Brief Fact Summary. McCleskey (Defendant) was sentenced to death for his role in an armed robbery, which resulted in the murder of a police officer. He challenged his sentence on the ground that it was imposed because he was black. Defendant provided statistical evidence that blacks disproportionately received death sentences when the murder victim was white.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Statistical evidence showing that one racial group receives a disproportionate amount of death sentences, as opposed to other groups, is not sufficient to challenge a state death penalty statute under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A defendant must prove the presence of racial discrimination in his own case. Discretion allows a jury to be influenced by racial prejudice, but it does not violate the Eighth Amendment since juror discretion frequently works to the defendant’s benefit.
Held. No. The Baldus Study provided by defendant does not demonstrate that racial discrimination was a factor in defendant, himself, receiving the death penalty. The study does not support an inference that the jury, in his own case, acted with purposeful racial discrimination – a threshold showing for proof of an Equal Protection violation.
No. The Baldus Study does not demonstrate a constitutionally significant risk of racial discrimination effecting a jury’s decision to impose the death penalty. Discretion in the criminal justice system is not in and of itself an Eight Amendment violation, particularly in light of the fact that in many instances discretion works to the benefit of the criminal defendant. Moreover, insomuch as the Eighth Amendment applies to all punishments, if defendant prevailed on these grounds, courts would soon be faced with similar claims for every other type of penalty. The disproportionate sentencing alleged with respect to race could also be expanded to discrepancies in sentencing in relation to other minority groups, or gender, or facial characteristics. The basis on which defendant challenges his sentence, statistical comparisons, lacks any limiting principle.
Dissent. (Justice Brennan.) Defendant need only demonstrate that there was a risk that his sentence was imposed as a result of racial prejudice. The Baldus Study adequately demonstrates that risk by showing that more likely than not a black defendant will receive a death sentence as compared to a white defendant.
(Justice Blackmun.) The Baldus Study demonstrates a clear pattern of differential treatment in imposing the death penalty on the basis of race. Defendant has met his burden of showing a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination, and the burden should have shifted to the state to disprove that allegation.
(Justice Stevens.) The majority’s concern, that allowing Defendant’s claim to prevail would sound the death knell for any death penalty statute in Georgia is unfounded. The Baldus Study indicates the existence of certain categories of extremely serious crimes, when death is imposed by juries regardless of the race of the defendant or the victim. Narrowing the class of death-eligible offenses to just those categories would allow Georgia to have a non-discriminatory capital punishment statute.
Discussion. The majority holds that a defendant challenging his sentence on the grounds of discrimination must demonstrate actual discrimination in his own case; statistical comparisons of sentencing among different racial groups is not sufficient to show an Equal Protection violation. Neither is the mere fact that racial discrimination may potentially inform a juror’s decision as to defendant’s sentence enough to make the entire concept of discretion in the criminal justice system “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendm