Furman v. Georgia/Concurrence Brennan

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), was a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. The Court consolidated Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas with the Furman decision, and thus also invalidated the death penalty for rape. Excerpted from Furman v. Georgia on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring.

The question presented in these cases is whether death is today a punishment for crime that is "cruel and unusual" and consequently, by virtue of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, beyond the power of the State to inflict. [1] [p258]

Almost a century ago, this Court observed that

[d]ifficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of the constitutional provision which provides that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted.

Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 135-136 (1879). Less than 15 years ago, it was again noted that "[t]he exact scope of the constitutional phrase ‘cruel and unusual' has not been detailed by this Court." Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 99 (1958). Those statement remain true today. The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, like the other great clauses of the Constitution, is not susceptible of precise definition. Yet we know that the values and ideals it embodies are basic to our scheme of government. And we know also that the Clause imposes upon this Court the duty, when the issue is properly presented, to determine the constitutional validity of a challenged punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In these cases, "[t]hat issue confronts us, and the task of resolving it is inescapably ours." Id. at 103.


We have very little evidence of the Framers' intent in including the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause among those restraints upon the new Government enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The absence of such a restraint from the body of the Constitution was alluded to, so far as we now know, in the debates of only two of the state ratifying conventions. In the Massachusetts convention, Mr. Holmes protested:

What gives an additional glare of horror to these gloomy circumstances is the consideration that Congress have to ascertain, point out, and determine, [p259] what kind of punishments shall be inflicted on persons convicted of crimes. They are nowhere restrained from inventing the most cruel and unheard-of punishments, and annexing them to crimes; and there is no constitutional check on them, but that racks and gibbets may be amongst the most mild instruments of their discipline.

2 J. Elliot's Debates 111 (2d ed. 1876). Holmes' fear that Congress would have unlimited power to prescribe punishments for crimes was echoed by Patrick Henry at the Virginia convention:

. . . Congress, from their general powers, may fully go into business of human legislation. They may legislate, in criminal cases, from treason to the lowest offence — petty larceny. They may define crimes and prescribe punishments. In the definition of crimes, I trust they will be directed by what wise representatives ought to be governed by. But when we come to punishments, no latitude ought to be left, nor dependence put on the virtue of representatives. What says our [Virginia] bill of rights. — "that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Are you not, therefore, now calling on those gentlemen who are to compose Congress, to . . . define punishments without this control? Will they find sentiments there similar to this bill of rights? You let them loose; you do more — you depart from the genius of your country. . . .
In this business of legislation, your members of Congress will loose the restriction of not imposing excessive fines, demanding excessive bail, and inflicting cruel and unusual punishments. These are prohibited by your [Virginia] declaration of rights. What has distinguished our ancestors? — [p260] That they would not admit of tortures, or cruel and barbarous punishment.

3 id. at 447. [2]

These two statements shed some light on what the Framers meant by "cruel and unusual punishments." Holmes referred to "the most cruel and unheard-of punishments," Henry to "tortures, or cruel and barbarous punishment." It does not follow, however, that the Framers were exclusively concerned with prohibiting torturous punishments. Holmes and Henry were objecting to the absence of a Bill of Rights, and they cited to support their objections the unrestrained legislative power to prescribe punishments for crimes. Certainly we may suppose that they invoked the specter of the most drastic punishments a legislature might devise.

In addition, it is quite clear that Holmes and Henry focused wholly upon the necessity to restrain the legislative power. Because they recognized "that Congress have to ascertain, point out, and determine what kinds of punishments shall be inflicted on persons convicted of crimes," they insisted that Congress must be limited in its power to punish. Accordingly, they [p261] called for a "constitutional check" that would ensure that "when we come to punishments, no latitude ought to be left, nor dependence put on the virtue of representatives." [3]

The only further evidence of he Framers' intent appears from the debates in the First Congress on the adoption of the Bill of Rights. [4] As the Court noted in Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 368 (1910), [p262] the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause "received very little debate." The extent of the discussion, by two opponents of the Clause in the House of Representatives, was this:

Mr. SMITH, of South Carolina, objected to the words "nor cruel and unusual punishments," the import of them being too indefinite.
Mr. LIVERMORE. — The [Eighth Amendment] seems to express a great deal of humanity, on which account I have no objection to it; but as it seems to have no meaning in it, I do not think it necessary. . . . No cruel and unusual punishment is to be inflicted; it is sometimes necessary to hang a man, villains often deserve whipping, and perhaps having their ears cut off; but are we in future to be prevented from inflicting these punishments because they are cruel? If a more lenient mode of correcting vice and deterring others from the commission of it could be invented, it would be very prudent in the Legislature to adopt it; but until we have some security that this will be done, we ought not to be restrained from making necessary laws by any declaration of this kind.
The question was put on the [Eighth Amendment], and it was agreed to by a considerable majority.

1 Annals of Cong. 754 (1789). [5]

Livermore thus agreed with Holmes and Henry that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause imposed a limitation upon the legislative power to prescribe punishments. [p263] However, in contrast to Holmes and Henry, who were supporting the Clause, Livermore, opposing it, did not refer to punishments that were considered barbarous and torturous. Instead, he objected that the Clause might someday prevent the legislature from inflicting what were then quite common and, in his view, "necessary" punishments — death, whipping, and earcropping. [6] The only inference to be drawn from Livermore's statement is that the "considerable majority" was prepared to run that risk. No member of the House rose to reply that the Clause was intended merely to prohibit torture.

Several conclusions thus emerge from the history of the adoption of the Clause. We know that the Framers' concern was directed specifically at the exercise of legislative power. They included in the Bill of Rights a prohibition upon "cruel and unusual punishments" precisely because the legislature would otherwise have had the unfettered power to prescribe punishments for crimes. Yet we cannot now know exactly what the Framers thought "cruel and unusual punishments" were. Certainly they intended to ban torturous punishments, but the available evidence does not support the further conclusion that only torturous punishments were to be outlawed. As Livermore's comments demonstrate, the Framers were well aware that the reach of the Clause was not limited to the proscription of unspeakable atrocities. Nor did they intend simply to forbid punishments considered "cruel and unusual" at the time. The "import" of the Clause is, indeed, "indefinite," and for good reason. A constitutional provision

is enacted, it is true, from an experience of evils, but its general language [p264] should not, therefore, be necessarily confined to the form that evil had theretofore taken. Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle, to be vital, must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth.

Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 373.

It was almost 80 years before this Court had occasion to refer to the Clause. See Pervear v. The Commonwealth, 5 Wall. 475, 479-480 (1867). These early cases, as the Court pointed out in Weems v. United States, supra, at 369, did not undertake to provide "an exhaustive definition" of "cruel and unusual punishments." Most of them proceeded primarily by "looking backwards for examples by which to fix the meaning of the clause," id. at 377, concluding simply that a punishment would be "cruel and unusual" if it were similar to punishments considered "cruel and unusual" at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted. [7] In Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. at 136, for instance, the Court found it "safe to affirm that punishments of torture . . . and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden." The "punishments of torture," which the Court labeled "atrocities," were cases where the criminal "was embowelled alive, beheaded, and quartered," and cases "of public dissection . . . and burning alive." Id. at 135. Similarly, in In re Kemmler, [p265] 136 U.S. 436, 446 (1890), the Court declared that,

if the punishment prescribed for an offence against the laws of the State were manifestly cruel and unusual, as burning at the stake, crucifixion, breaking on the wheel, or the like, it would be the duty of the courts to adjudge such penalties to be within the constitutional prohibition.

