The legal treatment of capital punishment in the United States "rests squarely on the predicate that the penalty of death is qualitatively different from a sentence of imprisonment, however long. Death, in its finality, differs more from life imprisonment than a 100-year prison term differs from one of only a year or two. This predicate is among "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" and determine whether a punishment is "cruel and unusual" in violation of the Constitution. Because "'[f]rom the point of view of the defendant, [death] is different in both its severity and its finality,'" and "'[f]rom the point of view of society, the action of the sovereign in taking the life of one of its citizens ... differs dramatically from any other legitimate state action, it is'" – as the Supreme Court repeatedly has said – "'of vital importance to the defendant and to the community that any decision to impose the death sentence be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice or emotion.'" The importance of assuring accuracy and avoiding mistakes thus extends to all facets of the decision to impose death, from the conviction of murder, to the determination that the offense is of the first degree and capitally aggravated, to the conclusion that no extenuating factors require a sentence less than death.
Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Criminology | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Law
James S. Liebman, Jeffrey A. Fagan & Valerie West,
Death Matters – A Reply to Latzer and Cauthen,
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/3502