From The Law and Politics Book Review
Vol. 8 No. 12 (December 1998) pp. 447-449.
DEATH PENALTY CASES: LEADING U.S. SUPREME COURT CASES ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT by Barry Latzer (Editor). Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997. 260 pages. Ppaer $24.95. ISBN 0-7506-9939-6.
Reviewed by James R. Acker, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York. E-mail: email@example.com.
Barry Latzer, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, has compiled a compact volume featuring 22 prominent Supreme Court decisions addressing capital-punishment issues. The individual cases are edited and are preceded by explanatory notes. The book’s brief initial chapter provides an overview of death-penalty law, history, and administrative issues. An appendix includes summary descriptive information about the nation’s murder rate, execution trends, and public opinion regarding capital punishment.
Death Penalty Cases: Leading U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Capital Punishment is first and foremost a casebook. Latzer deliberately refrains from participating in debates about the wisdom, legality, morality, fairness, or effectiveness of the death penalty. The edited cases, beginning with Furman v. Georgia (1972), include majority and relevant concurring and dissenting opinions, and consume roughly 90 per cent of the book’s pages. The straightforward presentation of the opinions allows the reader to partake directly of the justices’ quarter-century struggle with the constitutionality of capital-punishment laws, unencumbered by ideological interpretation or characterization of the decisions. Death Penalty Cases will be most useful to instructors who assign complementary readings that present fuller treatment of the empirical, historical, philosophical, political, and related dimensions of capital-punishment issues.
Death Penalty Cases is designed as an introductory text. More comprehensive casebooks are available, including Randall Coyne and Lynn Entzeroth (eds.), Capital Punishment and the Judicial Process (Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC: 1994, with 1996-1997 supplement), and Victor Streib (ed.), A Capital Punishment Anthology (Anderson Publishing Co., Cincinnati: 1993). (with accompanying computer disk of edited judicial decisions). The 22 Supreme Court decisions selected for inclusion in Death Penalty Cases unexceptionally qualify as “leading cases on capital punishment,” yet they obviously do not exhaust the justices’ important handiwork in this rich area of the law.
Pared-down versions of the following decisions are presented in Death Penalty Cases:
· Furman v. Georgia (1972), the landmark ruling invalidating capital punishment laws as then administered, and clearly the watershed case in the modern death-penalty era.
· Gregg v. Georgia (1976), one of a series of important cases in which the justices announced that punishment by death is not per se cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, and that “guided discretion” statutes are capable of remedying the constitutional infirmities identified by the Furman Court.
· Woodson v. North Carolina (1976), another of the series of 1976 decisions, in which the Court declared mandatory capital-punishment legislation unconstitutional.
· Coker v. Georgia (1977), holding that death is a constitutionally excessive punishment for the crime of raping an adult.
· Enmund v. Florida (1982) and Tison v. Arizona (1987), in which the justices clarified the circumstances under which the “nontrigger-person” in a felony murder can be sentenced to death.
· Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) and Penry v. Lynaugh (1989), ruling, respectively, that the federal Constitution does not prohibit the execution of 16- and 17-year old murderers, or mentally retarded murderers.
· Ford v. Wainwright (1986), recognizing that the Eighth Amendment forbids the capital punishment of offenders who have become “incompetent” for execution, and requiring minimal procedural safeguards for resolving incompetency claims.
· Pulley v. Harris (1984), holding that the federal Constitution does not require “comparative proportionality review” of capital sentences.
· Godfrey v. Georgia (1980), in which a statutory aggravating factor involving the commission of an “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman...” murder was declared unconstitutionally vague, as applied.
· Lockett v. Ohio (1978) and McKoy v. North Carolina (1990), ruling, respectively, that the sentencer in a capital trial must be allowed to consider all relevant mitigating evidence, and that jurors may not be required to agree unanimously that a mitigating factor has been established before crediting mitigation evidence.
· Blystone v. Penn-sylvania (1990), holding that legislation requiring that a death penalty be imposed if the sentencer finds at least one aggravating factor and no mitigating factors, or that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors, does not create an impermissible “mandatory” capital punishment scheme.
· Spaziano v. Florida (1984), approving Florida’s practice of allowing the trial judge to impose a death sentence in disregard of a jury’s advisory verdict recommending a sentence of life imprisonment.
· McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), rejecting equal protection and cruel and unusual punishment challenges to Georgia’s death-penalty system, raised by an African American defendant sentenced to death for murdering a white victim, based on a statewide study suggesting that killers of whites were significantly more likely to be charged with capital crimes and sentenced to death than killers of blacks in otherwise similar cases.
· Payne v. Tennessee (1991), allowing the sentencing authority in capital trials to consider “victim-impact evidence.”
· Burger v. Kemp (1987), rejecting a capital defendant’s claim that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel.
· Arizona v. Rumsey (1984), applying double jeopardy principles to the capital-sentencing context.
The selected cases span a number of
issues that are of undeniable importance to the death penalty and its
administration. Nevertheless, instructors who adopt the book for class use, or
others who read it, may want to consider consulting still other cases to round
out coverage of significant capital-punishment issues. For example, in light of
Texas’s prominence as a death-penalty state and its unorthodox and controversial
reliance on predictions of future dangerousness as a threshold justification
for a capital sentence, some attention to
Barefoot v. Estelle (1983) and to
how mitigation evidence figures into Texas’s capital-sentencing framework (Penry
v. Lynaugh ) would be helpful. The Supreme Court’s rather
dismissive treatment of cases involving death-sentenced prisoners who present
post-conviction claims of innocence, e.g.,
Herrera v. Collins (1993), merits
consideration. Justice Blackmun’s opinion in
Callins v. Collins (1994),
in which he concluded at the end of his judicial career that the death penalty defies constitutional administration, and that he would no longer vote to uphold capital sentences, is especially provocative, and stands in marked contrast to Justice Scalia’s forcefully different views expressed in his concurrence in Walton v. Arizona (1990). McGautha v. California (1971), which decisively rejected due process challenges to the death penalty’s administration and made the Court’s abrupt turnabout the very next year in Furman all the more momentous, almost certainly deserves revisitation in light of continuing doctrinal developments.
Latzer’s introductory chapter may elevate Isaac Ehrlich’s study, in which he reported finding a significant negative relationship between execution risk and homicide, to a more prominent role than would most who follow the deterrence literature in light of subsequent critiques of that study. Still, Latzer strives mightily to remain objective in providing background and a framework for considering the cases that follow. Death Penalty Cases succeeds well in letting the justices “do the talking.” For readers seeking an accessible introduction to leading Supreme Court decisions examining capital punishment, and for instructors seeking the same for classroom use, this handy collection unequivocally hits the mark.