The Court then observed, commenting upon the passage just quoted from Wilkerson v. Utah, supra, and applying the "manifestly cruel and unusual" test, that

[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death; but the punishment of death is not cruel, within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution. It implies there something inhuman and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life.

136 U.S. at 447.

Had this "historical" interpretation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prevailed, the Clause would have been effectively read out of the Bill of Rights. As the Court noted in Weems v. United States, supra, at 371, this interpretation led Story to conclude

that the provision "would seem to be wholly unnecessary in a free government, since it is scarcely possible that any department of such a government should authorize or justify such atrocious conduct."

And Cooley, in his book, Constitutional Limitations, said the Court,

apparently in a struggle between the effect to be given to ancient examples and the inconsequence of a dread of them in these enlightened times, . . . hesitate[d] to advance definite views.

Id. at 375. The result of a judicial application of this interpretation was not surprising. A state court, for example, upheld the constitutionality of the whipping post: "In comparison with the ‘barbarities of quartering, hanging in chains, castration, etc.,' it was easily reduced to insignificance." Id. at 377. [p266]

But this Court in Weems decisively repudiated the "historical" interpretation of the Clause. The Court, returning to the intention of the Framers, "rel[ied] on the conditions which existed when the Constitution was adopted." And the Framers knew

that government by the people instituted by the Constitution would not imitate the conduct of arbitrary monarchs. The abuse of power might, indeed, be apprehended, but not that it would be manifested in provisions or practices which would shock the sensibilities of men.

Id. at 375. The Clause, then, guards against "[t]he abuse of power"; contrary to the implications in Wilkerson v. Utah, supra, and In re Kemmler, supra, the prohibition of the Clause is not "confine[d] . . . to such penalties and punishment as were inflicted by the Stuarts." 217 U.S. at 372. Although opponents of the Bill of Rights "felt sure that the spirit of liberty could be trusted, and that its ideals would be represented, not debased, by legislation," ibid., the Framers disagreed:

[Patrick] Henry and those who believed as he did would take no chances. Their predominant political impulse was distrust of power, and they insisted on constitutional limitations against its abuse. But surely they intended more than to register a fear of the forms of abuse that went out of practice with the Stuarts. Surely, their [jealousy] of power had a saner justification than that. They were men of action, practical and sagacious, not beset with vain imagining, and it must have come to them that there could be exercises of cruelty by laws other than those which inflicted bodily pain or mutilation. With power in a legislature great, if not unlimited, to give criminal character to the actions of men, with power unlimited to fix terms of imprisonment with what accompaniments they [p267] might, what more potent instrument of cruelty could be put into the hands of power? And it was believed that power might be tempted to cruelty. This was the motive of the clause, and if we are to attribute an intelligent providence to its advocates we cannot think that it was intended to prohibit only practices like the [Stuarts',] or to prevent only an exact repetition of history. We cannot think that the possibility of a coercive cruelty being exercised through other forms of punishment was overlooked.

Id. at 372-373.

The Court in Weems thus recognized that this "restraint upon legislatures" possesses an "expansive and vital character" that is "‘essential . . . to the rule of law and the maintenance of individual freedom.'" Id. at 376-377. Accordingly, the responsibility lies with the courts to make certain that the prohibition of the Clause is enforced. [8] Referring to cases in which "prominence [was] given to the power of the legislature to define crimes and their punishment," the Court said:

We concede the power in most of its exercises. We disclaim the right to assert a judgment [p268] against that of the legislature of the expediency of the laws or the right to oppose the judicial power to the legislative power to define crimes and fix their punishment, unless that power encounters in its exercise a constitutional prohibition. In such case, not our discretion, but our legal duty, strictly defined and imperative in its direction, is invoked.

Id. at 378. [9]

In short, this Court finally adopted the Framers' view of the Clause as a "constitutional check" to ensure that, "when we come to punishments, no latitude ought to be left, nor dependence put on the virtue of representatives." That, indeed, is the only view consonant with our constitutional form of government. If the judicial conclusion that a punishment is "cruel and unusual" "depend[ed] upon virtually unanimous condemnation of the penalty at issue," then,

[l]ike no other constitutional provision, [the Clause's] only function would be to legitimize advances already made by the other departments and opinions already the conventional wisdom.

We know that the Framers did not envision "so narrow a role for this basic guaranty of human rights." Goldberg & Dershowitz, Declaring the Death Penalty Unconstitutional, 83 Harv.L.Rev. 1773, 1782 (1970). The right to be free of cruel and unusual punishments, like the other guarantees of the Bill of Rights, "may not be submitted to vote; [it] depend[s] on the outcome of no elections."

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied [p269] by the courts.

Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943).

Judicial enforcement of the Clause, then, cannot be evaded by invoking the obvious truth that legislatures have the power to prescribe punishments for crimes. That is precisely the reason the Clause appears in the Bill of Rights. The difficulty arises, rather, in formulating the "legal principles to be applied by the courts" when a legislatively prescribed punishment is challenged as "cruel and unusual." In formulating those constitutional principles, we must avoid the insertion of "judicial conception[s] of . . . wisdom or propriety," Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 379, yet we must not, in the guise of "judicial restraint," abdicate our fundamental responsibility to enforce the Bill of Rights. Were we to do so, the "constitution would indeed be as easy of application as it would be deficient in efficacy and power. Its general principles would have little value and be converted by precedent into impotent and lifeless formulas. Rights declared in words might be lost in reality." Id. at 373. The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause would become, in short, "little more than good advice." Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 104.


Ours would indeed be a simple task were we required merely to measure a challenged punishment against those that history has long condemned. That narrow and unwarranted view of the Clause, however, was left behind with the 19th century. Our task today is more complex. We know "that the words of the [Clause] are not precise, and that their scope is not static." We know, therefore, that the Clause "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress [p270] of a maturing society." Id. at 100-101. [10] That knowledge, of course, is but the beginning of the inquiry.

In Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 99, it was said that "[t]he question is whether [a] penalty subjects the individual to a fate forbidden by the principle of civilized treatment guaranteed by the [Clause]." It was also said that a challenged punishment must be examined "in light of the basic prohibition against inhuman treatment" embodied in the Clause. Id. at 100 n. 32. It was said, finally, that:

The basic concept underlying the [Clause] is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the [Clause] stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards.

Id. at 100. At bottom, then, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits the infliction of uncivilized and inhuman punishments. The State, even as it punishes, must treat its members with respect for their intrinsic worth as human beings. A punishment is "cruel and unusual," therefore, if it does not comport with human dignity.

This formulation, of course, does not, of itself, yield principles for assessing the constitutional validity of particular punishments. Nevertheless, even though "[t]his Court has had little occasion to give precise content to the [Clause]," ibid., there are principles recognized in our cases and inherent in the Clause sufficient to permit a judicial determination whether a challenged punishment comports with human dignity. [p271]

The primary principle is that a punishment must not be so severe as to be degrading to the dignity of human beings. Pain, certainly, may be a factor in the judgment. The infliction of an extremely severe punishment will often entail physical suffering. See Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 366. [11] Yet the Framers also knew "that there could be exercises of cruelty by laws other than those which inflicted bodily pain or mutilation." Id. at 372. Even though "[t]here may be involved no physical mistreatment, no primitive torture," Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 101, severe mental pain may be inherent in the infliction of a particular punishment. See Weems v. United States, supra, at 366. [12] That, indeed, was one of the conclusions underlying the holding of the plurality in Trop v. Dulles that the punishment of expatriation violates the Clause. [13] And the [p272] physical and mental suffering inherent in the punishment of cadena temporal, see nn. 11-12, supra, was an obvious basis for the Court's decision in Weems v. United States that the punishment was "cruel and unusual." [14]

More than the presence of pain, however, is comprehended in the judgment that the extreme severity of a punishment makes it degrading to the dignity of human beings. The barbaric punishments condemned by history, "punishments which inflict torture, such as the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron boot, the stretching of limbs and the like," are, of course, "attended with acute pain and suffering." O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323, 339 (1892) (Field, J., dissenting). When we consider why they have been condemned, however, we realize that the pain involved is not the only reason. The true significance of these punishments is that they treat [p273] members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded. They are thus inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the Clause that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.

