Today, June 29, 2012, marks 40 years since the United States Supreme Court overturned all existing death penalty laws, ruling in the case of Furman vs. Georgia (1972) that the death penalty system, as it was being administered, was arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory. At the time, Justice Potter Stewart said death sentences were as cruel and unusual as being “struck by lightning.” The Furman decision commuted the sentences of all 629 people on death row nationwide and sent states scrambling to revise their capital punishment statutes.
An America without the death penalty was short lived, however. Just four years later, the Supreme Court totally reversed course and found that the new death penalty laws of several states (including Texas) “promised” to make the process fairer and less arbitrary. The Court’s decision in Gregg vs. Georgia on July 2, 1976 declared the death penalty constitutional and paved the way for the resumption of executions.
In an opinion piece published this week in California Progress Report (“Time to Kill the Death Penalty?” June 28, 2012), marking the 40th anniversary of the Furman decision, Professor John J. Donohue, a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research, writes that “Four decades later, there is plenty of evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an unfair manner and not a shred of evidence that the death penalty deters.” He goes on to address the implications of a recent report from the National Research Council, which concluded that studies about deterrence “should not serve as a basis for policy decisions about capital punishment.” Read the full opinion piece.