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In 'Capital Punishment on Trial,' UT's David Oshinsky takes clear look at death penalty's divisive history

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Monday, August 23, 2010

By the early 1970s, opponents of capital punishment thought the Supreme Court might be ready to declare the death penalty unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" and the 14th Amendment's demand for "due process under law." The court had indicated a willingness to apply "evolving standards of decency" to capital punishment, and evidence left little doubt that the death penalty was racially biased — used in the South, where it was most often imposed, as a means of racial control. It was "arbitrary" and "capricious" — two words that would prove key to the death penalty's future. For every defendant sent to death row, there were dozens of others guilty of identical crimes who had received lesser sentences.

With the help of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Furman's case reached the Supreme Court in 1971. In June 1972, a fractured court declared, 5-4, Furman's death sentence unconstitutional. Justice Potter Stewart, a centrist supporter of the death penalty who had been appointed to the court by President Eisenhower, "penned the words that would come to define Furman and the controversy as a whole," Oshinsky writes.
 
 
With the help of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Furman's case reached the Supreme Court in 1971. In June 1972, a fractured court declared, 5-4, Furman's death sentence unconstitutional. Justice Potter Stewart, a centrist supporter of the death penalty who had been appointed to the court by President Eisenhower, "penned the words that would come to define Furman and the controversy as a whole," Oshinsky writes.By the early 1970s, opponents of capital punishment thought the Supreme Court might be ready to declare the death penalty unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" and the 14th Amendment's demand for "due process under law." The court had indicated a willingness to apply "evolving standards of decency" to capital punishment, and evidence left little doubt that the death penalty was racially biased — used in the South, where it was most often imposed, as a means of racial control. It was "arbitrary" and "capricious" — two words that would prove key to the death penalty's future. For every defendant sent to death row, there were dozens of others guilty of identical crimes who had received lesser sentences.
 
With the help of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Furman's case reached the Supreme Court in 1971. In June 1972, a fractured court declared, 5-4, Furman's death sentence unconstitutional. Justice Potter Stewart, a centrist supporter of the death penalty who had been appointed to the court by President Eisenhower, "penned the words that would come to define Furman and the controversy as a whole," Oshinsky writes.