A number of important capital punishment decisions have been made by the Supreme Court. The following is a list of the more important ones along with their legal citations:
Wilkerson v. Utah 99 U.S. 130 (1878) -- Court upheld execution by firing squad, but said that other types of torture such as "drawing and quartering, embowelling alive, beheading, public dissection, and burring alive and all other in the same line of...cruelty, are forbidden."
Weems v. U.S. 217 U.S. 349 (1910) -- Court held that what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment had not been decided, but that it should not be confined to the "forms of evil" that framers of the Bill of Rights had experienced. Therefore, "cruel and unusual" definitions are subject to changing interpretations.
Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber 329 U.S. 459 (1947) -- On May 3, 1946, convicted seventeen year old felon Willie Francis was placed in the electric chair and the switch was thrown. Due to faulty equipment, he survived (even though he was severely shocked), was removed from the chair and returned to his cell. A new death warrant was issued six days later. The Court ruled 5-4 that it was not "cruel and unusual" to finish carrying out the sentence since the state acted in good faith in the first attempt. "The cruelty against which the Constitution protects a convicted man is cruelty inherent in the method of punishment," said the Court, "not the necessary suffering involved in any method employed to extinguish life humanely." He was then executed.
Tropp v. Dulles 356 U.S. 86 (1958) -- The Court Ruled that punishment would be considered "cruel and unusual" if it was one of "tormenting severity," cruel in its excessiveness or unusual in punishment "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S. 238 (1972) -- The Court looking at three cases struck down the death penalty in many states and set up the standard that punishment would be considered "cruel and unusual" if any of the following were present: 1) it was too severe for the crime; 2) it was arbitrary (some get the punishment and others do not, without guidelines); 3) it offends society's sense of justice; 4) it was not more effective than a less severe penalty.
Gregg v. Georgia 428 U.S. 153 (1976) -- [The] Court upheld Georgia's newly passed death penalty and said that the death penalty was not always cruel and unusual punishment.
Tison v. Arizona 481 U.S. 137 (1987) -- [The] Court upheld Arizona's death penalty for major participation in a felony with "reckless indifference to human life."
Thompson v. Oklahoma 108 S. Ct. 2687 (1987) -- The Court considered the question of execution of minors under the age of 16 at the time of the murder. The victim was the brother-in-law, who he accused of beating his sister. He and three others beat the victim, shot him twice, cut his throat, chest, and abdomen, chained him to a concrete block and threw the body into a river where it remained for four weeks. Each of the four participants were tried separately and all were sentenced to death. In a 5-3 decision, four Justices ruled that Thompson's death sentence was cruel and unusual. The fifth, O'Connor, concurred but noted that a state must set a minimum age and held out the possibility that if a state lowers, by statute, the minimum death penalty age below sixteen, she might support it. She stated, "Although, I believe that a national consensus forbidding the execution of any person for a crime committed before the age of 16 very likely does exist, I am reluctant to adopt this conclusion as a matter of constitutional law without better evidence that [sic] we now possess." States with no minimum age have rushed to specify a statute age.
Penry v. Lynaugh 492 U.S. [sic] (1989) -- [The] Court held that persons considered retarded, but legally sane, could receive the death penalty. It was not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment if jurors were given the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances. In this case, the defendant had the mental age of approximately a six-year old child. Source: PBS Frontline