinion of capital punishment, issues regarding prosecutorial discretion and due process, the impact of race in capital punishment cases, the extraordinary costs of capital cases, the number of offenders exonerated from death row, and whether the death penalty serves as a deterrent to violent crime.  Additionally, recent developments regarding the lethal injection process have led to questions regarding the “cruel and unusual” standard. 

Public Opinion and Capital Punishment

As noted previously, public opinion of capital punishment in America reached record lows in the 1960s.  From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, public approval of the death penalty increased and the number of executions increased.   Once again, the utilization of capital punishment was an integral part of the criminal justice process.  However, it was also during this time period that capital punishment was becoming increasingly unpopular in the international community.  By the turn of the 21st century, a significant majority of countries had abolished capital punishment.  The United States was one of the world leaders at imposing capital punishment, finding itself in the company of countries such as China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Yemen.  Public support of the death penalty peaked in the mid-1990s, with 78% of Americans in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of murder.2

National support for the death penalty has fluctuated greatly within the past 50 years.  However, since the Supreme Court has delegated decisions regarding the death penalty to the states, public approval ratings for the death penalty by states that utilize the death penalty becomes more important than national surveys.  In a national study of state and demographic trends regarding support for the death penalty, Shirley and Gelman found that blacks have decreased their support of the death penalty over time dramatically more than non-blacks, with the support among black men showing a faster relative decrease, on average than among black women.  Additionally, over the past 50 years death penalty support has grown faster in states with support for Republican presidential candidates and average support over time has been higher in states where the death penalty has been legal.  Therefore, it appears that public opinion is, presumably, both a cause and a consequence of policies on capital punishment.[4]

There have been numerous Supreme Court decisions concerning death penalty laws that cite changing public opinion as a factor in determining whether aspects of the death penalty constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment.4  In Weems v. United States in 1910 and Trop v. Dulles in 1958, the Supreme Court decisions specifically pointed out that the definition of “cruel and unusual” could change over time according to societal standards.[5]  Later, in a 2002 court decision, Justice Stevens cited that public opinion polls provided insight concerning the public’s feelings toward the death penalty for mentally retarded prisoners.[6]  What these cases prove is that death penalty public opinion does have an influence on death penalty policy.   

Since support for the death penalty peaked at 80% in 1994, public support for the death penalty has taken a significant negative turn.[7]  This decrease in support for the death penalty can be seen as a response to more punitive sentencing such as truth in sentencing.  Moreover, a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than death penalty for murder.[8]  Such alternatives mainly included the more recent utilization of life without parole (LWOP).

Furthermore, a 2009 poll commissioned by the DPIC found that the death penalty ranked last among alternatives to reduce violence.  In fact, the police chiefs also considered the death penalty to be the least effective use of taxpayers’ money.8

As indicated above, both public support and law enforcement support for the death penalty have decreased since peaking in the mid-1990s.  More punitive sentencing options, mainly the implementation of life without parole, have given the families of victims alternatives to the death penalty to ensure that offenders are not given an opportunity to return to the community.


Alternatives such as LWOP have given prosecutors and families of victims an alternative to the death penalty.  Additionally, many members of the public are now more educated regarding the extraordinary costs associated with capital punishment.  It currently takes an average of more than 15 years between sentencing to death and execution.  According to one study of capital appeals, two-thirds of the cases are reversed due to serious error.  These cases frequently result in a sentence other than death when they are retried.7

The Supreme Court has also mandated that defense attorneys must conduct an investigation into all aspects of their client’s life, even if they later chose not to present such facts to the jury.[9]  Because of this immense task, it takes a defense team rather than an individual attorney to represent a defendant in a capital case.  The prosecution must employ similar, if not greater, resources to meet its burden of proof and ensure an innocent person is not sentenced to death. 

The above factors taken in combination with automated appeals for capital cases and the fact that offenders on death row must be managed in maximum-security settings have a tremendous impact upon the costs of capital cases.  Estimates indicate that death penalty cases cost approximately three times more than life without parole (a cost of $3 million versus $1 million).[10]  More recent studies regarding the costs of capital punishment indicate that this discrepancy could be even more than originally thought.  For example, defense costs for death penalty trials in Kansas averaged about $400,000 per case, compared to $100,000 per case when the death penalty was not sought.[11]  Many capital cases result in a sentence other than death on appeal.  In Maryland, the average death penalty case resulting in a death costs approximately $3 million.  The eventual costs to Maryland taxpayers for cases pursued from 1978-1999 will be $186 million and five executions have resulted during this time period.[12]

Geographical Bias and Prosecutorial Discretion in Capital Punishment

The Supreme Court’s decision in Furman placed constitutional discretion regarding capital punishment in the hands of state governments.  Furthermore, because of the costs of capital punishment, most decisions to pursue the death penalty reside with local prosecutors. 

