Gregg v. Georgia

By Supreme Court | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT

(Editor's Note: The following is the summary of the July 2, 1976, Supreme Court ruling in Gregg v. Georgia, which allowed states to impose capital punishment)

GREGG v. GEORGIA
No. 74-6257
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
428 U.S. 153; 96 S. Ct. 2909; 1976 U.S. LEXIS 82; 49 L. Ed. 2d 859
Argued March 31, 1976

Decided July 2, 1976
PRIOR HISTORY: CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

The prohibition against the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments is not violated by the imposition of the death penalty for the crime of murder under a state's statutory scheme whereby

(1) guilt or innocence is determined, either by a jury or the trial judge, in the first stage of a bifurcated trial, with the judge being required to charge the jury as to any lesser included offenses when supported by any view of the evidence,

(2) after a verdict, finding, or plea of guilty, a pre-sentence hearing is conducted, where the jury (or judge in a case tried without a jury) hears argument and additional evidence in mitigation or aggravation of punishment,

(3) at least one of 10 aggravating circumstances specified in the statutes must be found to exist beyond a reasonable doubt, and must be designated in writing, before the jury (or judge) may elect to impose the death sentence on a defendant convicted of murder, the trial judge in jury cases being bound by the jury's recommended sentence,

(4) on automatic appeal of a death sentence, the state's highest court must determine whether the sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor, whether the evidence supported the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, and whether the death sentence was excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant, and

(5) if a death sentence is affirmed, the decision of the state's highest court must include reference to similar cases that the court considered.

[Per Stewart, J., Powell,

J., Stevens, J., White, J., Burger, Ch. J., Rehnquist, J., and Blackmun, J.]
SUMMARY: After the United States Supreme Court's decision in Furman v Georgia (1972) 408 US 238, 33 L Ed 2d 346, 92 S Ct 2726--which held that the imposition of the death sentence under Georgia (and Texas) statutes constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because under such statutes the juries had untrammeled discretion to impose or withhold the death penalty--the Georgia legislature amended its statutory scheme. Under the new statutory provisions with regard to imposition of the death penalty for the crime of murder and other offenses,

(1) guilt or innocence is determined, either by a jury or the trial judge, in the first stage of a bifurcated trial, with the judge being required to charge the jury as to any lesser included offenses when supported by the evidence,

(2) after a verdict, finding, or plea of guilty, a presentence hearing is conducted, where the jury (or judge in a case tried without a jury) hears argument and additional evidence in mitigation or aggravation of punishment,

(3) at least one of ten aggravating circumstances specified in the statutes must be found to exist beyond a reasonable doubt, and must be designated in writing, before the jury (or judge) may impose the death sentence on a defendant convicted of murder, the trial judge in jury cases being bound by the jury's recommended sentence,

(4) on automatic appeal of a death sentence, the Supreme Court of Georgia must determine whether the sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor, whether the evidence supported the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, and whether the death sentence was excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant, and

(5) if a death sentence is affirmed, the decision of the Georgia Supreme Court must include reference to similar cases that the court considered. Upon a jury trial in a Georgia state court under the new statutory scheme, the defendant was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and two counts of murder, and the jury, after the penalty hearing in the bifurcated procedure, returned a sentence of death on each count, finding as statutory aggravating conditions that the murder offenses were committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of the two other capital felonies of armed robbery of the murder victims, and that the defendant committed the murders for the purpose of receiving money and an automobile of one of the victims. After reviewing the trial record and comparing the evidence and sentence in similar cases, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and the imposition of the death sentences for murder, although the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the death sentences imposed for armed robbery on the grounds that the death penalty had rarely been imposed for that offense and the jury had improperly considered the murders as aggravating circumstances for the robberies after having considered the robberies as aggravating circumstances for the murders (233 Ga 117, 210 SE2d 659).