The infliction of an extremely severe punishment, then, like the one before the Court in Weems v. Unite States, from which "[n]o circumstance of degradation [was] omitted," 217 U.S. at 366, may reflect the attitude that the person punished is not entitled to recognition as a fellow human being. That attitude may be apparent apart from the severity of the punishment itself. In Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 464 (1947), for example, the unsuccessful electrocution, although it caused "mental anguish and physical pain," was the result of "an unforeseeable accident." Had the failure been intentional, however, the punishment would have been, like torture, so degrading and indecent as to amount to a refusal to accord the criminal human status. Indeed, a punishment may be degrading to human dignity solely because it is a punishment. A State may not punish a person for being "mentally ill, or a leper, or . . . afflicted with a venereal disease," or for being addicted to narcotics. Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 666 (1962). To inflict punishment for having a disease is to treat the individual as a diseased thing, rather than as a sick human being. That the punishment is not severe, "in the abstract," is irrelevant; "[e]ven one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime' of having a common cold." Id. at 667. Finally, of course, a punishment may be degrading simply by reason of its enormity. A prime example is expatriation, a "punishment more primitive than torture," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 101, for it necessarily involves a [p274] denial by society of the individual's existence as a member of the human community. [15]

In determining whether a punishment comports with human dignity, we are aided also by a second principle inherent in the Clause — that the State must not arbitrarily inflict a severe punishment. This principle derives from the notion that the State does not respect human dignity when, without reason, it inflicts upon some people a severe punishment that it does not inflict upon others. Indeed, the very words "cruel and unusual punishments" imply condemnation of the arbitrary infliction of severe punishments. And, as we now know, the English history of the Clause [16] reveals a particular concern with the establishment of a safeguard against arbitrary punishments. See Granucci, "Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted:" The Original Meaning, 57 Calif.L.Rev. 839, 857-860 (1969). [17] [p275]

This principle has been recognized in our cases. [18] In Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. at 133-134, the Court reviewed various treatises on military law in order to demonstrate that, under "the custom of war," shooting was a common method of inflicting the punishment of death. On that basis, the Court concluded:

Cruel and unusual punishments are forbidden by the Constitution, but the authorities referred to [treatises on military law] are quite sufficient to show that the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not included in that [p276] category, within the meaning of the [Clause]. Soldiers convicted of desertion or other capital military offenses are, in the great majority of cases, sentenced to be shot, and the ceremony for such occasions is given in great fulness by the writers upon the subject of courts-martial.

Id. at 134-135. The Court thus upheld death by shooting, so far as appears, solely on the ground that it was a common method of execution. [19]

As Wilkerson v. Utah suggests, when a severe punishment is inflicted "in the great majority of cases" in which it is legally available, there is little likelihood that the State is inflicting it arbitrarily. If, however, the infliction of a severe punishment is "something different from that which is generally done" in such cases, Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 101 n. 32, [20] there is a substantial [p277] likelihood that the State, contrary to the requirements of regularity and fairness embodied in the Clause, is inflicting the punishment arbitrarily. This principle is especially important today. There is scant danger, given the political processes "in an enlightened democracy such as ours," id. at 100, that extremely severe punishments will be widely applied. The more significant function of the Clause, therefore, is to protect against the danger of their arbitrary infliction.

A third principle inherent in the Clause is that a severe punishment must not be unacceptable to contemporary society. Rejection by society, of course, is a strong indication that a severe punishment doe not comport with human dignity. In applying this principle, however, we must make certain that the judicial determination is as objective as possible. [21] [p278] Thus, for example, Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 380, and Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 102-103, suggest that one factor that may be considered is the existence of the punishment in jurisdictions other than those before the Court. Wilkerson v. Utah, supra, suggests that another factor to be considered is the historic usage of the punishment. [22] Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 99, combined present acceptance with past usage by observing that

the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.

In Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. at 666, which involved the infliction of punishment for narcotics addiction, the Court went a step further, concluding simply that,

in the light of contemporary human knowledge, a law which made a criminal offense of such a disease would doubtless be universally thought to be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.

The question under this principle, then, is whether there are objective indicators from which a court can conclude that contemporary society considers a severe punishment unacceptable. Accordingly, the judicial [p279] task is to review the history of a challenged punishment and to examine society's present practices with respect to its use. Legislative authorization, of course, does not establish acceptance. The acceptability of a severe punishment is measured not by its availability, for it might become so offensive to society as never to be inflicted, but by its use.

The final principle inherent in the Clause is that a severe punishment must not be excessive. A punishment is excessive under this principle if it is unnecessary: the infliction of a severe punishment by the State cannot comport with human dignity when it is nothing more than the pointless infliction of suffering. If there is a significantly less severe punishment adequate to achieve the purposes for which the punishment is inflicted, cf. Robinson v. California, supra, at 666; id. at 677 (DOUGLAS, J., concurring); Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 114 (BRENNAN, J., concurring), the punishment inflicted is unnecessary, and therefore excessive.

This principle first appeared in our cases in Mr. Justice Field's dissent in O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. at 337. [23] He there took the position that:

[The Clause] is directed not only against punishments of the character mentioned [torturous punishments], but against all punishments which, by [p280] their excessive length or severity, are greatly disproportioned to the offences charged. The whole inhibition is against that which is excessive either in the bail required, or fine imposed, or punishment inflicted.

Id. at 339-340. Although the determination that a severe punishment is excessive may be grounded in a judgment that it is disproportionate to the crime, [24] the more significant basis is that the punishment serves no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment. This view of the principle was explicitly recognized by the Court in Weems v. United States, supra. There the Court, reviewing a severe punishment inflicted for the falsification of an official record, found that

the highest punishment possible for a crime which may cause the loss of many thousand[s] of dollars, and to prevent which the duty of the State should be as eager as to prevent the perversion of truth in a public document, is not greater than that which may be imposed for falsifying a single item of a public account.