Placing the pursuit of capital punishment under local control is a significant matter.  Placing capital punishment decisions at the local level makes prosecutors and judges accountable to local communities.  As a result, it has become the politics of a local community, rather than the crime, that determines whether capital punishment will be pursued.[13]  Indeed, capital punishment debate often discusses the influence of legal and extralegal characteristics of prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty, jury death sentence decision-making, and attitudes regarding the use of the death penalty.  It is the localities that must bear much of the extraordinary cost of capital cases.  Therefore, the majority of the country has “either officially abolished the death penalty or essentially done so de facto”.13

The fact that the death penalty was rarely imposed was one major reason cited when capital punishment was invalidated in Furman.  The fact that the death penalty is now restricted to particular pockets of the country is evidence that the process remains arbitrary.  The communities that utilize the death penalty are usually resistant to the reasons for restraint in the utilization of capital punishment.  These localities are usually racially polarizing communities where death is a decree in response to attacks against whites.  Additionally, the death penalty is often utilized politically to distinguish individuals as being “tough on crime.”  This evidences the fact that Furman has failed to bring rationality and fairness to the administration of capital punishment. The reason not to impose the death penalty is usually cost, not legal factors such as the criminal’s behavior or the seriousness of the crime.  Furman sought to rationalize the death penalty, not to make it so expensive that it would be randomly enforced.13  Furman’s requirement of “super due process” approach to the death penalty, coupled with years of litigation and high reversal rates, have significantly changed the current death penalty landscape.   

Capital Punishment Due Process

As noted previously, the Furman decision to temporarily abolish the death penalty was based upon the fact that decisions regarding capital punishment were over-expansive.  One method to ensure that death penalty decisions are not over-expansive is to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors; however, it creates the risk of being overly vague.  Due to the fact that the Furman decision defaulted the decision of capital punishment to the states, many states developed vague aggravating factors that have become popular and widely utilized.  For example, many states utilize the terminology “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” as an aggravating factor for the purpose of capital sentencing.  One would have a hard time finding any murder that would not fall into the category of “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” 

The Supreme Court has ruled that vague aggravators may be constitutionally defective unless the state appellate court has further defined the vague aggravator.  However, this has done little to deter the over-expansive nature of the death penalty.  Aggravating and mitigating factors vary widely by state, ranging from extraordinarily broad to specific occurrences.  Instead of eliminating over-expansive and vague aggravators, the Court decisions such as those in Walton v. Arizona have provided a shortcut for their continued utilization.  The Walton v. Arizona[14] case held that the use of the aggravating factor of “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved” was not unconstitutionally vague.  One could argue that this fails to prevent arbitrary and capricious decision making as required by Furman

The Court has essentially deferred constitutional scrutiny to state appellate courts when analyzing potentially over-expansive aggravators.  These definitions have failed to provide that only the worst offenders receive the death penalty.  Over time, the Court ceded the power of determining the constitutionality of aggravating factors, thereby fracturing the once consistent caretaking of the constitutionality test.  As a result, vague aggravators have survived in state appellate courts that have some definition of the aggravators within state statutes.  However, this has resulted in lower courts’ inability to effectively find murders that do not include some element of “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” circumstances. 

Race and the Death Penalty

Despite the protections offered by the Supreme Court decisions of Furman and Gregg, racial disproportionality still exists in the utilization of capital punishment.  Numerous studies regarding the impact of race have found that black defendants, especially in those cases where the victim was white, are substantially more likely to receive the death penalty. Nationally, over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims are white.8   Historically, the Supreme Court has avoided the issue of race when it comes to the application of the death penalty.  However, most constitutional challenges against the death penalty were led by the nation’s preeminent racial-justice organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). 

Additionally, the qualification of jurors for capital punishment cases requires their responses to one political question (support of the death penalty) that correlates with race.  Gallup polls have indicated that whites are much more likely to support the death penalty as opposed to blacks.  Every potential juror who is unwilling to impose the death penalty will be struck for cause by the judge.  In practice, the people who are more likely to be struck from the jury will more likely be people of color, women, Democrats, and Catholics or members of other religions that oppose the death penalty.  Would we restrict a person’s right to vote based upon responses to politically-oriented questions?  This segment of jurors would not only be more likely to find a defendant guilty than a randomly selected jury, it would also be more likely sentence the defendant to death.7 This qualification of jurors has the effect of creating discriminatory juries, especially toward black defendants. 


