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CASE:

JUREK v TEXAS (1976)

Introduction

 

On August 16, 1973 police in Cuero, Texas arrested Jerry Jurek, a twenty-two year old cotton mill worker, for the murder of ten-year-old Wendy Adams. Ronnie Adams, Wendy’s father, was one of the arresting officers. After initially denying any connection to the murder, Jurek admitted that he had killed the girl. Under pressure from prosecuting attorneys, the prisoner later admitted that he had attempted to rape Wendy Adams before murdering her and throwing her body in the Guadeloupe River.

 

Although such a murder generally carried a death penalty under Texas law, a recent Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972) had declared that all state death penalty laws constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” under the U.S. Constitution. Eager to create a test case to overturn the Furman decision, Texas legislators created a new state law in 1973 that allowed for the use of the death penalty when a suspect was convicted of murder and an additional crime.

 

At trial in state court Jurek’s attorneys argued that their client suffered from learning disabilities and was an alcoholic who lived at the margins of Cuero society. They also pointed out that prosecuting attorneys had pressured Jurek into a second confession simply to be able to charge him with the death penalty under Texas’s new law. As part of their deliberations, jury members were instructed to determine not only whether they thought that Jurek had acted deliberately but whether he was likely to commit similar crimes in the future if found not guilty. The jury accordingly found Jurek guilty of murder and attempted rape, sentencing the defendant to death.

 

While Jurek waited on death row in Huntsville, Texas, his attorneys appealed his case to U.S. District Court. In an attempt to solve the increasingly controversial issue surrounding the death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Jurek v. Texas as one of five cases to determine when and under what conditions the death penalty might be carried out at the state level. In March 1976, Anthony Amsterdam, a Stanford Law Professor, told the High Court that in each of the five cases under consideration the state laws employed to reach the death penalty were too vague and arbitrary to risk a defendant’s life . As such, he considered the use of the death penalty in all five cases to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. - Hailey Morgan

 

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

 

Along with other Supreme Court cases like Furman v. Georgia (1972), Jackson v. Georgia (1969)  and Branch v. Texas (1972), Jurek v. Texas considered whether the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Jurek v. Texas was the first case to uphold the death penalty under strict scrutiny.


 

Citation and Decision

Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976) | Full Decision

In a 7-2 decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens ruled that the death penalty, on its face, was not unconstitutional. Thus, the death penalty could be reimposed in Texas after it had been ruled unconstitutional across the country in Furman v. Georgia (1972). In particular, Justice Stevens found that the 1973 death penalty law in Texas allowed juries ample time to determine whether defendants were guilty and whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in their cases. Several years later a U.S. District Court ruled that Jurek’s psychological problems and the prosecution’s use of forced confessions invalidated his death penalty conviction. In 1982, Jurek accepted a plea bargain, confessing to the murder in return for a life sentence.

 

Discussion Questions

 

1. Was the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment?

 

2. Was Texas’ capital sentencing procedure unconstitutional?

3. Did class bias play a role in the jury’s deliberations in Jurek and similar cases?

4. Was the brutality of the murder a factor in the ruling? If so at which levels?

5. What is the legal status of the death penalty today?

Links

Rupert Koeninger, Capital Punishment in Texas, 1924-1968

Oyez: Jurek v. Texas (1976)

The Case That Made Texas the Death Penalty Capital

Victoria Advocate: Jerry Jurek