Posted on 2/6/17

Texas has long had a reputation as the state that performs the most executions. In fact, in 1999, there were 460 inmates on death row. In contrast, there are approximately 260 today.

The colonists brought over the concept of the death penalty from England. The Virginia Colony has records of an execution from 1608, wherein the colony executed a man for spying on behalf of Spain. In addition, Virginia would execute someone for killing chickens or trading with Native Americans.

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” While many arguedthat the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is not cruel and unusual punishment.

The Death Penalty

America’s long history with the death penalty saw a significant change with a series of United States Supreme Court rulings in the early 1970s, such as Furman v. Georgia from 1972. In that case, William Furman was burglarizing a house when, during his escape, he fired his gun and killed the owner. It was unclear whether this was an accident. Regardless, the trial court convicted Furman based on the felony murder rule, which states that if a murder occurs while a felony is being convicted then the felon is guilty of murder. At the time, Georgia felony murder was murder in the first degree, which carried the death penalty. Eventually, this case came before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to impose the death penalty for unintentional felony murder.

Along with the Furman case, the Supreme Court ruled on two similar death penalty cases, where the defendants faced the death penalty for rape. The Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the death penalty, as it stood at the time, was unconstitutional. Interestingly, all nine justices penned opinions and there was no consensus for the majority why it held that those cases were in violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, the majority made it clear that the death penalty, in its theoretical state, was constitutional. The issue was that states were imposing the death penalty in a “freakish and wanton manner,” which the Court found unconstitutional. The Court noted that statistics demonstrated how the death penalty disproportionately affected minority, poor, and people who are members of unpopular groups.

The result of the Furman ruling was that all state laws levying the death penalty were struck down. In the aftermath, states seeking to reinstate the death penalty needed to rewrite their death penalty statutes to comply with the ruling. The Texas legislature rewrote the death penalty statute immediately after the Furman ruling. A Texas court sentenced a man to death under the new statute in February 1974.

If you have been accused of a crime and face the death penalty, contact a lawyer with the grit, knowledge, and skills to represent you. Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel.

(image courtesy of Abe Bonowitz, via Texas Moratorium Network)

Flower Mound Office

Phone: 972.584.7837

Denton Office