Brief Fact Summary. A jury imposed the death sentence on Gregg (Defendant), after finding him guilty on charges of armed robbery and murder.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Capital punishment does not violate the Eighth or Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution provided it is set forth in a carefully drafted statute that ensures the sentencing authority has adequate information and guidance in reaching its decision.
Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
The death penalty itself is per se constitutional on several grounds. First, it does violate contemporary standards of decency insomuch as much of the country seems to have accepted it (35 states have death penalty statues); second, it serves the traditional penological justifications of both retribution and deterrence; third, it is not a disproportionate sentence to the crime of murder, but rather an extreme punishment for the most extreme of crimes.
The Georgia death penalty statute does not violate the United States Constitution because it establishes a particular set of procedures to prevent the imposition of the death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner. By limiting the circumstances under which the death sentence could be imposed on a defendant, the statute successfully focuses the jury’s attention on the presence or absence of particular aggravating factors so as to inform their decision on whether death is an appropriate punishment in each individual case.
Dissent. The penological justifications for the death penalty set forth by the majority, deterrence and retribution, are invalid. First, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime. Second, it is unbelievable to suggest that the imposition of life imprisonment over the death penalty would result in citizens taking the law into their own hands to carry out a death sentence. Furthermore, the Georgia death penalty statute does not provide adequate information to jurors because if the citizenry were better informed about the morality of capital punishment they would never actually impose it.
Discussion. This case expanded upon the Court’s Furman decision, which had invalidated death penalty statutes all across the country. Here, the majority established that the death penalty was not per se unconstitutional; rather, states could draft statutory provisions, as Georgia had done, to guide a jury’s decision on the imposition of the death penalty. These provisions, such as a list of aggravating factors to a make a crime death-eligible, satisfied the Court that a jury’s decision to impose death in one case but not another was not entirely arbitrary.