The Illusion of Heightened Standards in Capital Cases

47 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2023

See all articles by Anna VanCleave

Anna VanCleave

University of Connecticut - School of Law

Date Written: April 3, 2023


The death penalty has gained its legitimacy from the belief that capital prosecutions are more procedurally rigorous than noncapi-tal prosecutions. This Article reveals how a project of heightened capital standards, set in motion when the Supreme Court ended and then revived the death penalty, was set up to fail.

In establishing what a constitutional death penalty would look like, the Court in 1976 called for heightened standards of reliability in capital cases. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the Supreme Court laid out specific constitutional procedures that must be applied in capital cases, and left the door open for the Eighth Amendment to do even more. In the decades that followed, state and federal courts have fueled a perception of heightened procedural rigor in capital cases by referring repeatedly to the heightened standards applica-ble in capital cases.

However, a review of courts’ application of a standard of “heightened reliability” reveals that (1) courts routinely use the language of “heightened” standards while simultaneously applying exactly the same constitutional tests that are used in noncapital cas-es and demonstrating no serious effort to tie procedural rigor to the severity of punishment; and (2) even more problematic, some courts have shown a willingness to use the “heightened reliability” lan-guage to justify a lesser procedural protection for capital defend-ants than that applied to noncapital cases—a perverse application of what was clearly intended to be an added measure of assurance that the death penalty is reserved only for those who are truly guilty and who are the most culpable.

This decades-long failure to observe meaningfully heightened constitutional standards calls into question the death penalty’s in-stitutional legitimacy and raises particular concerns in light of cur-rent Supreme Court trends..

Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, due process, eighth amendment

Suggested Citation

VanCleave, Anna, The Illusion of Heightened Standards in Capital Cases (April 3, 2023). University of Illinois Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Anna VanCleave (Contact Author)

University of Connecticut - School of Law ( email )

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