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The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System Essay


The death penalty has been a largely debated form of punishment in the U.S. since its inception. The law supporting this unkind and unfair sentence was thus, put under scrutiny and consequently several death sentences were either overturned or could only be carried out on proportionate grounds by the supreme courts heralding a new era in the criminal justice system of the US.

The legal arguments for this decision made by the higher courts were cited in line with the 8th amendment that called for the exclusive considerations on several factors that mainly touched on racial disparities, age of a convict, proper evidence that can incriminate the accused persons, respective human rights action plans against such people, satisfactory judgment delivered either by unanimous decision or a majority of votes by the judges and so on (Burns 1).


The Supreme Court made a decision based on the 8th amendment to relook into criminal cases viewed as cruel or unusual, and instead provided an alternative favorable form of punishment. Most death sentences were slashed down to life imprisonment, leaving only deserved cases as death sentences.

For instance, some states were forced to repackage their judicial laws after realizing that the judgment commonly delivered never materialized particularly when the cases involved were referred back to the supreme courts, which in turn, after careful hearing, overturned the rulings in favor of the accused. This occurred in cases that were considered to lack the 8th amendment thresholds for the death penalty.

These circumstances made several states to re-enact laws governing the death penalty, which was a major concern to the supreme courts’ contradiction to the imposition of death sentence arbitrarily. The application of such fair trials justifying the subsequent sentences handed down by the supreme courts began from the year 1972.

This was after the capital punishment was found to be unconstitutionally biased and cruel. An exception to this is in cases where sentences were delivered after considering the extra routine endorsement. The cases and the respective judgment on the death penalty jurisprudence handed by the supreme courts entirely depended on the moral significance culpable by the law and factors of discretion (Head 1).

The Supreme Court in accordance with the laws governing the 8th amendment decided that death penalty for a minor is a harsh kind of penalty. This is supported by the fact that in a 5-4 court ruling, it was labeled unconstitutional when any convict at the time of committing the crime is below the age of 18.

Thus, it is morally incorrect to implicate children who commit crime in relation to adults who has acted in the same way since their respective intentions cannot apply together. Example of such ruling involving a minor was a criminal case for Christopher Simmons who was sentenced to death but later overruled; Case, Roper v Simmons.

Another example of such case in which the age of a convict was contested involved a 15 year old at the time of committing the crime. William Thompson was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder. Due to this, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of an Oklahoma court by explaining that the execution of the minor violated the eighth amendment statute. The case here is, Thompson v. Oklahoma.

Racial disparities

Another main issue surrounding the death penalty is the racial inequality that has been historically characteristic with handing of the penalty in the U.S. For instance, consider a case involving an African American who was convicted of two counts of robbery plus one count of murder. After convictions in county courts and subsequently condemned to death, his plea was heard whereby the Supreme Court ruling overturned the death penalty imposed.

The final ruling stated that the majority should not dictate matters of humanity since it is unconstitutional. For example, it was viewed that those accused of killing white people could easily be handed the death sentence compared to murderers for black persons. After much consideration and scrutiny of the penalty, the courts offered a platform for the voiceless like the accused person in question.i.e case, McCleskey v kemp.

Mental state of the convict

Mental instability in most people is believed to have unnatural rage subconscious to a person’s mind. It is for this reason that informed the Supreme Court to offer a reprieve on death penalty for mentally retarded persons who commit a criminal offence.

As a result of this, the death sentence was found to be unconstitutionally excessive thereby restricting the state’s power to deliver death penalty as a form of punishment on similar cases under the same state of mind. For instance, Daryl Atkins was convicted of murder even though his IQ score was 59 hence; the Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling which did not evaluate his condition as that of mild mental condition; Case, Atkins v. Virginia (Jacobs 1).

Proper evidence of aggravating circumstances

Proper reasons were to be evaluated so as to be used against a convict. For instance, in order to incriminate a person, the Supreme Court made a decision to provide a clear distinction on where imposition of death can be allowed. It was unanimously passed that there could be circumstances when the evidence produced could exempt on the death penalty for non-murder offenses like rape except for crimes comparable to treason.

This was seen during the trial for Antonym Coker who escaped from custody but got re-arrested and condemned to death penalty for rape. The Supreme Court in turn overturned the first sentence arguing that it was too harsh on the ground that most rape cases may not involve murder.

Another similar case in which a sentence by the lower court was annulled by that of the Supreme Court took place in Lousiana.The criminal case involved Patrick Kennedy accused of raping his 8 year old step daughter. The Supreme Court then scrutinized his case after a successful appeal against a capital punishment handed earlier.

