Woodson v. North Carolina

Citation49 L.Ed.2d 944,96 S.Ct. 2978,428 U.S. 280
Decision Date02 July 1976
Docket NumberNo. 75-5491,75-5491
PartiesJames Tyrone WOODSON and Luby Waxton, Petitioners, v. State of NORTH CAROLINA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Following this Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346, the North Carolina law that previously had provided that in cases of first-degree murder the jury in its unbridled discretion could choose whether the convicted defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment was changed to make the death penalty mandatory for that crime. Petitioners, whose convictions of first-degree murder and whose death sentences under the new statute were upheld by the Supreme Court of North Carolina, have challenged the statute's constitutionality. Held : The judgment is reversed insofar as it upheld the death sentences, and the case is remanded. Pp. 285-305; 305-306; 306.

287 N.C. 578, 215 S.E.2d 607, reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice STEWART, Mr. Justice POWELL, and Mr. Justice STEVENS concluded that North Carolina's mandatory death sentence statute violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 285-305.

(a) The Eighth Amendment serves to assure that the State's power to punish is "exercised within the limits of civilized standards," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100, 78 S.Ct. 590, 597, 2 L.Ed.2d 630 (plurality opinion), and central to the application of the Amendment is a determination of contemporary standards regarding the infliction of punishment, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 176-182, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2926-2929, 49 L.Ed.2d 859. Pp. 288.

(b) Though at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, all the States provided mandatory death sentences for specified offenses, the reaction of jurors and legislators to the harshness of those provisions has led to the replacement of automatic death penalty statutes with discretionary jury sentencing. The two crucial indicators of evolving standards of decency respecting the imposition of punishment in our society jury determinations and legislative enactments conclusively point to the repudiation of automatic death sentences. "The belief no longer prevails that every offense in a like legal category calls for an identical punishment without regard to the past life and habits of a particular offender," Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 247, 69 S.Ct. 1079, 1083, 93 L.Ed. 1337. North Carolina's mandatory death penalty statute for first-degree mur- der, which resulted from the state legislature's adoption of the State Supreme Court's analysis that Furman required the serance of the discretionary feature of the old law, is a constitutionally impermissible departure from contemporary standards respecting imposition of the unique and irretrievable punishment of death. Pp. 289-301.

(c) The North Carolina statute fails to provide a constitutionally tolerable response to Furman's rejection of unbridled jury discretion in the imposition of capital sentences. Central to the limited holding in that case was the conviction that vesting a jury with standardless sentencing power violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, yet that constitutional deficiency is not eliminated by the mere formal removal of all sentencing power from juries in capital cases. In view of the historic record, it may reasonably be assumed that many juries under mandatory statutes will continue to consider the grave consequences of a conviction in reaching a verdict. But the North Carolina statute provides no standards to guide the jury in determining which murderers shall live and which shall die. Pp. 302-303.

(d) The respect for human dignity underlying the Eighth Amendment, Trop v. Dulles, supra, 356 U.S. at 100, 78 S.Ct. at 597 (plurality opinion), requires consideration of aspects of the character of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense as a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of imposing the ultimate punishment of death. The North Carolina statute impermissibly treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings, but as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass to be subjected to the blind infliction of the death penalty. Pp. 303-305.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN concurred in the judgment for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S., at 227, 96 S.Ct., at 2791. P. 305.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL, being of the view that death is a cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, concurred in the judgment. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S., at 231, 96 S.Ct., at 2973 (Marshall, J., dissenting). P. 306.

Anthony G. Amsterdam, Stanford, Cal., for petitioners.

Sidney S. Eagles, Jr., Raleigh, N. C., for respondent.

William E. James, Los Angeles, Cal., argued for the State of California, as amicus curiae.

Sol. Gen. Robert H. Bork, Washington, D. C., argued for the United States, as amicus curiae.

Judgment of the Court, and opinion of Mr. Justice STEWART, Mr. Justice POWELL, and Mr. Justice STEVENS, announced by Mr. Justice STEWART.

The question in this case is whether the imposition of a death sentence for the crime of first-degree murder under the law of North Carolina violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


The petitioners were convicted of first-degree murder as the result of their participation in an armed robbery of a convenience food store, in the course of which the cashier was killed and a customer was seriously wounded. Tre were four participants in the robbery: the petitioners James Tyrone Woodson and Luby Waxton and two others, Leonard Tucker and Johnnie Lee Carroll. At the petitioners' trial Tucker and Carroll testified for the prosecution after having been permitted to plead guilty to lesser offenses; the petitioners testified in their own defense.

The evidence for the prosecution established that the four men had been discussing a possible robbery for some time. On the fatal day Woodson had been drinking heavily. About 9:30 p. m., Waxton and Tucker came to the trailer where Woodson was staying. When Woodson came out of the trailer, Waxton struck him in the face and threatened to kill him in an effort to make him sober up and come along on the robbery. The three proceeded to Waxton's trailer where they met Carroll. Waxton armed himself with a nickel-plated derringer, and Tucker handed Woodson a rifle. The four then set out by automobile to rob the store. Upon arriving at their destination Tucker and Waxton went into the store while Carroll and Woodson remained in the car as lookouts. Once inside the store, Tucker purchased a package of cigarettes from the woman cashier. Waxton then also asked for a package of cigarettes, but as the cashier approached him he pulled the derringer out of his hip pocket and fatally shot her at point-blank range. Waxton then took the money tray from the cash register and gave it to Tucker, who carried it out of the store, pushing past an entering customer as he reached the door. After he was outside, Tucker heard a second shot from inside the store, and shortly thereafter Waxton emerged, carrying a handful of paper money. Tucker and Waxton got in the car and the four drove away.

The petitioners' testimony agreed in large part with this version of the circumstances of the robbery. It differed diametrically in one important respect: Waxton claimed that he never had a gun, and that Tucker had shot both the cashier and the customer.

During the trial Waxton asked to be allowed to plead guilty to the same lesser offenses to which Tucker had pleaded guilty,1 but the solicitor refused to accept the pleas.2 Woodson, by contrast, maintained throughout the trial that he had been coerced by Waxton, that he was therefore innocent, and that he would not consider pleading guilty to any offense.

The petitioners were found guilty on all charges,3 and, as was required by statute, sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of North Carolina affirmed. 287 N.C. 578, 215 S.E.2d 607 (1975). We granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 1082, 96 S.Ct. 1090, 47 L.Ed.2d 94 (1976), to consider whether the imposition of the death penalties in this case comports with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


The petitioners argue 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, 428 U.S. 153, 168-187, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2922-2932, 49 L.Ed.2d 859.


At the time of this Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972), North Carolina law provided that in cases of first-degree murder, the jury in its unbridled discretion could choose whether the convicted defendant should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. 4 After the Furman decision the Supreme Court of North Carolina in State v. Waddell, 282 N.C. 431, 194 S.E.2d 19 (1973), held unconstitutional the provision of the death penalty statute that gave the jury the option of returning a verdict of guilty without cap- ital punishment, but held further that this provision was severable so that the statute survived as a mandatory death penalty law.5

The North Carolina General Assembly in 1974 followed the court's lead and enacted a new statute that was essentially unchanged from the old one except that it made the death penalty mandatory. The statute now reads as follows:

"Murder in the first and second degree defined; punishment. A murder which shall be perpetrated by means of poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing, or which shall be committed in the perpetration or attempt to perpetrate any arson, rape, robbery, kidnapping, burglary or other felony, shall be deemed to be murder in the first degree and shall be punished with death. All other...

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