428 U.S. 242 (1976), 75-5706, Proffitt v. Florida

Docket Nº:No. 75-5706
Citation:428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913
Party Name:Proffitt v. Florida
Case Date:July 02, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

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428 U.S. 242 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913




No. 75-5706

United States Supreme Court

July 2, 1976

Argued March 31, 1976



Petitioner, whose first-degree murder conviction and death sentence were affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, attacks the constitutionality of the Florida capital sentencing procedure, that was enacted in response to Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238. Under the new statute, the trial judge (who is the sentencing authority) must weigh eight statutory aggravating factors against seven statutory mitigating factors to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed, thus requiring him to focus on the circumstances of the crime and the character of the individual defendant. The Florida system resembles the Georgia system upheld in Gregg v. Georgia, ante p. 153, except for the basic difference that, in Florida, the sentence is determined by the trial judge, rather than by the jury, which has an advisory role with respect to the sentencing phase of the trial.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 251-260; 260-261; 261.

315 So.2d 461, affirmed.


1. The imposition of the death penalty is not per se cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Gregg, ante at 168-187. P. 247.

2. On its face, the Florida procedures for imposition of the death penalty satisfy the constitutional deficiencies identified in Furman, supra. Florida trial judges are given specific and detailed guidance to assist them in deciding whether to impose a death penalty or imprisonment for life, and their decisions are reviewed to ensure that they comport with other sentences imposed under similar circumstances. Petitioner's contentions that the new Florida procedures remain arbitrary and capricious lack merit. Pp. 251-259.

(a) The argument that the Florida system is constitutionally invalid because it allows discretion to be exercised at each stage of the criminal proceeding fundamentally misinterprets Furman. Gregg, ante at 199. P. 254.

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(b) The aggravating circumstances authorizing the death penalty if the crime is "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel," or if "[t]he defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons," as construed by the Florida Supreme Court, provide adequate guidance to those involved in the sentencing process, and, as thus construed, are not overly broad. Pp. 255-256.

(c) Petitioner's argument that the imprecision of the mitigating circumstances makes them incapable of determination by a judge or jury, and other contentions in a similar vein, raise questions about line-drawing evaluations that do not differ from factors that juries and judges traditionally consider. The Florida statute gives clear and precise directions to judge and jury to enable them to weigh aggravating circumstances against mitigating ones. Pp. 257-258.

(d) Contrary to petitioner's contention, the State Supreme Court's review role is neither ineffective nor arbitrary, as evidenced by the careful procedures it has followed in assessing the imposition of death sentences, over a third of which that court has vacated. Pp. 258-259.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded that, under the Florida law, the sentencing judge is required to impose the death penalty on all first-degree murderers as to whom the statutory aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, and, as to those categories, the penalty will not be freakishly or rarely, but will be regularly, imposed, and, therefore, the Florida scheme does not run afoul of the Court's holding in Furman. Petitioner's contentions about prosecutorial discretion and his [96 S.Ct. 2963] argument that the death penalty may never be imposed under any circumstances consistent with the Eighth Amendment are without substance. See Gregg v. Georgia, ante at 224-225 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment) and Roberts v. Louisiana, post at 348-350; 350-356 (WHITE, J., dissenting). Pp. 260-261.

MR JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurred in the judgment. See Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 405-414 (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting), and id. at 375, 414, and 465. P. 261.

Judgment of the Court, and opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., announced by POWELL, J. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 260. BLACKMUN, J., filed a statement

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concurring in the judgment, post, p. 261. BRENNAN, J., ante p. 227, and MARSHALL, J., ante p. 231, filed dissenting opinions.


Judgment of the Court, and opinion of MR. JUSTICE STEWART MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, announced by MR. JUSTICE POWELL.

The issue presented by this case is whether the imposition of the sentence of death for the crime of murder under the law of Florida violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


The petitioner, Charles William Proffitt, was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death for the first-degree

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murder of Joel Medgebow. The circumstances surrounding the murder were testified to by the decedent's wife, who was present at the time it was committed. On July 10, 1973, Mrs. Medgebow awakened around 5 am. in the bedroom of her apartment to find her husband sitting up in bed, moaning. He was holding what she took to be a ruler.1 Just then, a third person jumped up, hit her several times with his fist, knocked her to the floor, and ran out of the house. It soon appeared that Medgebow had been fatally stabbed with a butcher knife. Mrs. Medgebow was not able to identify the attacker, although she was able to give a description of him.2

The petitioner's wife testified that, on the night before the murder, the petitioner had gone to work dressed in a white shirt and gray pants, and that he had returned at about 5:15 am. dressed in the same clothing, but without shoes. She said that, after a short conversation, the petitioner had packed his clothes and departed. A young woman boarder, who overheard parts of the petitioner's conversation with his wife, testified that the petitioner had told his wife that he had stabbed and killed a man with a butcher knife while he was burglarizing a place, and that he had beaten a woman. One of the petitioner's coworkers testified that they had been drinking together until 3:30 or 3:45 on the morning of the murder, and that the petitioner had then driven him home. He said that the petitioner at this time was wearing gray pants and a white shirt.

The jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Subsequently,

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as provided by Florida law, a separate hearing was held to determine whether the petitioner should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. Under the state law, that decision turned on whether certain statutory aggravating circumstances surrounding the crime outweighed any statutory mitigating circumstances found to exist.3 At that hearing, it was shown that the petitioner had [96 S.Ct. 2964] one prior conviction, a 1967 charge of breaking and entering. The State also introduced the testimony of the physician (Dr. Crumbley) at the jail where the petitioner had been held pending trial. He testified that the petitioner had come to him as a physician, and told him that he was concerned that he would harm other people in the future, that he had had an uncontrollable desire to kill that had already resulted in his killing one man, that this desire was building up again, and that he wanted psychiatric help so he would not kill again. Dr. Crumbley also testified that, in his opinion, the petitioner was dangerous, and would be a danger to his fellow inmates if imprisoned, but that his condition could be treated successfully.

The jury returned an advisory verdict recommending the sentence of death. The trial judge ordered an independent psychiatric evaluation of the petitioner, the results of which indicated that the petitioner was not, then or at the time of the murder, mentally impaired. The judge then sentenced the petitioner to death. In his written findings supporting the sentence, the judge found as aggravating circumstances that (1) the murder was premeditated and occurred in the course of a felony (burglary); (2) the petitioner has the propensity to commit murder; (3) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel; and (4) the petitioner knowingly, through his intentional act, created a great risk of serious

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bodily harm and death to many persons. The judge also found specifically that none of the statutory mitigating circumstances existed. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed. 315 So.2d 461 (1975). We granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 1082 (1976), to consider whether the imposition of the death sentence in this case constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


The petitioner argues that the imposition of the death penalty under any circumstances is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. We reject this argument for the reasons stated today in Gregg v. Georgia, ante at 168-187.



In response to Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), the Florida Legislature adopted new statutes that authorize the imposition of the death penalty on those convicted of first-degree murder. Fla.Stat.Ann. § 782.04(1) (Supp. 1976-1977).4 At the same time, Florida

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adopted a new capital sentencing procedure, patterned in large part on the Model Penal Code. See § 921.141 (Supp. 1976-1977).5 Under the new statute, if...

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