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McCleskey v. Kemp

    Citation. 481 U.S. 279, 107 S. Ct. 1756, 95 L. Ed. 2d 262, 1987 U.S. 1817.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, McCleskey (Petitioner), an African-American, was convicted in a Georgia state court of murdering a white person and sentenced to death. Relying on a statistical study of the application of the death penalty in Georgia, Petitioner argued that his sentence was the result of racial discrimination.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. To prevail under the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution), a person must show that the decision makers in a particular case acted with discriminatory purpose.


    Facts. The Petitioner, an African-American, was convicted in a Georgia state court of murdering a white person and sentenced to death. David Baldus (Baldus) produced a study (the “Baldus Study”) in which over 2,000 murder cases were examined in Georgia. Taking into account nonracial factors, Baldus concluded that blacks were 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty for killing whites than for killing other blacks. Petitioner, relying on the Baldus Study, claimed that the Georgia capital sentencing scheme was administered in a racially discriminatory way.

    Issue. Were the statistics contained in the Baldus Study sufficient to demonstrate discriminatory intent on a particular instance on the part of the state of Georgia?

    Held. No. The District Court and the Court of Appeals are affirmed.
    Justice Lewis Powell (J. Powell) argued that a defendant who brings an equal protection challenge bears the burden of proving the existence of purposeful discrimination. Thus, to prevail in his equal protection suit, Petitioner must show that the decision-makers in his particular case, e.g., the jury, acted with discriminatory purpose. Petitioner offers no such specific proof. An inference drawn from general statistics to a specific decision in a trial and sentencing is not sufficient.
    Moreover, Petitioner has not proven his allegation that the State as a whole has acted with discriminatory purpose by allowing its capital punishment statute to remain in force despite its allegedly discriminatory application. Discriminatory purpose implies a decision was made because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects.

    Dissent. Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan) stated the conclusion suggested by the Baldus Study is consistent with our understanding of history and human experience in Georgia’s legacy of race-conscious criminal justice.

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    Discussion. Much ado is made by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) about the distinction between “purpose” and “effects.” In practical terms, the importance of the distinction really turns on the Supreme Court’s willingness to infer purpose from effects. In this case the Supreme Court was not so inclined.

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