Citation. 433 U.S. 584, 97 S. Ct. 2861, 53 L. Ed. 2d 982, 1977 U.S. 146.
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Brief Fact Summary.
Defendant Coker escaped from prison where he was serving various sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault. The Defendant committed another rape, along with kidnapping and armed robbery, among others, and a jury convicted him of his crimes. Under a Georgia statute, the Defendant was sentenced to death, and he appeals.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
“A punishment is ‘excessive’ and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.”
The Defendant had been serving sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault when he escaped from prison. Defendant entered the home of Allen and Elnita Carver, threatened the couple, and tied up Mr. Carver in the bathroom. The Defendant obtained a knife in the kitchen and took Mr. Carver’s money and keys to the car. The Defendant raped Mrs. Carver and took her with him in the family car. Mr. Carver was able to free himself, and he called the police, who then apprehended the Defendant. Mrs. Carver was not harmed outside of the rape and kidnapping, that is, she was alive. The Defendant was charged with escape, armed robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping and rape. After he was convicted of all charges, the Defendant was sentenced to death under a Georgia statute permitting such a penalty if the jury finds certain aggravating factors.
Is the imposition of the death penalty for rape unconstitutional?
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) forbids cruel and unusual punishment, i.e. punishments that are “excessive” in relation to the crime committed. “A punishment is ‘excessive’ and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.”
A sentence of death for rape is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment and is therefore unconstitutional.
Justice Powell dissents in addition to concurring because he believes that the plurality has gone to far in holding that capital punishment is always a disproportionate penalty for rape.
Chief Justice Burger, with whom Justice Rehnquist joins, dissents: In the Chief Justice’s view, the Eighth Amendment does not bar a state from taking into account one’s “well-demonstrated propensity for life-endangering behavior” in punishing the defendant. Further, it is not irrational nor constitutionally impermissible to penalize the defendant more severely than the criminal act it punishes in order to deter wrongdoing.
Justices Brennan and Marshall concur because they believe the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in all cases.
Justice Powell concurs that the punishment of death for rape is wrong in this specific case.
Capital punishment for rape is unconstitutional.