Perhaps the most significant reason for changes in public support for the death penalty has been the emergence of the innocence issue, which has been strengthened by the availability of DNA testing.  People now know that the problem of wrongful conviction is more prevalent than previously thought.  Since 1973, 153 individuals have been exonerated from death row with evidence of their innocence with 7 offenders exonerated in 2014 alone.   What these numbers indicate is that for every ten offenders executed since 1973, one offender has been exonerated from death row.8

The conflict between the death penalty and due process is that once a person is executed the courts are no longer available to them.  With findings of offenders’ innocence despite the protections offered by Furman, Gregg, and numerous other Supreme Court decisions regarding the death penalty, the death penalty produces the moral consequence of potentially sacrificing innocent lives.  This paradox is contrary to the American ideal of due process and the protection of innocence. 

Methods of Execution

Recent developments regarding lethal injection have called into question the humanity of this process.  Lethal injection was once regarded as the most humane method of execution.  However, a number of recent developments and botched executions have created public discussion regarding the imposition of lethal injection.

The preeminent method of execution during the initial era of capital punishment was hangings.  However, death by hanging was later viewed as “barbaric” and methods were sought that would be less painful to the prisoner and less visually disturbing to onlookers.  One alternative that was later introduced, electrocution, led to issues of either too little current where the individual was stunned or to too much current where the individual was burned.  By 1950, the prevalent method of execution was the electric chair, which was being utilized in twenty-six states.  The state Supreme Court in two states, Georgia and Nebraska, went so far as to find electrocution unconstitutional.[15]  By 1955 eleven states had introduced the utilization of the gas chamber as a more humane method of execution.2  However, if the gas chamber method was not properly carried out, it could lead to strangulation.  Sarat noted that approximately 5% of all gas chamber executions were botched.7

By 1977, after states began to reinstate the death penalty post-Furman, the firing squad became the primary method of execution.2  Again, this method was viewed as an appropriate alternative but failed to provide a visually humane method of execution. Shortly thereafter, Oklahoma became the first state to develop lethal injection as a method of execution, although the first lethal injection execution did not occur until 1982 in Texas.2   Lethal injection was introduced with the same promises of other execution methods – to provide a humane and pain-free method of execution.  Yet soon, troubles developed with this method as well. 

The year 2014 was a bad year for those who supported the death penalty.  In addition to a record seven exonerations, there were a number of botched executions that made national and international headlines.  Botched executions have changed criticisms of the execution process. This criticism shifts attention from the wrongs of the offender to the wrongs of the state, from the need for retribution to the need for procedural protections.2  Perhaps the most significant botched execution was that of Joseph Wood in Arizona.  Wood’s execution would take a total of one hour and fifty-seven minutes to complete from the beginning to the declaration of death.

The most significant challenge to lethal injection protocols is the availability of adequate drugs to complete the execution process.  States continue to face a number of issues such as drug shortages, drug embargoes, and ethical restrictions that prevent many qualified experts from becoming involved in executions.  Historically, drugs utilized in execution protocols are produced in European countries.  However, because these countries and drug companies are opposed to the death penalty, they have restricted the sale of drugs that are utilized for the purpose of executions.  Because of availability of challenges, states are utilizing entirely new drugs and drug combinations and sometimes obtain these drugs from questionable sources, making it hard to predict what will happen in any given execution.  The combination of these factors reduces the execution process to a type of human research.[16]  In fact, research has demonstrated that lethal injection executions have a higher rate of failure than any other method of execution, which raises ethical and regulatory concerns and violates international legal norms.7

States previously used a three-drug protocol, which led to a risk that any pain and suffering experienced by the inmate would be masked by the use of a paralytic agent.  These three drug combinations included sodium thiopental (an anesthetic), pancuronium bromide (a neuromuscular blocking agent that paralyzes), and potassium chloride, which is administered to cause cardiac arrest.  However, due to the unavailability of sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide, new approaches to lethal injection involve exposing offenders to new and uncertain risks of bodily harm from untested drugs and drug combinations.27  The interest of the state is to find drugs that are available and produce a low risk of causing pain and suffering.   Additionally, officials must find methods of executions that do not allow the condemned to be an object of compassion, or to reach the status of being victimized. 

