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Godfrey v. Georgia

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Godfrey appealed his death sentence after shooting his wife and her mother due to the arbitrary interpretation of a Georgia statute.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The death penalty may be enforced if the statute permitting the institution of the death penalty is narrowly tailored enough to prevent some defendants from being subject to capital punishment and not others.

    Facts.

    Godfrey shot his wife and mother-in-law after his wife expressed to him that reconciliation was not a possibility. At trial, the judge instructed the jury that a person could be sentenced to death if the killing was “outrageous, wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman” under subsection (b)(7) of Georgia law. The jury sentenced Godfrey to death and Godfrey appealed on the basis that the jury arbitrarily interpreted subsection (b)(7) of the Georgia statute. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Issue.

    Whether a jury’s arbitrary determination about whether or not a defendant should be subject to the death penalty violates the cruel and unusual punishment protection of the Eighth Amendment?

    Held.

    Yes. Reversed and remanded.

    Dissent.

    (Burger, CJ.) Some murders are, in fact, more horrible than others so the Georgia statute does not allow the determination of the death sentence to subject to the emotions of the jury. The decision of the jury is therefore constitutional.

    (White, J.) Godfrey’s actions were outrageous enough to warrant the death penalty under the Georgia statute. Jurors are sensible enough to make a determination of the death penalty using reason, rather than emotions. The Georgia statute is therefore constitutional and Godfrey’s sentence should be upheld.

    Concurrence.

    (Marshall, J.) The use of adjectives such as “horrible” and “outrageous” in the Georgia statute allow jurors to sentence defendants to the death penalty using their emotions as a basis for judgment. The statute is therefore unconstitutional and Godfrey’s death sentence should be reversed.

    Discussion.

    A state statute permitting the death penalty has to be specific enough for a jury to determine which defendants are deserving of the death penalty under the statute and which defendants are not. The Georgia statute allows the death penalty if the killing was “outrageous, wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman,” and it is difficult to determine which crimes are more vile to others. The lack of a clear basis for the death penalty under the Georgia statute breeds arbitrariness and violates the protections of the eighth and fourteenth amendments because it allows jurors to sentence defendants to the death penalty based on their reactions to the crimes.


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