Id. at 381. Stating that "this contrast shows more than different exercises of legislative judgment," the Court concluded that the punishment was unnecessarily severe in view of the purposes for which it was imposed. Ibid. [25] [p281] See also Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 111-112 (BRENNAN, J., concurring). [26]

There are, then, four principles by which we may determine whether a particular punishment is "cruel and unusual." The primary principle, which I believe supplies the essential predicate for the application of the others, is that a punishment must not, by its severity, be degrading to human dignity. The paradigm violation of this principle would be the infliction of a torturous punishment of the type that the Clause has always prohibited. Yet "[i]t is unlikely that any State at this moment in history," Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. at 666, would pass a law providing for the infliction of such a punishment. Indeed, no such punishment has ever been before this Court. The same may be said of the other principles. It is unlikely that this Court will confront a severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion; no State would engage in a reign of blind terror. Nor is it likely that this Court will be called upon to review a severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society; no legislature would be able even to authorize the infliction of such a punishment. Nor, finally, is it likely that this Court will have to consider a severe punishment that is patently unnecessary; no State today would inflict a severe punishment knowing that there was no reason whatever for doing so. In short, we are unlikely to have occasion to determine that a punishment is fatally offensive under any one principle. [p282]

Since the Bill of Rights was adopted, this Court has adjudged only three punishments to be within the prohibition of the Clause. See Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910) (12 years in chains at hard and painful labor); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958) (expatriation); Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962) (imprisonment for narcotics addiction). Each punishment, of course, was degrading to human dignity, but of none could it be said conclusively that it was fatally offensive under one or the other of the principles. Rather, these "cruel and unusual punishments" seriously implicated several of the principles, and it was the application of the principles in combination that supported the judgment. That, indeed, is not surprising. The function of these principles, after all, is simply to provide means by which a court can determine whether a challenged punishment comports with human dignity. They are, therefore, interrelated, and, in most cases, it will be their convergence that will justify the conclusion that a punishment is "cruel and unusual." The test, then, will ordinarily be a cumulative one: if a punishment is unusually severe, if there is a strong probability that it is inflicted arbitrarily, if it is substantially rejected by contemporary society, and if there is no reason to believe that it serves any penal purpose more effectively than some less severe punishment, then the continued infliction of that punishment violates the command of the Clause that the State may not inflict inhuman and uncivilized punishments upon those convicted of crimes.


The punishment challenged in these cases is death. Death, of course, is a "traditional" punishment, Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 100, one that "has been employed throughout our history," id. at 99, and its constitutional [p283] background is accordingly an appropriate subject of inquiry.

There is, first, a textual consideration raised by the Bill of Rights itself. The Fifth Amendment declares that if a particular crime is punishable by death, a person charged with that crime is entitled to certain procedural protections. [27] We can thus infer that the Framers recognized the existence of what was then a common punishment. We cannot, however, make the further inference that they intended to exempt this particular punishment from the express prohibition of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. [28] Nor is there any indication in the debates on the Clause that a special exception was to be made for death. If anything, the indication is to the contrary, for Livermore specifically mentioned death as a candidate for future proscription under the Clause. See supra at 262. Finally, it does not advance analysis to insist that the Framers did not believe that adoption [p284] of the Bill of Rights would immediately prevent the infliction of the punishment of death; neither did they believe that it would immediately prevent the infliction of other corporal punishments that, although common at the time, see n. 6, supra, are now acknowledged to be impermissible. [29]

There is also the consideration that this Court has decided three cases involving constitutional challenges to particular methods of inflicting this punishment. In Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879), and In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890), the Court, expressing in both cases the since-rejected "historical" view of the Clause, see supra at 264-265, approved death by shooting and death by electrocution. In Wilkerson, the Court concluded that shooting was a common method of execution, see supra at 275-276; [30] in Kemmler, the Court held that the Clause did not apply to the States, 136 U.S. at 447-449. [31] [p285] In Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, supra, the Court approved a second attempt at electrocution after the first had failed. It was said that "[t]he Fourteenth [Amendment] would prohibit by its due process clause execution by a state in a cruel manner," 329 U.S. at 463, but that the abortive attempt did not make the "subsequent execution any more cruel in the constitutional sense than any other execution," id. at 464. [32] These three decisions thus reveal that the Court, while ruling upon various methods of inflicting death, has assumed in the past that death was a constitutionally permissible punishment. [33] Past assumptions, however, are not sufficient to limit the scope of our examination of this punishment today. The constitutionality of death itself under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is before this Court for the first time; we cannot avoid the question by recalling past cases that never directly considered it.

The question, then, is whether the deliberate infliction of death is today consistent with the command of the Clause that the State may not inflict punishments that do not comport with human dignity. I will analyze the punishment of death in terms of the principles [p286] set out above and the cumulative test to which they lead: it is a denial of human dignity for the State arbitrarily to subject a person to an unusually severe punishment that society has indicated it does not regard as acceptable, and that cannot be shown to serve any penal purpose more effectively than a significantly less drastic punishment. Under these principles and this test, death is today a "cruel and unusual" punishment. Death is a unique punishment in the United States. In a society that so strongly affirms the sanctity of life, not surprisingly, the common view is that death is the ultimate sanction. This natural human feeling appears all about us. There has been no national debate about punishment, in general or by imprisonment comparable to the debate about the punishment of death. No other punishment has been so continuously restricted, see infra at 296-298, nor has any State yet abolished prisons, as some have abolished this punishment. And those States that still inflict death reserve it for the most heinous crimes. Juries, of course, have always treated death cases differently, as have governors exercising their commutation powers. Criminal defendants are of the same view.

As all practicing lawyers know who have defended persons charged with capital offenses, often the only goal possible is to avoid the death penalty.

Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 28 (1956) (Burton and Minton, JJ., dissenting). Some legislatures have required particular procedures, such as two-stage trials and automatic appeals, applicable only in death cases.

It is the universal experience in the administration of criminal justice that those charged with capital offenses are granted special considerations.

Ibid. See Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78, 103 (1970) (all States require juries of 12 in death cases). This Court, too, almost [p287] always treats death cases as a class apart. [34] And the unfortunate effect of this punishment upon the functioning of the judicial process is well known; no other punishment has a similar effect.

The only explanation for the uniqueness of death is its extreme severity. Death is today an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity. No other existing punishment is comparable to death in terms of physical and mental suffering. Although our information is not conclusive, it appears that there is no method available that guarantees an immediate and painless death. [35] Since the discontinuance [p288] of flogging as a constitutionally permissible punishment, Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571 (CA8 1968), death remains as the only punishment that may involve the conscious infliction of physical pain. In addition, we know that mental pain is an inseparable part of our practice of punishing criminals by death, for the prospect of pending execution exacts a frightful toll during the inevitable long wait between the imposition of sentence and the actual infliction of death. Cf. Ex parte Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 172 (1890). As the California Supreme Court pointed out, "the process of carrying out a verdict of death is often so degrading and brutalizing to the human spirit as to constitute psychological torture." People v. Anderson, 6 Cal.3d 28, 649, 493 P.2d 880, 894 (1972). [36] Indeed, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter noted, "the onset of insanity while awaiting [p289] execution of a death sentence is not a rare phenomenon." Solesbee v. Balkcom, 339 U.S. 9, 14 (1950) (dissenting opinion). The "fate of ever-increasing fear and distress" to which the expatriate is subjected, Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 102, can only exist to a greater degree for a person confined in prison awaiting death. [37]

The unusual severity of death is manifested most clearly in its finality and enormity. Death, in these respects, is in a class by itself. Expatriation, for example, is a punishment that "destroys for the individual the political existence that was centuries in the development," that "strips the citizen of his status in the national and international political community," and that puts "[h]is very existence" in jeopardy. Expatriation thus inherently entails "the total destruction of the individual's status in organized society." Id. at 101. "In short, the expatriate has lost the right to have rights." Id. at 102. Yet, demonstrably, expatriation is not "a fate worse than death." Id. at 125 (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). [38] Although death, like expatriation, destroys the [p290] individual's "political existence" and his "status in organized society," it does more, for, unlike expatriation, death also destroys "[h]is very existence." There is, too, at least the possibility that the expatriate will, in the future, regain "the right to have rights." Death forecloses even that possibility.

