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This Day in History – June 29, 1972

U.S. Supreme Court rules that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment”

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On this day in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violation the Eighth Amendment.

At the time of the ruling, the number of minorities on Death Row greatly exceeded that of white Death Row prisoners.

This meant the capital punishment, on both the state and federal levels, was unconstitutional. A vote of 5-4 determined the decision. States were said to employ executions in “arbitrary and capricious ways,” especially in regard to race. This was the primary factor in the majority categorizing the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

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It was the first time that the highest court in the country ruled against capital punishment. However, it still was not an outright victory for opponents of the death penalty: The Supreme Court suggested new legislation which could possibly make capital punishment constitutional again.

By 1976, 66 percent of Americans were still supporters of capital punishment. The Supreme Court acknowledged the progress that had been made in regard to jury guidelines. Having standardized guidelines for the juries that decided sentencing had a large impact on the court system as a whole.

The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty under a “model of guided discretion.”

Gary Gilmore was the first criminal to be executed since the end of the ban. Gilmore was a career criminal who was convicted of murdering an elderly couple. His reasoning for doing so was that the couple would not let him borrow their car.

He was executed in 1977 by a firing squad in Utah.

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