Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing Supreme Court Cases

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court most often considers Eighth Amendment principles in the context of the death penalty, which remains in effect in many states and at the federal level. However, “three strikes” laws and certain other sentencing provisions may trigger Eighth Amendment scrutiny as well.

The Supreme Court has emphasized that a sentence does not need to be strictly proportionate to the crime to meet constitutional requirements. Meanwhile, it has limited capital punishment to a narrow range of crimes and forbidden its imposition on certain types of defendants.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving the death penalty and criminal sentencing, arranged from newest to oldest.

Jones v. Mississippi (2021)

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

A sentencer need not make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole.

Bucklew v. Precythe (2019)

Author: Neil Gorsuch

To establish that a state's chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the state has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason.

Madison v. Alabama (2019)

Author: Elena Kagan

The Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime. On the other hand, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner even though he suffers from dementia or another disorder, rather than psychotic delusions.

Glossip v. Gross (2015)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

To succeed in an Eighth Amendment method of execution claim, a prisoner must establish that the method creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain and that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.

Miller v. Alabama (2012)

Author: Elena Kagan

The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

Graham v. Florida (2010)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

Greenlaw v. U.S. (2008)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Without an appeal or cross-appeal by the prosecution, a federal appellate court cannot order an increase in the sentence of a defendant on its own initiative.

Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Eighth Amendment is defined by the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. This principle requires that resort to capital punishment be restrained, limited in its instances of application, and reserved for the worst of crimes, those that, in the case of crimes against individuals, take the victim's life.

Baze v. Rees (2008)

Author: John Roberts

To constitute cruel and unusual punishment, an execution method must present a substantial or objectively intolerable risk of serious harm.

Oregon v. Guzek (2006)

Author: Stephen Breyer

A state may limit the innocence-related evidence that a capital defendant can introduce at a sentencing proceeding to the evidence introduced at the original trial.

Kansas v. Marsh (2006)

Author: Clarence Thomas

A state death penalty statute may direct imposition of the death penalty when the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigators do not outweigh aggravators, including when the two are in equipoise.

Roper v. Simmons (2005)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.

Ewing v. California (2003)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from choosing to incapacitate criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime.

Atkins v. Virginia (2002)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Executions of mentally retarded criminals are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000)

Author: John Paul Stevens

The Constitution requires that any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum, other than the fact of a prior conviction, must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Harmelin v. Michigan (1991)

Author: Antonin Scalia

The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence but instead forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime.

Walton v. Arizona (1990)

Author: Byron White

The Constitution does not require that every finding of fact underlying a sentencing decision be made by a jury rather than a judge.

Tison v. Arizona (1987)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty as disproportionate in the case of a defendant whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference.

McCleskey v. Kemp (1987)

Author: Lewis Powell

A complex statistical study indicating a risk that racial considerations enter into capital sentencing determinations does not necessarily prove that a particular defendant's capital sentence was unconstitutional.

Ford v. Wainwright (1986)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

The Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from inflicting the death penalty on a prisoner who is insane.

Pulley v. Harris (1984)

Author: Byron White

The Eighth Amendment does not require that a state appellate court, before it affirms a death sentence, compare the sentence in the case before it with the penalties imposed in similar cases if requested to do so by the defendant.

Solem v. Helm (1983)

Author: Lewis Powell

Criteria to consider in an Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis include the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty, the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction, and the sentences imposed for the commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

Beck v. Alabama (1980)

Author: John Paul Stevens

The death sentence may not constitutionally be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense when the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included offense.

Lockett v. Ohio (1978)

Author: Warren Burger

The Eighth Amendment generally requires that the sentencer not be precluded from considering mitigating factors related to any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.

Coker v. Georgia (1977)

Author: Byron White

The sentence of death for the crime of rape violates the Eighth Amendment.

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

Author: John Paul Stevens, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart

The punishment of death for the crime of murder does not, under all circumstances, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. (This decision ended the temporary moratorium on the death penalty imposed by Furman.)

Furman v. Georgia (1972)

Author: Per Curiam

The imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Concerns over the arbitrary and potentially discriminatory manner in which death sentences had been imposed led to a temporary nationwide moratorium on the death penalty as legislatures reviewed laws governing its administration.)

Williams v. New York (1949)

Author: Hugo Black

In considering the sentence to be imposed after a conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court. This is true even when a death sentence is imposed.

Weems v. U.S. (1910)

Author: Joseph McKenna

The Eighth Amendment is progressive and may acquire wider meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by humane justice.

Related Legal Guides: