ACLU History: Making the Case Against the Death Penalty

September 1, 2010
The ACLU believes that the death penalty inherently violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment as well as Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Nowhere are the consequences of a broken criminal justice system more severe than in administration of the death penalty; and nowhere is it more evident that race plays a major role in who is charged, convicted and executed.

In the 1960s, the ACLU joined forces with the NAACP in a long campaign challenging the constitutionality of death penalty. The effort resulted in the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which declared existing capital punishment statutes unconstitutional and imposed a moratorium on executions. However, the victory was short-lived, and five years later the Justices allowed executions to resume based on states' revisions of death penalty sentencing rules.

In response, the ACLU established the Capital Punishment Project, founded by veteran civil rights attorney Henry Schwarzschild, to continue the fight against the death penalty on moral, practical, and constitutional grounds. Today, the project supports moratorium and repeal movements through public education and advocacy, and is also engaged in case-specific litigation highlighting the death penalty's fundamental flaws.


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