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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.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Petitioner, Warren McCleskey (Petitioner), a black man, was convicted of the murder of a white police officer during the course of a robbery. In the post-conviction sentencing hearing, the jury recommended the death penalty after it found beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of two statutory aggravating circumstances and no mitigating factors. The judge followed the recommendation and sentenced the Petitioner to death. On appeal, the state supreme court affirmed the conviction and the sentence.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The United States Constitution (Constitution) does not require that a state eliminate any demonstrable disparity that correlates with a potentially irrelevant factor in order to operate a criminal justice system that includes capital punishment.


After appeal to the state supreme court was denied, the Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. One of the Petitioner’s claims was that the Georgia capital sentencing process is administered in a racially discriminatory manner. In support of his writ, the Petitioner offered “the Baldus study” that purported to show a disparity in the imposition of the death sentence in Georgia based on the race of the murder victim and the race of the defendant. The Baldus study indicated that black defendants who kill white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.


Whether a complex statistical study that indicates a risk that racial considerations enter into capital sentencing determinations proves that the Petitioner’s capital sentence is unconstitutional under the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?


The court examined, separately, the Petitioner’s claims that the capital sentencing structure violated both his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The Petitioner’s claim as to the violation of his Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights must fail. The court found that the Baldus Study was clearly insufficient to support an inference that any of the decision-makers in the Petitioner’s case acted with a discriminatory purpose.

The court also rejected petitioner’s claim that his Eighth Amendment constitutional rights were violated. The court found that the inherent safeguards that are built into the jury system served to nearly eliminate every discrepancy that appears to correlate with race.


There was significant chance that race played a prominent role in determining whether the Petitioner lived or died. As a result of the Baldus study, it is insufficient to say, as the majority does, that the importance of discretion demands that the risk be higher before action will be taken.


The Supreme Court, after dealing with the Petitioner’s constitutional claims, spent a good portion of the decision mentioning that if the Petitioner was successful in his claims, then the Supreme Court might be facing a slippery slope that could very easily be extended to other disenfranchised groups. The Supreme Court, although acknowledging that the Baldus study might signal a likelihood that a particular factor entered into jury decision, was not ready to embrace the study as an opportunity for an overhaul of the judicial system. Near the end of the decision, the court notes that an argument, such as the one advanced by the Petitioner, is best presented to the legislature rather than the courts.

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