Death is truly an awesome punishment. The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, a denial of the executed person's humanity. The contrast with the plight of a person punished by imprisonment is evident. An individual in prison does not lose "the right to have rights." A prisoner retains, for example, the constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, to be free of cruel and unusual punishments, and to treatment as a "person" for purposes of due process of law and the equal protection of the laws. A prisoner remains a member of the human family. Moreover, he retains the right of access to the courts. His punishment is not irrevocable. Apart from the common charge, grounded upon the recognition of human fallibility, that the punishment of death must inevitably be inflicted upon innocent men, we know that death has been the lot of men whose convictions were unconstitutionally secured in view of later, retroactively applied, holdings of this Court. The punishment itself may have been unconstitutionally inflicted, see Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), yet the finality of death precludes relief. An executed person has indeed "lost the right to have rights." As one 19th century proponent of punishing criminals by death declared,

When a man is hung, there is an end of our relations with him. His execution is a way of saying, "You are not fit for this world, take your chance elsewhere." [39] [p291]

In comparison to all other punishments today, then, the deliberate extinguishment of human life by the State is uniquely degrading to human dignity. I would not hesitate to hold, on that ground alone, that death is today a "cruel and unusual" punishment, were it not that death is a punishment of longstanding usage and acceptance in this country. I therefore turn to the second principle — that the State may not arbitrarily inflict an unusually severe punishment.

The outstanding characteristic of our present practice of punishing criminals by death is the infrequency with which we resort to it. The evidence is conclusive that death is not the ordinary punishment for any crime.

There has been a steady decline in the infliction of this punishment in every decade since the 1930's, the earliest period for which accurate statistics are available. In the 1930's, executions averaged 167 per year; in the 1940's, the average was 128; in the 1950's, it was 72; and in the years 1960-1962, it was 48. There have been a total of 46 executions since then, 36 of them in 1963-1964. [40] Yet our population and the number of capital crimes committed have increased greatly over the past four decades. The contemporary rarity of the infliction of this punishment is thus the end result of a long-continued decline. That rarity is plainly revealed by an examination of the years 1961-1970, the last 10-year period for which statistics are available. During that time, an average of 106 death sentences [p292] was imposed each year. [41] Not nearly that number, however, could be carried out, for many were precluded by commutations to life or a term of Years, [42] transfers to mental institutions because of insanity, [43] resentences to life or a term of years, grants of new trials and orders for resentencing, dismissals of indictments and reversals of convictions, and deaths by suicide and natural causes. [44] On January 1, 1961, the death row population was 21; on December 31, 1970, it was 608; during that span, there were 135 executions. [45] Consequently, had the 389 additions to death row also been executed, the annual average would have been 52. [46] In short, the country [p293] might, at most, have executed one criminal each week. In fact, of course, far fewer were executed. Even before the moratorium on executions began in 1967, executions totaled only 42 in 1961 and 47 in 1962, an average of less than one per week; the number dwindled to 21 in 1963, to 15 in 1964, and to seven in 1965; in 1966, there was one execution, and in 1967, there were two. [47]

When a country of over 200 million people inflicts an unusually severe punishment no more than 50 times a year, the inference is strong that the punishment is not being regularly and fairly applied. To dispel it would indeed require a clear showing of nonarbitrary infliction.

Although there are no exact figures available, we know that thousands of murders and rapes are committed annually in States where death is an authorized punishment for those crimes. However the rate of infliction is characterized — as "freakishly" or "spectacularly" rare, or simply as rare — it would take the purest sophistry to deny that death is inflicted in only a minute fraction of these cases. How much rarer, after all, could the infliction of death be?

When the punishment of death is inflicted in a trivial number of the cases in which it is legally available, the conclusion is virtually inescapable that it is being inflicted arbitrarily. Indeed, it smacks of little more than a lottery system. The States claim, however, that this rarity is evidence not of arbitrariness, but of informed selectivity: death is inflicted, they say, only in "extreme" cases.

Informed selectivity, of course, is a value not to be denigrated. Yet presumably the States could make precisely the same claim if there were 10 executions per [p294] year, or five, or even if there were but one. That there may be as many as 50 per year does not strengthen the claim. When the rate of infliction is at this low level, it is highly implausible that only the worst criminals or the criminals who commit the worst crimes are selected for this punishment. No one has yet suggested a rational basis that could differentiate in those terms the few who die from the many who go to prison. Crimes and criminals simply do not admit of a distinction that can be drawn so finely as to explain, on that ground, the execution of such a tiny sample of those eligible. Certainly the laws that provide for this punishment do not attempt to draw that distinction; all cases to which the laws apply are necessarily "extreme." Nor is the distinction credible in fact. If, for example, petitioner Furman or his crime illustrates the "extreme," then nearly all murderers and their murders are also "extreme." [48] Furthermore, our procedures in death cases, [p295] rather than resulting in the selection of "extreme" cases for this punishment, actually sanction an arbitrary selection. For this Court has held that juries may, as they do, make the decision whether to impose a death sentence wholly unguided by standards governing that decision. McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 196-208 (1971). In other words, our procedures are not constructed to guard against the totally capricious selection of criminals for the punishment of death.

Although it is difficult to imagine what further facts would be necessary in order to prove that death is, as my Brother STEWART puts it, "wantonly and . . . freakishly" inflicted, I need not conclude that arbitrary infliction is patently obvious. I am not considering this punishment by the isolated light of one principle. The probability of arbitrariness is sufficiently substantial that it can be relied upon, in combination with the other principles, in reaching a judgment on the constitutionality of this punishment.

When there is a strong probability that an unusually severe and degrading punishment is being inflicted arbitrarily, we may well expect that society will disapprove of its infliction. I turn, therefore, to the third principle. An examination of the history and present operation of the American practice of punishing criminals by death reveals that this punishment has been almost totally rejected by contemporary society.

I cannot add to my Brother MARSHALL's comprehensive treatment of the English and American history of [p296] this punishment. I emphasize, however, one significant conclusion that emerges from that history. From the beginning of our Nation, the punishment of death has stirred acute public controversy. Although pragmatic arguments for and against the punishment have been frequently advanced, this longstanding and heated controversy cannot be explained solely as the result of differences over the practical wisdom of a particular government policy. At bottom, the battle has been waged on moral grounds. The country has debated whether a society for which the dignity of the individual is the supreme value can, without a fundamental inconsistency, follow the practice of deliberately putting some of its members to death. In the United States, as in other nations of the western world, the struggle about this punishment has been one between ancient and deeply rooted beliefs in retribution, atonement or vengeance, on the one hand, and, on the other, beliefs in the personal value and dignity of the common man that were born of the democratic movement of the eighteenth century, as well as beliefs in the scientific approach to an understanding of the motive forces of human conduct, which are the result of the growth of the sciences of behavior during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [49]

It is this essentially moral conflict that forms the backdrop for the past changes in, and the present operation of, our system of imposing death as a punishment for crime.

Our practice of punishing criminals by death has changed greatly over the years. One significant change has been in our methods of inflicting death. Although this country never embraced the more violent and repulsive methods employed in England, we did for a long time rely almost exclusively upon the gallows and the firing squad. Since the development of the supposedly [p297] more humane methods of electrocution late in the 19th century and lethal gas in the 20th, however, hanging and shooting have virtually ceased. [50] Our concern for decency and human dignity, moreover, has compelled changes in the circumstances surrounding the execution itself. No longer does our society countenance the spectacle of public executions, once thought desirable as a deterrent to criminal behavior by others. Today we reject public executions as debasing and brutalizing to us all.

