439 U.S. 212 (1978), 77-5903, Corbitt v. New Jersey

Docket Nº:No. 77-5903
Citation:439 U.S. 212, 99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466
Party Name:Corbitt v. New Jersey
Case Date:December 11, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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439 U.S. 212 (1978)

99 S.Ct. 492, 58 L.Ed.2d 466

Corbitt

v.

New Jersey

No. 77-5903

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1978

Argued October 3, 1978

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

Syllabus

Under the New Jersey homicide statutes, life imprisonment is the mandatory punishment for defendants convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, while a term of not more than 30 years is the punishment for second-degree murder. Trials to the court and guilty pleas are not allowed in [99 S.Ct. 494] murder cases, but a plea of non vult is allowed. If such a plea is accepted, the judge need not decide whether the murder is first or second degree, but the punishment is either life imprisonment or the same punishment as is imposed for second-degree murder. Appellant, after pleading not guilty to a murder indictment, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and accordingly sentenced to life imprisonment. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that the possibility of a sentence of less than life upon the plea of non vult, combined with the absence of a similar possibility when found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury, was an unconstitutional burden on his rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments and also violated his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Held:

1. The New Jersey sentencing scheme does not impose an unconstitutional burden on appellant's rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 216-225.

(a) Although the mandatory punishment when a jury finds a defendant guilty of first-degree murder is life imprisonment, the risk of that punishment is not completely avoided by pleading non vult because the judge accepting the plea has authority to impose a life term. United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, distinguished. Pp. 216-217.

(b) Not every burden on the exercise of a constitutional right, and not every pressure or encouragement to waive such a right, is invalid; specifically, there is no per se rule against encouraging guilty pleas. Here, the probability or certainty of leniency in return for a non vult plea did not invalidate the mandatory life sentence, there having been no assurances that a plea would have been accepted and if it had been that a lesser sentence would have been imposed. Cf. Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357. Pp. 218-222.

(c) If appellant had tendered a plea and if it had been accepted and a term of years less than life had been imposed, this would simply

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have recognized that there had been a plea, and that, in sentencing, it is constitutionally permissible to take that fact into account. Absent the abolition of guilty pleas and plea bargaining, it is not forbidden under the Constitution to extend a proper degree of leniency in return for guilty pleas, and New Jersey has done no more than that. Pp. 222-223.

(d) There was no element of retaliation or vindictiveness against appellant for going to trial where it does not appear that he was subjected to unwarranted charges or was being punished for exercising a constitutional right. While defendants pleading non vult may be treated more leniently than those who go to trial, withholding the possibility of leniency from the latter cannot be equated with impermissible punishment as long as plea bargaining is held to be a proper procedure. Pp. 223-224.

(e) The New Jersey sentencing scheme does not exert such a powerful influence to coerce inaccurate pleas non vult as to be deemed constitutionally suspect. Here, the State did not trespass on appellant's rights so long as he was free to accept or refuse the choice presented to him by the State, i.e., to go to trial and face the risk of life imprisonment or to seek acceptance of a non vult plea and imposition of the lesser penalty. P. 225.

2. Nor does the sentencing scheme infringe appellant's right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, since all New Jersey defendants are given the same choice as to whether to go to trial or plead non vult. Defendants found guilty by a jury are not penalized for exercising their right to a jury trial any more than defendants who plead guilty are penalized for giving up the chance of acquittal at trial. Equal protection does not free those who made a bad assessment of risks or a bad choice from the consequences of their decision. Pp. 225-226.

74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 226. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 228.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the New Jersey homicide statutes,1 some murders are of the first degree; the rest are of the second degree. Juries

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rendering guilty murder verdicts are to designate whether the murder was a first- or second-degree crime. The mandatory punishment, to be imposed by the judge, for those convicted by a jury of first-degree murder is life imprisonment;2 second-degree murder is punished by a term of not more than 30 years. Trials to the court in murder cases are not permitted, and guilty pleas to murder indictments are forbidden. Pleas of non vult or nolo contendere, however, are allowed. "If such plea be accepted," the punishment "shall be either imprisonment for life or the same as that imposed upon a conviction of murder in the second degree."3 The judge

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entertaining the plea determines that there is a factual basis for conviction, but need not decide whether the murder is first or second degree.

Appellant Corbitt, after pleading not guilty to a murder indictment, was convicted of committing murder in the course of an arson -- a felony murder and one of the first-degree homicides.4 He was sentenced to the mandatory punishment of life imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the New Jersey appellate courts. The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected his contention that, because defendants pleading non vult could be sentenced to a lesser term, the mandatory life sentence following a first-degree murder verdict was an unconstitutional burden upon his right to a jury trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments and upon his right against compelled self-incrimination under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as a violation of his right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. 74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235 (1977). We noted probable jurisdiction. 434 U.S. 1060 (1978).

Appellant's principal reliance is upon United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968). There, this Court held that the death sentence provided by the Federal Kidnaping Act was invalid because it could be imposed only upon the recommendation of a jury accompanying a guilty verdict, whereas the maximum penalty for those tried to the court after waiving a jury and for those pleading guilty was life

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imprisonment: only those insisting on a jury trial faced the possibility of a death penalty. These provisions were held to be a needless encouragement to plead guilty or to waive a jury trial, and the death penalty was consequently declared unconstitutional.

We agree with the New Jersey Supreme Court that there are substantial differences between this case and Jackson, and that Jackson does not require a reversal of Corbitt's conviction. T he principal difference is that the pressures to forgo trial and to plead to the charge in this case are not what they were in Jackson. First, the death penalty, which is "unique in its severity and irrevocability," Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 187 (1976), is not involved here. Although we need not agree with the New Jersey court that the Jackson rationale is limited to those cases where a plea avoids any possibility of the death penalty's being imposed, it is a material fact that, under the New Jersey law, the maximum penalty for murder is life imprisonment, not death. Furthermore, in Jackson, any risk of suffering the maximum penalty could be avoided by pleading guilty. Here, although the punishment when a jury finds a defendant guilty of first-degree murder is life imprisonment,5 the risk of that punishment is not completely avoided by pleading non vult, because the judge accepting the plea has the authority to impose a life term. New Jersey does not reserve the maximum punishment for murder for those who insist on a jury trial.

It is nevertheless true that, while life imprisonment is the

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mandatory punishment for a defendant against whom a jury has returned a first-degree murder verdict, a judge accepting a non vult plea does not classify the murder,6 and may impose either life imprisonment or a term of up to 30 years. The defendant who wishes to avoid the certainty of life imprisonment if he is tried and found guilty by the jury of first-degree murder may seek to do so by tendering a non vult plea. Although there is no assurance that he will be so favored, the judge does have the power to accept the plea and to sentence him to a lesser term.7 It is Corbitt's submission that the possibility of a sentence of less than life upon the plea of non vult, combined with the absence of a similar possibility when found guilty by a jury, is an unconstitutional burden on his federal rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

As did the New Jersey Supreme Court, we disagree. The cases in this Court since Jackson have clearly established that not every burden on the exercise of a constitutional right, and not every pressure or encouragement to waive such a right, is invalid.8 Specifically, there is no per se rule against encouraging

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guilty pleas. We have squarely held that a State may encourage a guilty plea by offering substantial...

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