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court affirmed. Although unable to agree on an opinion, seven members of the court agreed that the imposition of the death penalty for the crime of murder under the Georgia statutes did not violate the prohibition against the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ., announced the judgment of the court and filed an opinion, delivered by Stewart, J., expressing the view that

(1) the death penalty did not, under all circumstances, constitute cruel and unusual punishment, since

(a) the Eighth Amendment was not to be regarded as a static concept, but was to draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society,

(b) although public perceptions of standards of decency were not conclusive--the Eighth Amendment requiring that punishment must accord with the dignity of man and not be excessive either as to its form or severity--nevertheless a legislature was not required to select the least severe penalty possible, so long as the penalty selected was not cruelly inhumane or disproportionate to the crime involved, and a heavy burden rested on those attacking the judgment of the representatives of the people,

(c) at the time the Constitution and its amendments were adopted, capital punishment was accepted as a common sanction, and the Supreme Court, for nearly 200 years, had repeatedly recognized that capital punishment was not invalid per se,

(d) after the decision in the Furman case, at least 35 states enacted new statutes providing for the death penalty for certain crimes, thus indicating society's endorsement of the death penalty,

(e) retribution and deterrence, as social purposes served by the death penalty, were matters that could properly be considered by legislatures in terms of their own local conditions, and

(f) capital punishment for murder could not be said to be invariably disproportionate to the crime, but instead was an extreme sanction, suitable to the most extreme of crimes;

(2) the concerns expressed in the Furman decision that the death penalty not be imposed in an arbitrary or capricious manner could be met by a carefully drafted statute ensuring that the sentencing authority was given adequate guidance and information for determining the appropriate sentence, a bifurcated sentencing proceeding being preferable as a general proposition;

(3) the Georgia capital--sentencing procedures were constitutional, since they required the jury to consider the circumstances of the crime and the character of the defendant before recommending sentence, and required the Georgia Supreme Court to determine whether a death sentence was the result of passion or prejudice, was supported by evidence establishing a statutory aggravating circumstance, and was not disproportionate in comparison with sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants in other cases;

(4) the Georgia statutes were not rendered unconstitutional merely because of the opportunities for discretionary action inherent in the processing of any murder case under Georgia law with regard to the prosecutor's unfettered authority to select those persons who would be prosecuted for a capital offense and to plea bargain with them, the jury's power to convict a defendant of a lesser included offense, or the authority of the Governor and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute a death sentence;

(5) the Georgia statutes, particularly the provisions specifying aggravating circumstances, were not so vague or overbroad as to leave juries free to act arbitrarily and capriciously in imposing the death penalty, there being no reason to assume that the statutes would be given open-ended construction by the Georgia Supreme Court, which had already held that certain provisions were impermissibly vague; and

(6) the state court properly allowed a wide scope of evidence and argument at presentence hearings, it being desirable for the jury to have as much information before it as possible when it made the sentencing decision.

White, J., joined by Burger, Ch. J., and Rehnquist, J., concurred in the judgment, expressing the view that

(1) the death penalty imposed for murder under the new Georgia statutory scheme could be constitutionally carried out, since

(a) the statutes not only guided the jury in its exercise of discretion in determining whether it would impose the death penalty, but also gave the Georgia Supreme Court the power and duty to decide whether in fact the death penalty was being administered for any given class of crime in a discriminatory, standardless, or rare fashion, and

(b) the defendant had failed to establish that the Georgia Supreme Court had not performed its task in the instant case or that it was incapable of performing its task adequately in all cases;

(2) the statutory scheme was not unconstitutional on the ground that the prosecutor's decisions in negotiating pleas or in declining to charge capital murder were standardless, since it could not be assumed that prosecutors would be motivated by factors other than the strength of their case and the likelihood that a jury would impose the death penalty if it convicted; and

(3) the defendant's contention that the death penalty, however imposed and for whatever crime, constituted cruel and unusual punishment was without merit.

Burger, Ch. J., and Rehnquist, J., filed a statement joining the opinion of White, J., agreeing with its analysis that Georgia's system of capital punishment comported with the holding in the Furman case.

Blackmun, J., concurred in the judgment, referring to his dissenting opinion in the Furman case.

Brennan, J., dissenting, expressed the view that

(1) the cruel and unusual punishment clause must draw its meaning from evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society,

(2) the consideration of "evolving standards of decency" required focusing upon the essence of the death penalty itself, and not primarily or solely upon the procedure under

which the determination to inflict the penalty upon a particular person was made,

(3) the death penalty served no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment would, and

(4) our civilization and the law had progressed to the point where the court should hold that the punishment of death, for whatever crime and under all circumstances, was cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Marshall, J., dissented, expressing the view that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because it was excessive, being unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence of crime or to further any legitimate notion of retribution.


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