40 Years Ago the US (Briefly) Outlawed the Death Penalty

June 28, 2012

thurgood marshall
In 1972 Thurgood Marshall was one of five Justices who ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional.

Thurgood Marshall, civil rights leader and our country’s first African American Supreme Court Justice, is one of the most distinguished people ever to come out of Maryland. The BWI airport is named after him, and a statue of him stands in the midst of the state capitol complex in Annapolis.

Forty years ago today on June 29, 1972, Marshall was one of the five Justices who ruled, in a case called Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty was unconstitutional and commuted all the country’s death sentences.

He wrote:

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. We … join the approximately 70 [now 141] other jurisdictions in the world which celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.

Sadly, this Furman decision didn’t last, and by 1977 the U.S. was back in the execution business.

If shunning capital punishment would have helped us celebrate our civilization and humanity, embracing it has had the opposite effect, as a new Amnesty International report makes clear.  U.S. commitment to capital punishment has opened the floodgates to other, broader human rights abuses.

Maintaining the death penalty in the face of an increasingly abolitionist world required the U.S. to impose sweeping reservations on the few human rights treaties it has signed. After 9-11, these reservations were cited in legal memoranda to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques” and a whole host of other “war on terror” excesses, including “enforced disappearances” to a worldwide system of black sites and torture.  With regard to our civilization and humanity, that’s not much to celebrate.

Will fellow Marylander and Governor Martin O'Malley follow in Marshall's footsteps?

Yet change is in the air. After 35 years and 1300 executions, contaminated by wrongful convictions, continued bias and arbitrariness, dissatisfied victims’ families and no evidence of deterrence, it is another Marylander who is now in the thick of the death penalty abolition debate.

Martin O’Malley became Governor of Maryland in 2007 and was not shy about his support for repealing the death penalty. He showed no political fear, taking the unusual step of testifying in favor of a repeal bill and leading a march to support the legislation in 2009. These public actions, and his double digit re-election victory in 2010, put the lie to the idea that the death penalty is some kind of political third rail. It isn’t, and as political fear has melted away it’s not surprising that since 2007 five states have abolished the death penalty (4 by legislative vote).

Ironically, Maryland is not one of those states, as internal legislative politics have kept repeal bills off the floor in recent years, despite the fact that the votes to pass those bills are there. But O’Malley can re-engage in the debate he once led, helping his state, and others, “celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity”. And we can encourage him to do so.  An avid Tweeter, Governor O’Malley will be glad to hear from you on this issue, so send him a message of encouragement like:

  • @GovernorOMalley Today is the anniversary of Furman, let’s abolish #Maryland’s #deathpenalty in 2013. #EndMdDP
  • @GovernorOMalley Thanks to your leadership #Maryland is a human rights leader. Let’s abolish the #deathpenalty in 2013 #EndMdDP
  • @GovernorOMalley: Be a national leader, repeal the #deathpenalty in #Maryland! #EndMdDP