Citation. 428 U.S. 153, 96 S. Ct. 2909, 49 L. Ed. 2d 859, 1976 U.S. 82.
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Defendant, alternatively referred to as “the petitioner” in the United States Supreme Court opinion by virtue of being the party “petitioning” or asking the Supreme Court for review of the decision, was convicted of murder with intent and armed robbery. He was thereafter sentenced to death.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The death penalty is constitutional.
The Defendant was convicted of murder with intent and armed robbery. After a post-conviction sentencing hearing, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant was guilty of two statutory aggravating circumstances and sentenced the Defendant to death.
Does the imposition of the death penalty violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution)?
“Cruel and unusual” punishment is expressly forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. This generally means that the punishment must not be “excessive.” For a punishment to be “excessive,” it must involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, and it must be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime. It cannot be said that the methods utilized to enforce the death penalty involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, nor can the imposition of death upon one who takes another life be considered grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime. Therefore, the death penalty is not per se unconstitutional.
Further, even though the court held that the death penalty is not per se unconstitutional, sentencing procedures that create a substantial risk that the death penalty will be inflicted in an arbitrary and capricious manner are not permissible. A statute that ensures the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance will reduce this risk. Generally, a system providing for a bifurcated proceeding, i.e. a proceeding that divides the trial into a guilt phase wherein the jury determines whether the defendant is guilty of the crime and a sentencing phase wherein the jury determines the appropriate sentence for the defendant, best meets these concerns. Said procedures require that the jury consider the circumstances of the crime and the characteristics of the criminal. Here, the Georgia statute implements this bifurcated approach, and as a further safeguard against arbitrariness and caprice, all death sentences are automatically appealed to the State Supreme Court. Theref
ore, the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case is constitutional.
Justice Brennan dissents: Our society has progressed to a point where the imposition of the death penalty is cruel and unusual under any circumstances.
Justice Marshall dissents: The death penalty is excessive. It does not promote the goal of deterrence or further any legitimate notion of retribution.
Justice White, with whom the Chief Justice and Justice Rehnquist joins, adds that the Defendant’s argument that there is an unconstitutional amount of discretion in the system that separates those suspects who receive the death penalty from those who receive life imprisonment, a lesser penalty, or are acquitted or never charged is absurd. Such an argument serves as an indictment of the whole legal system. The Defendant essentially states that humans are incompetent to run the system. Justice White refuses to interfere with the system on such grounds.
A sentence of death is constitutional, but is an “extreme sanction” to be used as a penalty for only the most extreme crimes. The imposition of death for the crime of murder is not excessive or disproportionate to the crime committed. As long as the sentencing procedures providing for the penalty are not likely to be imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner, the sentence is constitutional.