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Gregg vs. Georgia, Reaction Paper Example

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Overview

The most striking aspect of the lengthy and multifaceted analysis of the case of Gregg v. Georgia lies in how it primarily exists to serve as a forum for capital punishment debate, and at the highest levels.

The case is in fact a textbook platform upon which to conduct such a debate. The defendant’s position was extremely weak and the evidence against him, with regard to the robbing of two men who had picked up the defendant and a Mr. Allen hitchhiking from Florida, made for a virtually inarguable case. Moreover, the defendant had confessed to the crimes. He did seek to plead self-defense as his justification, yet the physical circumstances of the murders themselves belied that as a possibility. It is difficult to imagine the State of Georgia’s prosecutor as having an easier case to present to the people in a jury trial, as this was.

The case being so straightforward, it appears that the defense for Gregg sought to use his client’s virtually indefensible position to bring the question of the death penalty under scrutiny. The analysis reveals that this was done to an exacting degree, and one reaching to the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Georgia ruling held and was supported, and the defendant’s insistence that the death penalty would be applied inappropriately in his case was denied.

Reaction

As stated, Gregg v. Georgia presented the courts of Georgia and the federal government with yet another opportunity to weight the many variables implicit in imposing the death penalty. Given the extremity of the punishment, it is a healthy thing for a government’s judicial authorities to periodically take this matter under consideration, and for several reasons.

It could well be perceived that the reviews of the legitimacy of the death penalty which surface over the years are signs of fallibility in the system. People like constancy in their laws; it provides a sense of stability and trust from those administering them. However, as this case strikingly makes evident, the most drastic penal laws actually require review. The analysis quotes Chief Justice Warren’s words in regard to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”, that “…the Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This is a statement loaded with powerful meaning, aside from its direct bearing on Gregg v. Georgia. Warren’s words do not merely reflect the fact that the standards of decency of his day differ from those of generations past; he definitively allows for the reality that perceptions of decency will continue to change, and of necessity in ways a current court cannot foresee. He mentions, moreover, “evolving”, and does not say, “improving”. This is a crucial distinction, and one that allows for the possibility of future rulings which would render verdicts a current court might deem as barbaric.

Equally important within the analysis is how the Supreme Court, in assessing Georgia’s right to impose the death penalty, took into account the wide-reaching impact of the people on the judicial system. It is too often thought that the courts exist in an autonomous state, despite the famous checks-and-balances system taught to every child. Common thinking gives the judicial system a degree of unquestioned authority it does not actually possess because, as the analysis asserts, laws themselves change when elected officials, representing the desires of their constituents, bring such changes about. Clearly, a nation composed chiefly of opponents to capital punishment would not have such a statute anywhere on its books.

The other compelling aspect of Gregg v. Georgia is the interesting claim by the defense that the death penalty in that case would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” by virtue of the fact that the death penalty bears a history of being imposed in an arbitrary fashion. The claim was that, as such executions have not necessarily been enacted in cases where they were by law warranted, the applying of it in Gregg would be of itself proof of an arbitrary ruling.

This is, at face value, a formidable argument. It goes to the heart of the perpetual controversy surrounding the death penalty. If a heinous crime warrants capital punishment, must not every heinous crime be so resolved? Interestingly, it contains within itself its own refutation.

As the statements of various Justices in this analysis assert, the severity of the death penalty demands it be employed with a great deal of discretion, and only after the most exhaustive deliberation. Mitigating circumstances in a defendant’s case may be enough to spare him the penalty, and this potential for a lesser sentence, so desired by Gregg’s counsel, is precisely why the penalty is never automatically imposed.

Moreover, this indicates a healthy dislike within the system for capital punishment. If there is a way to avoid imposing it, the people are usually only too eager to employ their court-sanctioned powers of discretion and seize upon it. The Supreme Court upheld Georgia in Gregg v. Georgia simply because a preponderance of evidence virtually eliminated the uncertainty which may lead to arbitrary decision-making.

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