433 U.S. 584 (1977), 75-5444, Coker v. Georgia
|Docket Nº:||No. 75-5444|
|Citation:||433 U.S. 584, 97 S.Ct. 2861, 53 L.Ed.2d 982|
|Party Name:||Coker v. Georgia|
|Case Date:||June 29, 1977|
|Court:||United States Supreme Court|
Argued March 28, 1977
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA
While serving various sentences for murder, rape, kidnaping, and aggravated assault, petitioner escaped from a Georgia prison and, in the course of committing an armed robbery and other offenses, raped an adult woman. He was convicted of rape, armed robbery, and the other offenses and sentenced to death on the rape charge, when the jury found two of the aggravating circumstances present for imposing such a sentence, viz., that the rape was committed (1) by a person with prior capital felony convictions and (2) in the course of committing another capital felony, armed robbery. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and sentence.
Held: The judgment upholding the death sentence is reversed, and the case is remanded. Pp. 591-600; 600; 600-601; 601.
MR JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR JUSTICE STEWART, MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that the sentence of death for the crime of rape is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment, and is therefore forbidden by the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment. Pp. 591-600.
(a) The Eighth Amendment bars not only those punishments that are "barbaric," but also those that are "excessive" in relation to the crime committed, and a punishment is "excessive" and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment, and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime. Pp. 591-592.
(b) That death is a disproportionate penalty for rape is strongly indicated by the objective evidence of present public judgment, as represented by the attitude of state legislatures and sentencing juries, concerning the acceptability of such a penalty, it appearing that Georgia is currently the only State authorizing the death sentence for rape of an adult woman, that it is authorized for rape in only two other States, but only when the victim is a child, and that, in the vast majority (9 out of 10) of rape convictions in Georgia since 1973, juries have not imposed the death sentence. Pp. 593-597.
(c) Although rape deserves serious punishment, the death penalty, which is unique in its severity and irrevocability, is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such and as opposed to the murderer, does not unjustifiably take human life. Pp. 597-598.
(d) The conclusion that the death sentence imposed on petitioner is disproportionate punishment for rape is not affected by the fact that the jury found the aggravating circumstances of prior capital felony convictions and occurrence of the rape while committing armed robbery, a felony for which the death sentence is also authorized, since the prior convictions do not change the fact that the rape did not involve the taking of life, and since the jury did not deem the robbery itself deserving of the death penalty, even though accompanied by the aggravating circumstances of prior capital felony convictions. Pp. 598-599.
(e) That, under Georgia law, a deliberate killer cannot be sentenced to death, absent aggravating circumstances, argues strongly against the notion that, with or without such circumstances, a rapist who does not take the life of his victim should be punished more severely than the deliberate killer. P. 600.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN concluded that the death penalty is, in all circumstances, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. P. 600.
MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL concluded that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 600-601.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL concluded that death is disproportionate punishment for the crime of raping an adult woman where, as here, the crime was not committed with excessive brutality and the victim did not sustain serious or lasting injury. P. 601.
WHITE, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 600, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 600, filed statements concurring in the judgment. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 601. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 604.
WHITE, J., lead opinion
MR. JUSTICE WHITE announced the judgment of the Court and filed an opinion in which MR. JUSTICE STEWART, MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, joined.
Georgia Code Ann. § 26-2001 (1972) provides that
[a] person convicted of rape shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life, or by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 20 years.1
Punishment is determined by a jury in a separate sentencing proceeding in which at least one of the statutory aggravating circumstances must be found before the death penalty may be imposed.2 Petitioner Coker was convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Both the conviction and the sentence were affirmed by the Georgia Supreme Court. Coker was granted a writ of certiorari, 429 U.S. 815, limited to the single claim, rejected by the Georgia court, that the punishment of death for rape violates the Eighth Amendment, which proscribes "cruel and unusual punishments" and which must be observed by the States as well as the Federal Government. Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962).
While serving various sentences for murder, rape, kidnaping, and aggravated assault, petitioner escaped from the Ware Correctional Institution near Waycross, Ga. on September 2, 1974. At approximately 11 o'clock that night, petitioner entered the house of Allen and Elnita Carver through an unlocked kitchen door. Threatening the couple with a "board," he tied up Mr. Carver in the bathroom, obtained a knife from the kitchen, and took Mr. Carver's money and the keys to the family car. Brandishing the knife and saying "you know what's going to happen to you if you try anything, don't you," Coker then raped Mrs. Carver. Soon thereafter, petitioner drove away in the Carver car, taking Mrs. Carver with him. Mr. Carver, freeing himself, notified the police; and not long thereafter petitioner was apprehended. Mrs. Carver was unharmed.
Petitioner was charged with escape, armed robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnaping, and rape. Counsel was appointed to represent him. Having been found competent to stand trial, he was tried. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, rejecting his [97 S.Ct. 2864] general plea of insanity. A sentencing hearing was then conducted in accordance with the procedures dealt with at length in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), where this Court sustained the death penalty for murder when imposed pursuant to the statutory procedures.3 The jury was
instructed that [97 S.Ct. 2865] it could consider as aggravating circumstances whether the rape had been committed by a person with a prior record of conviction for a capital felony and whether the rape
had been committed in the course of committing another capital felony, namely, the armed robbery of Allen Carver. The court also instructed, pursuant to statute, that, even if
aggravating circumstances were present, the death penalty need not be imposed if the jury found they were outweighed by mitigating circumstance, that is, circumstances not constituting justification or excuse for the offense in question,
"but which, in fairness and mercy, may be considered as extenuating or reducing the degree" of moral culpability or punishment. App. 300. The jury's verdict on the rape count was death by electrocution. Both aggravating circumstances on which the court instructed were found to be present by the jury.
Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and the Court's decisions last Term in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976); Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976); Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976); and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976), make unnecessary the recanvassing of certain critical aspects of the controversy about the constitutionality of capital punishment. It is now settled that the death penalty is not invariably cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment; it is not inherently barbaric or an unacceptable mode of punishment for crime; neither is it always disproportionate to the crime for which it is imposed. It is also established that imposing capital punishment, at least for murder, in accordance with the procedures provided under the Georgia statutes saves the sentence from the infirmities which led the Court to invalidate the prior Georgia capital punishment statute in Furman v. Georgia, supra.
In sustaining the imposition of the death penalty in Gregg,
however, the Court firmly embraced the holdings and dicta from prior cases, Furman v. Georgia, supra; Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958); and Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), to the effect that the Eighth Amendment bars not only those punishments that are "barbaric," but also those that are "excessive" in relation to the crime committed. Under Gregg, a punishment is "excessive" and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment, and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly...
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