Another Supreme Court Death Penalty Ruling, Issued 43 Years Ago Today

Executions in the United States from 1930 to 2009. Graph via Wikimedia Commons

In a headline-making decision issued earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled against three Oklahoma death row inmates in Glossip v. Gross, upholding the use of a sedative called midazolam for lethal injections. Interestingly, Glossip v. Gross isn’t the first time the court has issued a major death penalty decision on June 29.

43 years ago today, the Supreme Court issued another 5-to-4 death penalty opinion, albeit one with very different results: 1972’s Furman v. Georgia ruling found a number of death penalty statutes to be unconstitutional, effectively halting executions in America for four years. Some context on the landmark case, from a 2013 New York Times article by David Oshinsky:

Furman v. Georgia is among the oddest Supreme Court cases in American history. Decided in 1972, it struck down every death penalty statute in the nation as then practiced without outlawing the death penalty itself. The ruling, based on the constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment,” stunned even the closest court watchers. The death penalty seemed impregnable. It was part of the bedrock of America’s legal system, steeped in the intent of the founders, the will of most state legislatures and the forceful — if occasional — rulings of the courts.

The 5-4 vote in Furman reflected a striking political split: all five members of the majority were holdovers from the Warren Court, known for its liberal decisions, while all four dissenters were recent appointees of Richard Nixon, who had won the White House with a carefully orchestrated law-and-order campaign. And notably, each justice wrote his own opinion in Furman, meaning there was no common thread to the case, no controlling rationale. The decision ran to several hundred pages, the longest handed down by the court at the time.

Read the story

More on the death penalty from the Longreads Archive