List of United States Supreme Court decisions on capital punishment

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The U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings on the use of capital punishment (the death penalty). While some rulings applied very narrowly, perhaps to only one individual, other cases have had great influence over wide areas of procedure, eligible crimes, acceptable evidence and method of execution.

  • Ake v. Oklahoma
  • House v. Bell
  • Bell v. Cone
  • Bell v. Thompson
  • Snyder v. Louisiana
  • Cullen v. Pinholster
  • ABDUR’RAHMAN v. Bell
  • Hillwin v. Florida
  • Trevino v. Thaler
  • Booth v. Maryland
  • Schad v. Arizona
  • Espinosa v. Florida
  • Williams v. Pennsylvania
  • White v. Wheeler
  • Wearry v. Cain
  • Lynch v. Arizona
  • Simmons v. South Carolina
  • Jenkins v. Hutton
  • Rippo v. Baker
  • Bosse v. Oklahoma
  • Dunn v. Madison
  • Tharpe v. Sellers
  • Wilson v. Sellers
  • Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman
  • Brewer v. Quarterman
  • Smith v. Texas (2005)
Year Case Ruling Vote
1905 Rooney v. North Dakota Adoption of private execution over public execution after sentence does not violate the Ex post facto clause. 9-0
1915 Malloy v. South Carolina Retroactively changing the execution method does not violate the Ex post facto clause. 9-0
1932 Powell v. Alabama Courts are required to ensure indigent defendants who do not represent themselves must receive appointed counsel in capital cases. 7-2
1947 Francis v. Resweber Re-execution after a failed attempt does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment nor double jeopardy. 5-4
1968 Witherspoon v. Illinois A state may not have unlimited challenge for cause of jurors who might object to capital punishment. (See also Morgan v. Illinois (1992)) 6-3
1971 McGautha v. California The death penalty can be imposed by a jury without standards to govern its imposition, and a unitary guilt and punishment trial is constitutional. (Overruled in Furman v. Georgia, 1972, and Gregg v. Georgia, 1976) 6-3
1972 Furman v. Georgia The death penalty must not be imposed arbitrarily and capriciously. This ruling caused all death sentences pending at the time to be reduced to life imprisonment and voided all previous capital punishment statutes. 5-4
1976 Gregg v. Georgia Post-Furman death penalty statutes, providing a bifurcated trial in capital cases to decide guilt and punishment, are constitutional. 7-2
1976 Woodson v. North Carolina Statutes providing mandatory imposition of the death penalty are unconstitutional. 5-4
1978 Lockett v. Ohio Sentencing authorities must have the discretion to consider every mitigating factor, rather than being limited to a specific list of factors. 6-2
1980 Beck v. Alabama Jury must be allowed to consider lesser included offense, not just capital offense or acquittal. 7-2
1980 Godfrey v. Georgia Murder must involve a narrow and precise aggravating factor to be punishable by death. 6-3
1982 Enmund v. Florida Capital punishment is unconstitutional for a person who is a minor participant in a felony and does not kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill. 5-4
1984 Pulley v. Harris There is no constitutional requirement for a proportionality review of sentences in comparable cases throughout a state. 7-2
1984 Spaziano v. Florida It is constitutional for a judge rather than jury to decide aggravating factors. (Overruled by Ring v. Arizona, 2002). 6-3
1985 Caldwell v. Mississippi
1987 Tison v. Arizona Death penalty may be imposed on a felony-murder defendant who was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibits extreme indifference to human life. 5-4
1987 McCleskey v. Kemp Racial disparities not recognized as a constitutional violation of "equal protection of the law" unless intentional racial discrimination against the defendant can be shown. 5-4
1987 Sumner v. Shuman A death sentence cannot be mandatory, even for a murder committed by a prisoner already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. 6-3
1988 Lowenfield v. Phelps The aggravating factor making the crime punishable by death may be found in the definition of the crime itself as long it is enough narrow and precise. 7-2
1989 South Carolina v. Gathers Admission of a victim impact statement at the sentencing phase of a death penalty-trial is unconstitutional. (Overruled in Payne v. Tennessee, 1991) 5-4
1989 Penry v. Lynaugh Executing persons with mental retardation is constitutional. (Overruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) 5-4
1990 Walton v. Arizona Judge-finding of aggravating factors is constitutional. The aggravating factor "especially heinous, cruel, or depraved" is not unconstitutionally vague. (First holding overruled in Ring v. Arizona, 2002) 5-4
1991 Payne v. Tennessee Victim impact statements are admissible during the penalty phase of a capital case. 6-3
1992 Morgan v. Illinois A defendant may challenge for cause a prospective juror who would automatically vote to impose the death penalty in every capital case. 6-3
1993 Herrera v. Collins In the absence of other constitutional grounds, federal courts have no power to rule on innocence claims based on newly discovered evidence. 6-3
1995 Schlup v. Delo A condemned man can bypass the procedural bar on successive federal habeas petitions if he show that "a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent". 5-4
1995 Harris v. Alabama Allowing the judge to impose a death sentence and making the jury recommendation non-binding even when it calls for life imprisonment is constitutional. 8-1
2004 Tennard v. Dretke 6-3
2004 Schriro v. Summerlin Ring v. Arizona does not apply retroactively to cases already final on direct review. 5-4
2007 Smith v. Texas 5-4

Eighth Amendment[edit]

Method of execution[edit]

  • Wilkerson v. Utah – Firing squad is constitutional.
  • In re Kemmler – Electrocution is constitutional.
  • Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006) – Challenging constitutionality of the execution method is a §1983 lawsuit, not a habeas corpus petition, and thus not subject to the procedural bar on successive petitions.
  • Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008) – Kentucky's lethal injection method using sodium thiopental is constitutional.
  • Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, 576 U.S. ___ (2015) – To be unconstitutional, a method of execution must involve any risk of harm which is substantial when compared to a known and available alternative method. The condemned has the burden of proof.
  • Bucklew v. Precythe, No. 17-8151, 587 U.S. ___ (2019) – Baze v. Rees and Glossip v. Gross govern all Eighth Amendment challenges alleging that a method of execution inflicts unconstitutionally cruel pain. A method is unconstitutional only when it "superadds pain well beyond what’s needed to effectuate a death sentence."
  • Barr v. Lee, No. 20A8, 591 U.S. ___ (2020)

Specific crimes[edit]


Intellectual disability[edit]

Trial procedure (sentencing)[edit]

Sixth Amendment[edit]

  • Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) – A death sentence where the necessary aggravating factors are determined by a judge violates a defendant's constitutional right to a trial by jury, as the jury should determine if there are such factors sufficient to allow the death penalty.
  • Hurst v. Florida – Florida law giving judges the power to decide facts related to sentencing violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring, which requires a jury to determine if there are aggravating factors making the crime punishable by death.
  • United States v. Tsarnaev (TBD)

Habeas corpus and ineffective assistance of counsel[edit]

Summary reversal and vacatur[edit]

International law[edit]

Free Exercise Clause[edit]

Chronological listing[edit]

See also[edit]