Delivering Justice without Death Penalty

Delivering Justice without Death Penalty

Capital punishment continues to divide public opinion; with a dedicated cadre of proponents and detractors on each side of the issue. For many, it is a matter of morality and decency, rather than a public safety issue. On the other side of the argument are those committed to the death penalty’s place within the justice system, pointing to its effectiveness as a deterrent and form of social control.

Capital punishment has a long and storied history, appearing in civilizations BC, well before making its way to America’s settlements. The 1600’s marked the first executions of criminals in the Colonies, spurring a debate about capital punishment that continues today. Revisions have continually changed the place of capital punishment on American soil, including prohibitions and endorsements from the United States Government as well as those put-forth by individual states and territories. The early 1970’s saw the structure of today’s capital punishment laws established, through a series of court actions that first prohibited the practice in 1972, and then codified its legal status in 1976.

The vigor with which executions are carried out varies across individual states, with California and Florida currently leading the way for inmates sentenced to death. Altogether, more than 3000 inmates currently sit on death row, reflecting a total that has exceeded 3000 individuals annually since 1995. On the other hand, more than 1300 prisoners have been executed by individual states and federal authorities since capital punishment was enacted in 1976.

Ironically, the Supreme Court had issued decisions prior to 1976 identifying the death penalty as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, yet 30 years later we have failed to return to the wisdom the courts clearly saw. Recent developments, however, illustrate a sea change in the way capital punishment is viewed by the current court, so the tide may again be turning toward compassion and  common sense.

Florida Case Supports Less Killing

Hall v Florida involves a man of limited mental capacity sentenced to death for his role in a decades-old crime. At issue is Florida’s standard for determining who may be executed. According to the decision handed down in 2002, states largely control how they judge who’s fit for execution. In the Florida case, the convicted death row inmate, Freddie Lee Hall, missed the cut off by as little as a single point. In other words, had Hall’s test score fallen one point lower, sufficient mental limitations would have been deemed present, barring Mr. Hall from execution in the state.

The Supreme Court ruled that the standard for determining mental competency is too rigid in Florida, a decision that will impact other states as well. According to the precedent set by the 2002 Atkins case, states were given loose guidelines to follow determining whether inmates are fit for execution. The general standards furnished by Atkins require low I.Q., significant social and practical impairment, as well as the presence of both conditions prior to reaching adulthood.

Although this session’s Hall case fell within the established guidelines extended by the Atkins court, today’s Supreme Court determined that the mechanical approach does not account for the whole picture in some cases. According to the decision, analysis of co-existing mental conditions and other extenuating factors serve justice, rather than simply assigning numbers to death row inmates’ cognitive abilities.

One would hope the trend supported by this week’s decision is one toward further limitations of arcane justice practices like capital punishment. In light of the ruling, several states will be required to adjust their approaches to the death sentence, including those with an established I.Q. threshold on the books. This overt repudiation from the courts is one step closer to justice without the death penalty.

Author: Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from and you can reach her at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s