Also significant is the drastic decrease in the crimes for which the punishment of death is actually inflicted. While esoteric capital crimes remain on the books, since 1930, murder and rape have accounted for nearly 99% of the total executions, and murder alone for about 87%. [51] In addition, the crime of capital murder has itself been limited. As the Court noted in McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. at 198, there was in this country a "rebellion against the common law rule imposing a mandatory death sentence on all convicted murderers." Initially, that rebellion resulted in legislative definitions that distinguished between degrees of murder, retaining the mandatory death sentence only for murder in the first degree. Yet

[t]his new legislative criterion for isolating crimes appropriately punishable by death soon proved as unsuccessful as the concept of "malice aforethought,"

ibid., the common law means of separating murder from manslaughter. Not only was the distinction between degrees of murder confusing and uncertain in practice, but, even in clear cases of first-degree murder, juries continued to take the law into [p298] their own hands: if they felt that death was an inappropriate punishment, "they simply refused to convict of the capital offense." Id. at 199. The phenomenon of jury nullification thus remained to counteract the rigors of mandatory death sentences. Bowing to reality,

legislatures did not try, as before, to refine further the definition of capital homicides. Instead, they adopted the method of forthrightly granting juries the discretion which they had been exercising in fact.

Ibid. In consequence, virtually all death sentences today are discretionarily imposed. Finally, it is significant that nine States no longer inflict the punishment of death under any circumstances, [52] and five others have restricted it to extremely rare crimes. [53] [p299]

Thus, although "the death penalty has been employed throughout our history," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 99, in fact the history of this punishment is one of successive restriction. What was once a common punishment has become, in the context of a continuing moral debate, increasingly rare. The evolution of this punishment evidences not that it is an inevitable part of the American scene, but that it has proved progressively more troublesome to the national conscience. The result of this movement is our current system of administering the punishment, under which death sentences are rarely imposed and death is even more rarely inflicted. It is, of course, "We, the People" who are responsible for the rarity both of the imposition and the carrying out of this punishment. Juries, "express[ing] the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death," Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. at 519, have been able to bring themselves to vote for death in a mere 100 or so cases among the thousands tried each year where the punishment is available. Governors, elected by and acting for us, have regularly commuted a substantial number of those sentences. And it is our society that insists upon due process of law to the end that no person will be unjustly put to death, thus ensuring that many more of those sentences will not be carried out. In sum, we have made death a rare punishment today.

The progressive decline in, and the current rarity of, the infliction of death demonstrate that our society seriously questions the appropriateness of this punishment today. The States point out that many legislatures authorize death as the punishment for certain crimes, and that substantial segments of the public, as reflected in opinion polls and referendum votes, continue to support it. Yet the availability of this punishment through statutory authorization, as well as the polls and referenda, [p300] which amount simply to approval of that authorization, simply underscores the extent to which our society has, in fact, rejected this punishment. When an unusually severe punishment is authorized for wide-scale application but not, because of society's refusal, inflicted save in a few instances, the inference is compelling that there is a deep-seated reluctance to inflict it. Indeed, the likelihood is great that the punishment is tolerated only because of its disuse. The objective indicator of society's view of an unusually severe punishment is what society does with it, and today society will inflict death upon only a small sample of the eligible criminals. Rejection could hardly be more complete without becoming absolute. At the very least, I must conclude that contemporary society views this punishment with substantial doubt.

The final principle to be considered is that an unusually severe and degrading punishment may not be excessive in view of the purposes for which it is inflicted. This principle, too, is related to the others. When there is a strong probability that the State is arbitrarily inflicting an unusually severe punishment that is subject to grave societal doubts, it is likely also that the punishment cannot be shown to be serving any penal purpose that could not be served equally well by some less severe punishment.

The States' primary claim is that death is a necessary punishment because it prevents the commission of capital crimes more effectively than any less severe punishment. The first part of this claim is that the infliction of death is necessary to stop the individuals executed from committing further crimes. The sufficient answer to this is that, if a criminal convicted of a capital crime poses a danger to society, effective administration of the State's pardon and parole laws can delay or deny his release from prison, and techniques of isolation can eliminate [p301] or minimize the danger while he remains confined. The more significant argument is that the threat of death prevents the commission of capital crimes because it deters potential criminals who would not be deterred by the threat of imprisonment. The argument is not based upon evidence that the threat of death is a superior deterrent. Indeed, as my Brother MARSHALL establishes, the available evidence uniformly indicates, although it does not conclusively prove, that the threat of death has no greater deterrent effect than the threat of imprisonment. The States argue, however, that they are entitled to rely upon common human experience, and that experience, they say, supports the conclusion that death must be a more effective deterrent than any less severe punishment. Because people fear death the most, the argument runs, the threat of death must be the greatest deterrent.

It is important to focus upon the precise import of this argument. It is not denied that many, and probably most, capital crimes cannot be deterred by the threat of punishment. Thus, the argument can apply only to those who think rationally about the commission of capital crimes. Particularly is that true when the potential criminal, under this argument, must not only consider the risk of punishment, but also distinguish between two possible punishments. The concern, then, is with a particular type of potential criminal, the rational person who will commit a capital crime knowing that the punishment is long-term imprisonment, which may well be for the rest of his life, but will not commit the crime knowing that the punishment is death. On the face of it, the assumption that such persons exist is implausible.

In any event, this argument cannot be appraised in the abstract. We are not presented with the theoretical question whether, under any imaginable circumstances, the [p302] threat of death might be a greater deterrent to the commission of capital crimes than the threat of imprisonment. We are concerned with the practice of punishing criminals by death as it exists in the United States today. Proponents of this argument necessarily admit that its validity depends upon the existence of a system in which the punishment of death is invariably and swiftly imposed. Our system, of course, satisfies neither condition. A rational person contemplating a murder or rape is confronted not with the certainty of a speedy death, but with the slightest possibility that he will be executed in the distant future. The risk of death is remote and improbable; in contrast, the risk of long-term imprisonment is near and great. In short, whatever the speculative validity of the assumption that the threat of death is a superior deterrent, there is no reason to believe that, as currently administered, the punishment of death is necessary to deter the commission of capital crimes. Whatever might be the case were all or substantially all eligible criminals quickly put to death, unverifiable possibilities are an insufficient basis upon which to conclude that the threat of death today has any greater deterrent efficacy than the threat of imprisonment. [54] [p303]

There is, however, another aspect to the argument that the punishment of death is necessary for the protection of society. The infliction of death, the States urge, serves to manifest the community's outrage at the commission of the crime. It is, they say, a concrete public expression of moral indignation that inculcates respect for the law and helps assure a more peaceful community. Moreover, we are told, not only does the punishment of death exert this widespread moralizing influence upon community values, it also satisfies the popular demand for grievous condemnation of abhorrent crimes, and thus prevents disorder, lynching, and attempts by private citizens to take the law into their own hands.

The question, however, is not whether death serves these supposed purposes of punishment, but whether death serves them more effectively than imprisonment. There is no evidence whatever that utilization of imprisonment, rather than death, encourages private blood feuds and other disorders. Surely if there were such a danger, the execution of a handful of criminals each year would not prevent it. The assertion that death alone is a sufficiently emphatic denunciation for capital crimes suffers from the same defect. If capital crimes require the punishment of death in order to provide moral reinforcement for the basic values of the community, those values can only be undermined when death is so rarely inflicted upon the criminals who commit the crimes. Furthermore, it is certainly doubtful that the infliction of death by the State does, in fact, strengthen the community's moral code; if the deliberate extinguishment of human life has any effect at all, it more likely tends to lower our respect for life and brutalize our values. That, after all, is why we no longer carry out public executions. In any event, this claim simply means that one purpose of punishment is to indicate social disapproval of crime. To serve that purpose, our [p304] laws distribute punishments according to the gravity of crimes, and punish more severely the crimes society regards as more serious. That purpose cannot justify any particular punishment as the upper limit of severity.

