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McCleskey v. Kemp

Citation. 481 U.S. 279, 107 S.Ct. 1756, 95 L.Ed.2d 262 (1987).
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Brief Fact Summary.

McCleskey, a black man, was sentenced to death for murdering a white police officer in Georgia. McCleskey argued that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The racially disproportionate impact in the administration of a state’s death penalty, indicated by a comprehensive statistical study, is not enough to mitigate a death penalty determination without showing a discriminatory purpose.


McCleskey, a black man, was convicted of murdering a police officer in Georgia and sentenced to death. In a writ of habeas corpus, McCleskey argued that a statistical study proved that the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia depended to some extent on the race of the victim and the accused. The study found that black defendants who kill white victims are the most likely to receive death sentences in the state.


Did the statistical study prove that McCleskey’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment?


No, the statistical study did not prove that McCleskey’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.


Justice Brennan

The challenge to the Georgia system is not speculative or theoretical; it is empirical. As a result, the Court cannot rely on the statutory safeguards in discounting McCleskey’s evidence, for it is the very effectiveness of those safeguards that such evidence calls into question. The statistical evidence in this case relentlessly documents the risk that McCleskey’s sentence was influenced by racial considerations.


In light of our precedents under the Eighth Amendment, McCleskey cannot successfully argue that his sentence is disproportionate to the crime in the traditional sense. He does not deny that he committed a murder in the course of a planned robbery, a crime for which this Court has determined that the death penalty may constitutionally be imposed. Thus, absent a showing that the Georgia capital punishment systems operates in an arbitrary and capricious manner, McCleskey cannot prove a constitutional violation by demonstrating that other defendants who may be similarly situated did not receive the death penalty. However, because McCleskey’s sentence was imposed under Georgia sentencing procedures that focus discretion on the particularized nature of the crime and characteristics of the individual defendant, we may lawfully presume McCleskey’s death sentence was not wantonly imposed and thus the sentence is not disproportionate within any recognized meaning under the Eighth Amendment.

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