Today, different states utilize different drugs for execution.  Several states have begun to utilize midazolam, numerous states have implemented a single drug protocol, and some states have also substituted the drug pentobarbital for sodium thiopental.  Scientific and medical literatures state that midazolam is not capable of placing a prisoner in a coma-like state and maintaining it before the second and third drugs are administered.27  Midazolam is classified as a sedative and not an anesthetic.[17]

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Baze v. Rees[18] that a lethal injection protocol would only violate the 8th Amendment if it involves a “substantial risk of serious harm,” in light of alternatives that are “ feasible, reasonably implemented, and in fact significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain”.28  However, how much pain is constitutionally permissible is still an open question.  In another challenge to lethal injection, the Supreme Court ruled in Glossip v. Gross[19] that there can never be an entirely painless process of execution and that some pain will be tolerated.  Glossip v. Gross maintained that the state must act in a manner that avoids gratuitous pain, inflicting torture, and prolonged suffering. 

Due to drug shortages and drug embargoes, many states are turning to utilization of compounding agencies to obtain the drugs needed.  Compounding agencies are pharmacies that make drugs to fill individual prescriptions, as opposed to bulk manufacturing that is done by pharmaceutical companies.  Compounding agencies are much less regulated than the manufacturing of most prescription medications.   If courts are not weighing evidence of whether a particular compounding agency has sufficient quality control, or about a specific risk that a specific drug poses, they cannot conduct rigorous independent scrutiny of lethal injection research.  The secrecy of drug sources has been justified based upon the concerns that death penalty opponents will protest or harass those involved with executions.27   

In addition to challenges regarding the drugs utilized in lethal injection protocols, the American Medical Association and other medical boards do not sanction the utilization of physicians in the procedure.  This has the potential to lead to poorly trained technicians who would be responsible for finding the offender’s vein and injecting the medication.  These veins could be difficult to find if the inmate is a drug user, is overweight, or has a physical abnormality.  There is evidence that clinical experience with drugs could be utilized to create lethal injection protocols.  For example, Oregon utilizes physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, and has developed protocols over time to ensure death can occur humanely.27  However, one key issue is that these protocols are intended to be administered with physicians overseeing the process. 

By using new drugs, untested drug combinations, and untested doses, executions by lethal injection involve medical experimentation that is neither well designed nor evidence based.  Such challenges were even evidenced over 60 years ago in the United Kingdom.  In the 1950s the UK’s Royal Commission convened to seek methods as an alternative to hanging.  One consideration was lethal injection.  However, the British Association of Anesthetists explained to the Royal Commission that lethal injection was impractical because: 1) it would be impossible to administer intravenous injections to people with “certain physical abnormalities,” (2) it is difficult to inject people against their will, and (3) medical skills and training would be needed, but members of the medical profession would not be willing to provide their assistance.27

Because of the unsettling nature of lethal injection, many states maintain a secondary method of execution in case lethal injection is deemed unconstitutional.  However, due to the difficulty in obtaining drugs utilized in lethal injection protocols and public concerns regarding botched executions, the standard of what constitutes “cruel and unusual” is being challenged.  In a study of various execution methods utilized in the United States, Sarat (2014) found that from 1890 to 2010 approximately 3% of all executions were botched.  In 2014, 8% of executions were botched.  The primary method of execution, lethal injection, has not become easier or increasingly free of flaws.  Therefore, lethal injection no longer holds the “gold standard” of being a completely humane method of execution.  Should continued challenges arise, as expected, the Supreme Court will need to address the moving standard of “cruel and unusual.”


Americans continue to evaluate the humanitarian and proportionality concepts of capital punishment.  Additionally, the Supreme Court continues to struggle with establishing the proper boundaries for capital punishment under the 8th Amendment.  Indeed, numerous decisions in the 21st century have established rules regarding the constitutionality of the death penalty concerning the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, and juveniles.  Additionally, in 2008 the Court struck down the death penalty for all crimes against an individual except murder.[20]  Decisions regarding these “protected” classes have refined the parameters of the 8th Amendment and constricted the reach of the death penalty.

Public and legal discourse regarding the death penalty is coming at a time when the utilization of the death penalty has significantly declined.  Since the end of the 1990s, not only has there been a reduction in the number of executions, but also fewer death penalty verdicts and fewer states having death penalty statutes.  A number of states have abolished the death penalty and many have a de facto elimination of the death penalty and have not had an execution in the past 10 years.  The majority of executions are occurring in just a few states.  For example, 80% of the 35 executions in 2014 occurred in just three states (Texas, Missouri, and Florida).  The number of executions has decreased by more than two-thirds from a high of 98 executions in 1999 to only 35 executions in 2014.  Similarly, the number of death sentences reached a peak in 1996 with 315 capital sentences.  In the year 2014, there were a total of 72 death sentences – a 77% decline from the high point in 1996.  Even states such as Texas have seen a rapid decline in the use of the death penalty.  For example, Texas had almost 75% fewer executions in 2014 than in 2000, when it executed 40 people.7

As noted previously, there has been increased criticism emphasizing racial disproportionalities, death row exonerations, and the extensive costs of capital punishment.  Additionally, a number of botched executions involving lethal injection and the difficulty in obtaining necessary drugs to complete the execution process have called into question the most common execution method.  The global disapproval of the execution process, especially among our allies, also calls into question the utilization of the death penalty as an ethical method of punishment.  The United States has positioned itself outside the mainstream of the international beliefs against the death penalty.  Based upon these concerns, a return to Furman is not beyond reason. 