There is, then, no substantial reason to believe that the punishment of death, as currently administered, is necessary for the protection of society. The only other purpose suggested, one that is independent of protection for society, is retribution. Shortly stated, retribution in this context means that criminals are put to death because they deserve it.

Although it is difficult to believe that any State today wishes to proclaim adherence to "naked vengeance," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 112 (BRENNAN, J., concurring), the States claim, in reliance upon its statutory authorization, that death is the only fit punishment for capital crimes and that this retributive purpose justifies its infliction. In the past, judged by its statutory authorization, death was considered the only fit punishment for the crime of forgery, for the first federal criminal statute provided a mandatory death penalty for that crime. Act of April 30, 1790, § 14, 1 Stat. 115. Obviously, concepts of justice change; no immutable moral order requires death for murderers and rapists. The claim that death is a just punishment necessarily refers to the existence of certain public beliefs. The claim must be that, for capital crimes, death alone comports with society's notion of proper punishment. As administered today, however, the punishment of death cannot be justified as a necessary means of exacting retribution from criminals. When the overwhelming number af criminals who commit capital crimes go to prison, it cannot be concluded that death serves the purpose of retribution more effectively than imprisonment. The asserted public belief that murderers and rapists deserve to die is flatly inconsistent with the execution of a random [p305] few. As the history of the punishment of death in this country shows, our society wishes to prevent crime; we have no desire to kill criminals simply to get even with them.

In sum, the punishment of death is inconsistent with all four principles: death is an unusually severe and degrading punishment; there is a strong probability that it is inflicted arbitrarily; its rejection by contemporary society is virtually total; and there is no reason to believe that it serves any penal purpose more effectively than the less severe punishment of imprisonment. The function of these principles is to enable a court to determine whether a punishment comports with human dignity. Death, quite simply, does not.


When this country was founded, memories of the Stuart horrors were fresh and severe corporal punishments were common. Death was not then a unique punishment. The practice of punishing criminals by death, moreover, was widespread and by and large acceptable to society. Indeed, without developed prison systems, there was frequently no workable alternative. Since that time, successive restrictions, imposed against the background of a continuing moral controversy, have drastically curtailed the use of this punishment. Today death is a uniquely and unusually severe punishment. When examined by the principles applicable under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, death stands condemned as fatally offensive to human dignity. The punishment of death is therefore "cruel and unusual," and the States may no longer inflict it as a punishment for crimes. Rather than kill an arbitrary handful of criminals each year, the States will confine them in prison.

The State thereby suffers nothing and loses no power. The purpose of punishment is fulfilled, crime [p306] is repressed by penalties of just, not tormenting, severity, its repetition is prevented, and hope is given for the reformation of the criminal.

Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 381.

I concur in the judgments of the Court.


