Gregg v. Georgia

428 U.S. 153; 96 S. Ct. 2009
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The petitioner was charged with committing armed robbery and murder. The jury found the petitioner guilty of two counts of armed robbery and two counts of murder, and subsequently returned a sentence of death on each count, finding aggravating conditions present (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 a car from 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. However, 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 that the jury had improperly considered the murders as aggravating circumstances for the robberies after having considered the robberies as aggravating circumstances for the murders.

The petitioner appealed his death sentence to the United States Supreme Court claiming his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had been violated. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment while the Fourteenth Amendment required due process and equal protection of the law.

The Supreme Court found that the punishment of death for the crime of murder does not, under all circumstances, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It found that the Eighth Amendment, which has been interpreted in a flexible and dynamic manner to accord with evolving standards of decency, forbids the use of punishment that is "excessive" either because it involves the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain or because it is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.

Further, although a legislature may not impose excessive punishment, the Court stated that it was not required to select the least severe penalty possible, and a heavy burden rests upon those attacking its judgment.

In finding that the death penalty did not violate the Constitution, the Court noted that capital punishment for the crime of murder has been recognized as valid for nearly two centuries and that it was accepted by the Framers of the Constitution. Additionally, legislative measures adopted by the people's chosen representatives weigh heavily in ascertaining contemporary standards of decency; and the argument that such standards require that the Eighth Amendment be construed as prohibiting the death penalty has been undercut by the fact that in the four years since Furman (another case regarding death penalty sentencing) was decided, Congress and at least 35 States had enacted new statutes providing for the death penalty.

The Court also found that retribution and the possibility of deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders are not impermissible considerations for a legislature to weigh in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed, and it cannot be said that Georgia's legislative judgment that such a penalty was necessary in some cases was clearly wrong. Finally the Court found that capital punishment for the crime of murder cannot be viewed as invariably disproportionate to the severity of that crime

With regard to the Georgia statute, the Court held that the statutory system under which defendant was sentenced, which focused the jury's attention on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant and provided a method for review, did not violate the Constitution.

The Court reasoned that the concerns expressed in Furman that the death penalty not be imposed arbitrarily or capriciously could be ameliorated by a statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance.

Further,the Court found that the Georgia statutory system under which the petitioner was sentenced to death was constitutional because the procedures satisfied the concerns of Furman. Specifically, before the death penalty could be imposed, there had to be specific jury findings as to the circumstances of the crime or the character of the defendant, and the state Supreme Court thereafter reviewed the comparability of each death sentence with the sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants to ensure that the sentence of death in a particular case was not disproportionate.

"The most marked indication of society's endorsement of the death penalty for murder is the legislative response to Furman. The legislatures of at least 35 States 23 have enacted new statutes that provide for the death penalty for at least some crimes that result in the death of another person. And the Congress of the United States, in 1974, enacted a statute providing the death penalty for aircraft piracy that results in death. 24 These recently adopted statutes have attempted to address the concerns expressed by the Court in Furman primarily (i) by specifying the factors to be weighed and the procedures to be followed in deciding when to impose a capital sentence, or (ii) by making the death penalty mandatory for specified crimes. But all of the post-Furman statutes make clear that capital punishment itself has not been rejected by the elected representatives of the people." Page 180.

"In sum, we cannot say that the judgment of the Georgia Legislature that capital punishment may be necessary in some cases is clearly wrong. Considerations of federalism, as well as respect for the ability of a legislature to evaluate, in terms of its particular State, the moral consensus concerning the death penalty and its social utility as a sanction, require us to conclude, in the absence of more convincing evidence, that the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and thus is not unconstitutionally severe." Pages 186-187.