The main justifications for the death penalty – deterrence and retribution – have little meaning with a punishment that is applied so rarely and is so dependent on arbitrary factors such as geography, race, and economic status.  In 2014, there were 35 executions in the United States while the U.S. averages approximately 14,000 murders per year.  Therefore, the death penalty creates a unique dichotomy where the lives of some individuals are more important than the lives of others.  Not only do alternatives for the death exist, they are utilized in over 99% of murder cases in the United States.  This is an inherent problem that contradicts the initial intention of Furman.  Additionally, the concept of the death penalty requires the sacrifice of a few innocent lives as an inevitable part of the process.  For every 10 persons executed since 1976, there have been one person slated for execution that has been exonerated and freed from death row.7

The intentions of the Supreme Court’s Furman decision were to remove the arbitrary and capricious nature of capital punishment in the United States.  Furthermore, the additional guidance in the Gregg decision was to ensure that judges and juries did not have uninhibited discretion in death penalty decisions.  However, death penalty decisions today experience many of the same prejudices as they did at the time of the Furman decision.  One can argue that due to the fact that death penalty decisions have been delegated to the states, decisions are now driven more by the politics of local communities and money.  Therefore, racial and geographical prejudices still exist.  These issues, which are complicated by concerns regarding the execution process, international pressure to abolish the death penalty, wavering public opinion, extraordinary costs, and numerous exonerations from death row have placed capital punishment at a position that needs further evaluation.  Although many of the same concerns remain, a lot has changed since the Furman decision in 1972. 

As support for the death penalty has declined, we must also remember that after reaching record lows for support in the 1960s, the death penalty made an extraordinary comeback in the 1980s and 1990s.  What is evident is that the Furman decision has failed to make significant improvements to the death penalty process.  As America continues to evaluate the evolving standards of cruel and unusual punishment, the death penalty will continue to be the focus of passionate debate.



[1] 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

[2] Malik, S.C., & Holdsworth, D.P. (2015).  A survey of the history of the death penalty

in the United States.  University of Richmond Law Review, 49(3), 693.

[3] 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

[4] Shirley, K.E., & Gelman, A.  (2015).  Hierarchical models for estimating state and demographic trends in U.S. death penalty public opinion.  Journal of the Royal Statistical Society:  A Series (Statistics in Society), 178(1), 1-28.

[5] Vidmar, N. & Ellsworth, P. (1974).  Public opinion and the death penalty.  Stanford Law Review, 26, 1245-1270.

[6] Hanley, J. (2008).  The death penalty.  In Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy, ch. 5, pp. 108-138.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

[7] Dieter, R.C. (2015).  The future of the death penalty in the United States.  University of Richmond Law Review, 49(3), 921.

[8] Death Penalty Information Center (2016).  Facts about the death penalty.  Death Penalty Information Center.  Retrieved from:

[9] 539 U.S. 510 (2003)

[10] Clear, T.R., Reisig, M.D., Petrosino, C., & Cole, G.F. (2015).  American Corrections in Brief, 3rd Ed.  San Francisco, CA:  Cengage

[11] Kansas Judicial Council (2014).  Report of the judicial council:  Death Penalty Advisory Committee.  Retrieved from:

[12] Roman, J., Chalfin, A., Sundquist, A., Knight, C., & Darmenov, A. (2008).  The cost of the death penalty in Maryland.  Urban Institute.  Retrieved from:

[13] Smith, S.F. (2014).  Has the Machinery of Death Become a Clunker?  University of Richmond Law Review, 49 (3), 845.

[14] 497 U.S. 639 (1990)

[15] Sarat, A. (2014).  Gruesome Spectacles:  Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press

[16] Shah, S.K. (2015).  Experimental execution.  Washington Law Review, 90(1), 147-204.

[17] Lain, C.B. (2015).  The politics of botched executions.  University of Richmond Law Review, 49(3), 825.

[18] 553 U.S. 35 (2008)

[19] 576 US _ (2015)

[20] 554 U.S. 407 (2008)