  1. . The Eighth Amendment provides:
  2. . Henry continued:
  3. . It is significant that the response to Henry's plea, by George Nicholas, was simply that a Bill of Rights would be ineffective as a means of restraining the legislative power to prescribe punishments:
  4. . We have not been referred to any mention of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause in the debates of the state legislatures on ratification of the Bill of Rights.
  5. . The elided portion of Livermore's remarks reads:
  6. . Indeed, the first federal criminal statute, enacted by the First Congress, prescribed 39 lashes for larceny and for receiving stolen goods, and one hour in the pillory for perjury. Act of Apr. 30, 1790, §§ 16-18, 1 Stat. 116.
  7. . Many of the state courts, "feeling constrained thereto by the incidences of history," Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 376 (1910), were apparently taking the same position. One court
  8. . The Court had earlier emphasized this point in In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890), even while stating the narrow, "historical" interpretation of the Clause:
  9. . Indeed, the Court in Weems refused even to comment upon some decisions from state courts because they were "based upon sentences of courts, not upon the constitutional validity of laws." 217 U.S. at 377.
  10. . The Clause
  11. .
  12. .
  13. .
  14. .
  15. .
  16. . "The phrase in our Constitution was taken directly from the English Declaration of Rights of [1689]. . . ." Id. at 100.
  17. . The specific incident giving rise to the provision was the perjury trial of Titus Oates in 1685.
  18. . In a case from the Philippine Territory, the Court struck down a punishment that "ha[d] no fellow in American legislation." Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. at 377. After examining the punishments imposed, under both United States and Philippine law, for similar as well as more serious crimes, id. at 380-381, the Court declared that the "contrast"
  19. . In Weems v. United States, supra, at 369-370, the Court summarized the holding of Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879), as follows:
  20. . It was said in Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 100-101, n. 32, that,
  21. . The danger of subjective judgment is acute if the question posed is whether a punishment "shocks the most fundamental instincts of civilized man," Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, supra, at 473 (Burton, J., dissenting), or whether "any man of right feeling and heart can refrain from shuddering," O'Neil v. Vermont, supra, at 340 (Field, J., dissenting), or whether "a cry of horror would rise from every civilized and Christian community of the country," ibid. Mr. Justice Frankfurter's concurring opinion in Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, supra, is instructive. He warned "against finding in personal disapproval a reflection of more or less prevailing condemnation" and against
  22. . Cf. Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, supra, at 463: "The traditional humanity of modern Anglo-American law forbids the infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence."
  23. . It may, in fact, have appeared earlier. In Pervear v. The Commonwealth, 5 Wall. at 480, the Court stated:
  24. . Mr. Justice Field apparently based his conclusion upon an intuitive sense that the punishment was disproportionate to the criminal's moral guilt, although he also observed that "the punishment was greatly beyond anything required by any humane law for the offences," O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. at 340. Cf. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 99:
  25. .
  26. . The principle that a severe punishment must not be excessive does not, of course, mean that a severe punishment is constitutional merely because it is necessary. A State could not now, for example, inflict a punishment condemned by history, for any such punishment, no matter how necessary, would be intolerably offensive to human dignity. The point is simply that the unnecessary infliction of suffering is also offensive to human dignity.
  27. . The Fifth Amendment provides:
  28. . No one, of course, now contends that the reference in the Fifth Amendment to "jeopardy of . . . limb" provides perpetual constitutional sanction for such corporal punishments as branding and ear-cropping, which were common punishments when the Bill of Rights was adopted. But cf. n. 29, infra. As the California Supreme Court pointed out with respect to the California Constitution:
  29. . Cf. McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 226 (1971) (separate opinion of Black, J.):
  30. . The Court expressly noted that the constitutionality of the punishment itself was not challenged. Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. at 136-137. Indeed, it may be that the only contention made was that, in the absence of statutory sanction, the sentencing "court possessed no authority to prescribe the mode of execution." Id. at 137.
  31. . Cf. McElvaine v. Brush, 142 U.S. 155, 158-159 (1891):
  32. . It was also asserted that the Constitution prohibits "cruelty inherent in the method of punishment," but does not prohibit "the necessary suffering involved in any method employed to extinguish life humanely." 329 U.S. at 464. No authority was cited for this assertion, and, in any event, the distinction drawn appears to be meaningless.
  33. . In a non-death case, Trop v. Dulles, it was said that, "in a day when it is still widely accepted, [death] cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty." 356 U.S. at 99 (emphasis added). This statement, of course, left open the future constitutionality of the punishment.
  34. .
  35. . See Report of Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1949-1953, 700-789, pp. 246-273 (1953); Hearings on S. 1760 before the Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 19-21 (1968) (testimony of Clinton Duffy); H. Barnes & N. Teeters, New Horizons in Criminology 306-309 (3d ed. 1959); C. Chessman, Trial by Ordeal 195-202 (1955); M. DiSalle, The Power of Life and Death 84-85 (1965); C. Duffy & A. Hirschberg, 88 Men and 2 Women 13-14 (1962); B. Eshelman, Death Row Chaplain 26-29, 101-104, 159-164 (1962); R. Hammer, Between Life and Death 208-212 (1969); K. Lamott, Chronicles of San Quentin 228-231 (1961); L. Lawes, Life and Death in Sing Sing 170-171 (1928); Rubin, The Supreme Court, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, and the Death Penalty, 15 Crime & Delin. 121, 128-129 (1969); Comment, The Death Penalty Cases, 56 Calif.L.Rev. 1268, 1338-1341 (1968); Brief amici curiae filed by James V. Bennett, Clinton T. Duffy, Robert G. Sarver, Harry C. Tinsley, and Lawrence E. Wilson 12-14.
  36. . See Barnes & Teeters, supra, at 309-311 (3d ed. 1959); Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, in A. Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death 131, 151-156 (1960); C. Duffy & A. Hirschberg, supra, at 68-70, 254 (1962); Hammer, supra, at 222-235, 244-250, 269-272 (1969); S. Rubin, The Law of Criminal Correction 340 (1963); Bluestone & McGahee, Reaction to Extreme Stress: Impending Death by Execution, 119 Amer.J.Psychiatry 393 (1962); Gottlieb, Capital Punishment, 15 Crime & Delin. 1, 8-10 (1969); West, Medicine and Capital Punishment, in Hearings on S. 1760 before the Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 124 (1968); Ziferstein, Crime and Punishment, The Center Magazine 84 (Jan. 1968); Comment, The Death Penalty Cases, 56 Calif.L.Rev. 1268, 1342 (1968); Note, Mental Suffering under Sentence of Death: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment, 57 Iowa L.Rev. 814 (1972).
  37. . The State, of course, does not purposely impose the lengthy waiting period in order to inflict further suffering. The impact upon the individual is not the less severe on that account. It is no answer to assert that long delays exist only because condemned criminals avail themselves of their full panoply of legal rights. The right not to be subjected to inhuman treatment cannot, of course, be played off against the right to pursue due process of law, but, apart from that, the plain truth is that it is society that demands, even against the wishes of the criminal, that all legal avenues be explored before the execution is finally carried out.
  38. . It was recognized in Trop itself that expatriation is a "punishment short of death." 356 U.S. at 99. Death, however, was distinguished on the ground that it was "still widely accepted." Ibid.
  39. . Stephen, Capital Punishments, 69 Fraser's Magazine 753, 763 (1864).
  40. . From 1930 to 1939: 155, 153, 140, 160, 168, 199, 195, 147, 190, 160. From 1940 to 1949: 124, 123, 147, 131, 120, 117, 131, 153, 119, 119. From 1950 to 1959: 82, 105, 83, 62, 81, 76, 65, 65, 49, 49. From 1960 to 1967: 56, 42, 47, 21, 15, 7, 1, 2. Department of Justice, National Prisoner Statistics No. 46, Capital Punishment 1930-1970, p. 8 (Aug. 1971). The last execution in the United States took place on June 2, 1967. Id. at 4.
  41. . 1961 — 140; 1962 — 103; 1963 — 93; 1964 — 106; 1965 — 86; 1966 — 118; 1967 — 85; 1968 — 102; 1969 — 97; 1970 — 127. Id. at 9.
  42. . Commutations averaged about 18 per year. 1961 — 17; 1962 — 27; 1963 — 16; 1964 — 9; 1965 — 19; 1966 — 17; 1967 — 13; 1968 — 16; 1969 — 20; 1970 — 29. Ibid.
  43. . Transfers to mental institutions averaged about three per year. 1961 — 3; 1962 — 4; 1963 — 1; 1964 — 3; 1965 — 4; 1966 — 3; 1967 — 3; 1968 — 2; 1969 — 1; 1970 — 5. Ibid.
  44. . These four methods of disposition averaged about 44 per year. 1961 — 31, 1962 — 30; 1963 — 32; 1964 — 58; 1965 — 39; 1966 — 33; 1967 — 53; 1968 — 59; 1969 — 64; 1970 — 42. Ibid. Specific figures are available starting with 1967. Resentences: 1967 — 7; 1968 — 18; 1969 — 12; 1970 — 14. Grants of new trials and orders for resentencing: 1967 — 31; 1968 — 21; 1969 — 13; 1970 — 9. Dismissals of indictments and reversals of convictions: 1967 — 12; 1968 — 19; 1969 — 33; 1970 — 17. Deaths by suicide and natural causes: 1967 — 2; 1968 — 1; 1969 — 5; 1970 — 2. National Prisoner Statistics No. 42, Executions 1930-1967, p. 13 (June 1968); National Prisoner Statistics No. 45, Capital Punishment 1930-1968, p. 12 (Aug. 1969); National Prisoner statistics, supra, n. 40, at 14-15.
  45. . Id. at 9.
  46. . During that 10-year period, 1,177 prisoners entered death row, including 120 who were returned following new trials or treatment at mental institutions. There were 653 dispositions other than by execution, leaving 524 prisoners who might have been executed, of whom 135 actually were. Ibid.
  47. . Id. at 8.
  48. . The victim surprised Furman in the act of burglarizing the victim's home in the middle of the night. While escaping, Furman killed the victim with one pistol shot fired through the closed kitchen door from the outside. At the trial, Furman gave his version of the killing:
  49. . T. Sellin, The Death Penalty, A Report for the Model Penal Code Project of the American Law Institute 15 (1959).
  50. . Eight States still employ hanging as the method of execution, and one, Utah, also employs shooting. These nine States have accounted for less than 3% of the executions in the United States since 1930. National Prisoner Statistics, supra, n. 40, at 10-11.
  51. . Id. at 8
  52. . Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have abolished death as a punishment for crimes. Id. at 50. In addition, the California Supreme Court held the punishment unconstitutional under the state counterpart of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. People v. Anderson, 6 Cal.3d 628, 493 P.2d 880 (1972).
  53. . New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont have almost totally abolished death as a punishment for crimes. National Prisoner Statistics, supra, n. 40, at 50. Indeed, these five States might well be considered de facto abolition States. North Dakota and Rhode Island, which restricted the punishment in 1915 and 1852, respectively, have not carried out an execution since at least 1930, id. at 10; nor have there been any executions in New York, Vermont, or New Mexico since they restricted the punishment in 1965, 1965, and 1969, respectively, id. at 10-11. As of January 1, 1971, none of the five States had even a single prisoner under sentence of death. Id. at 18-19.
  54. . There is also the more limited argument that death is a necessary punishment when criminals are already serving or subject to a sentence of life imprisonment. If the only punishment available is further imprisonment, it is said, those criminals will have nothing to lose by committing further crimes, and accordingly, the threat of death is the sole deterrent. But "life" imprisonment is a misnomer today. Rarely, if ever, do crimes carry a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole. That possibility ensures that criminals do not reach the point where further crimes are free of consequences. Moreover, if this argument is simply an assertion that the threat of death is a more effective deterrent than the threat of increased imprisonment by denial of release on parole, then, as noted above, there is simply no evidence to support. it.