WASHINGTON --The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 today that the death penalty is "cruel and unusual punishment" barred by the Constitution. The momentous decision will spare the lives of 600 men now on death row in the nation.
The five-man majority however differed on the ultimate extent of the ruling Two of them suggested capital punishment might be permissible if state legislatures more carefully defined the way it could be imposed by courts and juries.
All four of President Nixon's appointees -- including Chief Justice Warren E Burger -- dissented and each of the nine justices filed separate opinions in three test cases that produced the decision.
In other major actions the final day of the 1971-72 term the Court:
-- Ruled 5 to 4 that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press does not exempt newsmen from being summoned by grand juries and forced to answer questions.
-- Held by another 5-4 vote that the immunity of a senator or House member from questioning by grand juries does not extend to matters other than immediate congressional business This means that Dr Leonard S. Rodberg, an aide to Sen Mike Gravel D-Alaska, must answer questions of a Boston grand jury concerning the leaking of the Pentagon papers.
-- Ruled 6 to 3 that a member of Congress may be tried for conduct such as bribery even though the offense was tied to the legislative process. The action reversed a federal district court judge who threw out a bribery indictment Against former Sen Daniel Brewster D-Md, who claimed constitutional immunity protected him.
In the death penalty case Justices William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan Jr., Potter Stewart, Byron R. White and Thurgood Marshall formed the majority but divided into three camps.
Each of the four dissenters -- Burger and Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist -- filed separate views making nine opinions in all.
Shortly after the brief unsigned opinion representing the Court as a whole was issued a series of orders was issued vacating death sentences in various states of the union where condemned men had appealed the high court.