446 U.S. 420 (1980), 78-6899, Godfrey v. Georgia

Docket Nº:No. 78-6899
Citation:446 U.S. 420, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 64 L.Ed.2d 398
Party Name:Godfrey v. Georgia
Case Date:May 19, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 420

446 U.S. 420 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1759, 64 L.Ed.2d 398




No. 78-6899

United States Supreme Court

May 19, 1980

Argued February 20, 1980



Under a provision of the Georgia Code, a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to death if it is found beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense

was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.

(This statutory aggravating circumstance was held not to be unconstitutional on its face in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153.) Upon a jury trial in a Georgia state court, petitioner was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The evidence showed that, after his wife, who was living with her mother, had rebuffed his efforts for a reconciliation, petitioner went to his mother-in-law's trailer; fired a shotgun through the window, killing his wife instantly; proceeded into the trailer, striking and injuring his fleeing daughter with the barrel of the gun; and then shot and instantly killed his mother-in-law. Petitioner then called the sheriff's office and, when officers arrived, acknowledged his responsibility, directed an officer to the murder weapon, and later told an officer, "I've done a hideous crime." At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge quoted to the [100 S.Ct. 1761] jury the statutory provision in question, and the jury imposed death sentences on both murder convictions, specifying that the aggravating circumstance as to each conviction was that the offense "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman." The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgments in all respects, rejecting petitioner's contention that the statutory provision was unconstitutionally vague and holding that the evidence supported the jury's finding of the statutory aggravating circumstance.

Held: The judgment is reversed insofar as it leaves standing the death sentences, and the case is remanded. Pp. 427-433; 433-442.

243 Ga. 302, 253 S.E.2d 710, reversed and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that, in affirming the death sentences in this case the Georgia Supreme Court adopted such a broad and vague construction of the statute in question as to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 427-433.

(a) If a State wishes to authorize capital punishment, it has a constitutional responsibility to tailor and apply its law in a manner that

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avoids the arbitrary and capricious infliction of the death penalty, and thus it must define the crimes for which death may be imposed in a way that obviates standardless sentencing discretion. Cf. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238; Gregg v. Georgia, supra. Pp. 427-48.

(b) In earlier decisions interpreting the statutory provision, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that (i) the evidence that the offense was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman" must demonstrate "torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim," (ii) the phrase "depravity of mind" comprehended only the kind of mental state that led the murderer to torture or to commit an aggravated battery before killing his victim, and (iii) the word "torture" must be construed in pari materia with "aggravated battery," so as to require evidence of serious physical abuse of the victim before death. Pp. 429-432.

(c) However, the Georgia courts did not so limit the statute in the present case. Petitioner did not torture or commit an aggravated battery upon his victims, or cause either of them to suffer any physical injury preceding their deaths. Nor can the death sentences be upheld on the ground that the murders were "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that [they] involved . . . depravity of mind." Petitioner's crimes cannot be said to have reflected a consciousness materially more "depraved" than that of any person guilty of murder. Pp. 432-433.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring in the judgment, expressed his continuing belief that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and also agreed with the plurality that the Georgia Supreme Court's construction of the statutory provision at issue here was unconstitutionally vague under Gregg v. Georgia, supra. He further concluded that, even under the prevailing view that the death penalty may, in some circumstances, constitutionally be imposed, it is not enough for a reviewing court to apply a narrowing construction to otherwise ambiguous statutory language, it being necessary that the jury be instructed on the proper, narrow construction of the statute, and that developments since Gregg and its progeny strongly suggest that appellate courts are incapable of guaranteeing the kind of objectivity and evenhandedness that the Court contemplated in Gregg. Pp. 433-442.

STEWART, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which

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BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 433. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 442. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 444.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

[100 S.Ct. 1762] MR. JUSTICE STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS joined.

Under Georgia law, a person convicted of murder1 may be sentenced to death if it is found beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim." Ga.Code § 27-2534.1(b) (7) (1978). In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, the Court held that this statutory aggravating circumstance (§ (b)(7)) is not unconstitutional on its face. Responding to the argument that the language of the provision is "so broad that capital

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punishment could be imposed in any murder case," the joint opinion said:

It is, of course, arguable that any murder involves depravity of mind or an aggravated battery. But this language need not be construed in this way, and there is no reason to assume that the Supreme Court of Georgia will adopt such an open-ended construction.

428 U.S. at 201 (opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.) . Nearly four years have passed since the Gregg decision, and, during that time, many death sentences based in whole or in part on § (b)(7) have been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia. The issue now before us is whether, in affirming the imposition of the sentences of death in the present case, the Georgia Supreme Court has adopted such a broad and vague construction of the § (b)(7) aggravating circumstance as to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.2

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On a day in early September in 1977, the petitioner and his wife of 28 years had a heated argument in their home. During the course of this altercation, the petitioner, who had consumed several cans of beer, threatened his wife with a knife and damaged some of her clothing. At this point, the petitioner's wife declared that she was going to leave him, and departed to stay with relatives.3 That afternoon, she went to a Justice of the Peace and secured a warrant charging the petitioner with aggravated assault. A few days later, while still living away from home, she filed suit for divorce. Summons was served on the petitioner, and a court hearing was set on a date some two weeks later. Before the date of the hearing, the petitioner on several occasions asked his wife to return to their home. Each time his efforts were rebuffed.

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At some point during this period, his wife moved in with her mother. The petitioner believed that his mother-in-law was actively instigating his wife's determination not to consider a possible reconciliation.

In the early evening of September 20, according to the petitioner, his wife telephoned him at home. Once again they argued. She asserted that reconciliation was impossible, and allegedly demanded all the proceeds from the planned sale of their house. The conversation was terminated after she said that she would call back later. This she did in an hour or so. The ensuing conversation was, according to the petitioner's account, even more heated than the first. His wife reiterated her stand that reconciliation was out of the question, said that she still wanted all the proceeds from the sale of their house, and mentioned that her mother was supporting her position. Stating that she saw no further use in talking or arguing, she hung up.

At this juncture, the petitioner got out his shotgun and walked with it down the hill from his home to the trailer where his mother-in-law lived. Peering through a window, he observed his wife, his mother-in-law, and his 11-year-old daughter playing a card game. He pointed the shotgun at his wife through the window and pulled the trigger. The charge from the gun struck his wife in the forehead and killed her instantly. He proceeded into the trailer, striking and injuring his fleeing daughter with the barrel of the gun. He then fired the gun at his mother-in-law, striking her in the head and killing her instantly.

The petitioner then called the local sheriff's office, identified himself, said where he was, explained that he had just killed his wife and mother-in-law, and asked that the sheriff come and pick him up. Upon arriving at the trailer, the law enforcement officers found the petitioner seated on a chair in open view near the driveway. He told one of the officers that...

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