THE DEATH PENALTY
Since our nation's founding, the government -- colonial, federal and state
-- has punished murder and, until recent years, rape with the ultimate
sanction: death. More than 13,000 people have been legally executed since
colonial times, most of them in the early 20th Century. By the 1930s, as
many as 150 people were executed each year. However, public outrage and
legal challenges caused the practice to wane. By 1967, capital punishment
had virtually halted in the United States, pending the outcome of several
In 1972, in _Furman v. Georgia_, the Supreme Court invalidated hundreds of
scheduled executions, declaring that then existing state laws were applied
in an 'arbitrary and capricious' manner and, thus, violated the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the
Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees of equal protection of the laws and due
process. But in 1976, in _Gregg v.
Georgia_, the Court resuscitated the
death penalty: It ruled that the penalty 'does not invariably violate the
Constitution' if administered in a manner designed to guard against
arbitrariness and discrimination. Several states promptly passed or
reenacted capital punishment laws.
Thirty-seven states now have laws authorizing the death penalty, as does
the military. A dozen states in the Middle West and Northeast have
abolished capital punishment, two in the last century (Michigan in 1847,
Minnesota in 1853). Alaska and Hawaii have never had the death penalty.
Most executions have taken place in the states of the Deep South.
More than 2,000 people are on 'death row' today. Virtually all are poor,
a significant number are mentally retarded or otherwise mentally disabled,
more than 40 percent are African American, and a disproportionate number
are Native American, Latino and Asian.
The ACLU believes that, in all circumstances, the death penalty is