The argument of the higher court then concluded that imposing the death penalty against the convict was against the 8th amendment and therefore unconstitutional because the crime neither resulted nor was intended to terminate the innocent life of his victim (Radelet & Akers 1). Therefore, the ruling decided that the accused should instead be sent to life imprisonment; Case, Kennedy v. Louisiana.

Method of delivering the death sentence

In cases where the method used to administer the death penalty is considered cruel and painful, the Supreme Court could then deliberate on a particular ruling by a junior state court. This was observed during the sentencing of Ralph Baze who was convicted for murder and sure enough condemned to death by a Kentucky state court by lethal injection and instead appealed against the ruling, only for the sentence to be re-affirmed by the Supreme Court since the method for its application was considered safe after all.

The same scenario was also witnessed during the trial of Jimmy L. Glass who was sentenced to death according to the legal argument of Louisiana court by electrocution. Through his lawyers, he argued that the application and the intensity when passing the death sentence through electrocution can cause serious injuries and pain and therefore do not meet the humane standards as required by the constitution (White 1). The final judgment by the Supreme Court thus dismissed the petition thereby allowing the lower court’s ruling to go ahead; Case, Jimmy L. Glass v.Lousiana.

Improper judgment

Pending cases provided relevant provisions to re-appeal the death sentence if the trial is perceived to be as a result of discretion of a judge determining the outcome of a case almost single handedly. Take for example, the trial of Timothy Ring, a convict of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment only for a state judge to step-up the penalty to another sentence by death.

Consequently though, the Supreme Court reversed the decision citing that statutory maximum sentence should be put before a jury panel since the judge was found to have acted improperly without a sitting legal bench who could have delivered a unanimous decision; Case, Ring v. Arizona.

Special procedure for capital penalty

It was realized that rulings could impose the death penalty by ignoring the nature or circumstance preceding a crime. Therefore, it was required that a jury must be able to cite a possible statutory aggravating legal requirement before delivering any formal penalty by death.

Such a case where the judgment was allowed to stand as it was involved Troy Leon who was convicted for robbery and murder for which he was handed over death sentence (Head 1). On challenging his trial, the Supreme Court rejected his plea and instead maintained the earlier verdict by dismissing the robbery factor since the statutory system was not found to violate the constitutional statutes; Case, Gregg v. Georgia.

The legislative judgments of some states

Several courts in some states decided to respond to the modification of the death penalty especially for murder committed in relation to a felony. Such states that rejected the death penalty arising from committing a felony therefore illegalized the practice hence the Supreme Court found it as an appropriate way by providing more options for fair trial.

This was arrived at after establishing the fact that, the death penalty usually imposed may be too harsh for a convict who did not participate in a murder or intended to carry out such heinous act. A case of study featured Enmund in which the death penalty was outlawed when determining the ultimate ruling by the supreme judges since they decided that it could not be imposed under circumstances of felony; Case, Enmund v. Florida.

Contrary to the above case where a reprieve was provided by the Supreme Court, in Tison’s case, several state supreme courts amended their interpretation of the death penalty during such a case involving a felony by allowing capital punishment to take precedence in such future cases (White 1). This particular case was determined by analyzing noticeable circumstances of felony during the murder. The death penalty verdict was thus delivered since inquiries revealed passion and recklessness; Case, Tison v. Arizona.


From the above discussion, it is apparent that the suitability of imposing a death is questionable. From a number of precedents set on the death penalty, it is apparent that giving a life imprisonment instead of a death penalty will be more humane than a death penalty in permissible situations. All in all, a death penalty should be avoided as much as possible.

Works Cited

Burns, Kari. “Punishment: Death penalty”. 2011. Web.

Head, Tom. “The Eighth Amendment”. 2011-May 6. Web.

Jacobs, Nancy. “Death Penalty Essay”. 2011. Web.

Radelet, M & Akers, R. “Deterrence and the Death Penalty? The Views of the Experts,” (1995) White, Debora.

Pros and cons of the death penalty”. 2011. Web.

This Essay on The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System was written and submitted by user Kristen Knight to help you with your own studies. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Kristen Knight studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, with average GPA 3.04 out of 4.0.

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Knight, K. (2019, August 20). The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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Knight, Kristen. "The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System." IvyPanda, 20 Aug. 2019,

1. Kristen Knight. "The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System." IvyPanda (blog), August 20, 2019.


Knight, Kristen. "The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System." IvyPanda (blog), August 20, 2019.


Knight, Kristen. 2019. "The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System." IvyPanda (blog), August 20, 2019.


Knight, K. (2019) 'The Death Penalty in the US Criminal Justice System'. IvyPanda, 20 August.

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