Should Abolitionists Support Legislative “Reform” of the Death Penalty?

By Carol S. Steiker / Jordan M. Steiker / Ohio State Law Journal, on 1 January 2002

We assessed the Court’s reformist project on its own terms, asking whether the Court achieved the goals explicit or tolerated, if not invited, the inequalities and capriciousness characteristic of the pre-Furman era. We also argued that, apart from its failure on its own terms, the Supreme Court’s reformist regulation of capital punishment might well have carried an additional unanticipated cost. Whereas abolitionists initially sought judicial regulation of the death penalty as at least a first step towards abolition, judicial reform actually may have helped to stabilize the death penalty as a social practice. We argued that the appearance of intensive regulation of state death penalty practices, notwithstanding its virtual absence, played a role in legitimizing the practice of capital punishment in the eyes of actors both within and outside the criminal justice system, and we pointed to some objective indicators—such as the dramatic decline in the use of executive clemency in the post-Furman era[12] —as support for this thesis. Implicit in Furman and the 1976 foundational cases. Our assessment was not a positive one. Although the reformist approach spawned an extraordinarily intricate and detailed capital punishment jurisprudence, the resulting doctrines were in practical terms largely unresponsive to the underlying concerns for fairness and heightened reliability that had first led to the constitutional regulation of the death penalty. We described contemporary capital punishment law as the worst of all possible worlds. Its sheer complexity led to numerous reversals of death sentences and thus imposed substantial costs on state criminal justice systems. On closer inspection, however, the complexity concealed the minimalist nature of the Court’s reforms.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Networks,