Gregg v. Georgia

United States Supreme Court

428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed. 2d. 859 (1976)


            Here the Supreme Court effectively reinstates the death penalty by sustaining a revised Georgia death penalty law. The petitioner, Troy Gregg, was convicted of armed robbery and murder and was sentenced to death. In accordance with Georgia’s death penalty law revised after Furman v. Georgia, the trial was conducted in two stages, a guilt stage and a sentencing stage.


Judgment of the Court, and opinion of Mr. Justice Stewart, Mr. Justice Powell, and Mr. Justice Stevens, announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.


            ... There is no question that death as a punishment is unique in its severity and irrevocability. When defendant’s life is at stake, the Court has been particularly sensitive to insure that every safeguard is observed. But we are concerned here only with the imposition of capital punishment for the crime of murder, and when a life has been taken deliberately by the offender, we cannot say that the punishment is invariably disproportionate to the crime. It is an extreme sanction, suitable to the most extreme of crimes.


            We hold that the death penalty is not a form of punishment that may never be imposed, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, regardless of the character of the offender, and regardless of the procedure followed in reaching the decision to impose it.


            We now turn to consideration of the constitutionality of Georgia’s capital-sentencing procedures. In the wake of Furman, Georgia amended its capital punishment statute, but chose not to narrow the scope of its murder provisions. Thus, now as before Furman, in Georgia “[a] person commits murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being.” All persons convicted of murder “shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life.”


            Georgia did act, however, to narrow the class of murderers subject to capital punishment by specifying 10 statutory aggravating circumstances, one of which must be found by the jury to exist beyond a reasonable doubt before a death sentence can ever be imposed. In addition, the jury is authorized to consider any other appropriate aggravating or mitigating circumstances. The jury is not required to find any mitigating circumstance in order to make a recommendation of mercy that is binding on the trial court, but it must find a statutory aggravating circumstance before recommending a sentence of death.


            These procedures require the jury to consider the circumstances of the crime and the criminal before it recommends sentence. No longer can a Georgia jury do as Furman’s jury did: reach a finding of the defendant’s guilt and then, without guidance or direction, decide whether he should live or die. Instead, the jury’s attention is directed to the specific circumstances of the crime: Was it committed in the course of another capital felony? Was it committed for money? Was it committed upon a peace officer or judicial officer? Was it committed in a particularly heinous way or in a manner that endangered the lives of many persons? In addition, the jury’s attention is focused on the characteristics of the person who committed the crime: Does he have a record of prior convictions for capital offenses? Are there any special facts about this defendant that mitigate against imposing capital punishment (e.g., his youth, the extent of his cooperation with the police, his emotional state at the time of the crime). As a result, while some jury discretion still exists, “the discretion to be exercised is controlled by clear and objective standards so as to produce non-discriminatory application.”


            As an important additional safeguard against arbitrariness and caprice, the Georgia statutory scheme provides for automatic appeal of all death sentences to the State’s Supreme Court. That court is required by statute to review each sentence of death and determine whether it was imposed under the influence of passion or prejudice, whether the evidence supports the jury’s finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, and whether the sentence is disproportionate compared to those sentences imposed in similar cases.


            In short, Georgia’s new sentencing procedures require as a prerequisite to the imposition of the death penalty, specific jury findings as to the circumstances of the crime or the character of the defendant. Moreover to guard further against a situation comparable to that presented in Furman, the Supreme Court of Georgia compares each death sentence with the sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants to ensure that the sentence of death in a particular case is not disproportionate. On their face these procedures seem to satisfy the concerns of Furman. No longer should there be “no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which [the death penalty] is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.”


            The basic concern of Furman centered on those defendants who were being condemned to death capriciously and arbitrarily. Under the procedures before the Court in that case, sentencing authorities were not directed to give attention to the nature or circumstances of the crime committed or to the character or record of the defendant. Left unguided, juries imposed the death sentence in a way that could only be called freakish. The new Georgia sentencing procedures, by contrast, focus the jury’s attention on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant. While the jury is permitted to consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, it must find and identify at least one statutory aggravating factor before it may impose a penalty of death. In this way the jury’s discretion is channeled. No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence; it is always circumscribed by the legislative guidelines. In addition, the review function of the Supreme Court of Georgia affords additional assurance that the concerns that prompted our decision in Furman are not present to any significant degree in the Georgia procedure applied here.



Mr. Justice White, with whom the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Rehnquist join, concurring in the judgment. ...



Mr. Justice Blackmun, concurring in the judgment. ...



Mr. Justice Marshall, dissenting.


            In Furman v. Georgia, I set forth at some length my views on the basic issue presented to the Court in these cases. The death penalty, I concluded, is a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. That continues to be my view.


            In Furman I concluded that the death penalty is constitutionally invalid for two reasons. First, the death penalty is excessive. And second, the American people, fully informed as to the purposes of the death penalty and its liabilities, would in my view reject it as morally unacceptable. ...


            The mere fact that the community demands the murderer’s life in return for the evil he has done cannot sustain the death penalty, for as the plurality reminds us, “the Eighth Amendment demands more than that a challenged punishment be acceptable to contemporary society.” To be sustained under the Eighth Amendment, the death penalty must “[comport] with the basic concept of human dignity at the core of the Amendment.” ... Under these standards, the taking of life “because the wrongdoer deserves it” surely must fall, for such a punishment has as its very basis the total denial of the wrongdoer’s dignity and worth.


            The death penalty, unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s judgment upholding the sentences of death imposed upon the petitioners in these cases.



Mr. Justice Brennan, dissenting. ...


            …The fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats "”members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded. [It is] thus inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the Clause that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.” … As such it is a penalty that “subjects the individual to a fate forbidden by the principle of civilized treatment guaranteed by the [Clause].” I therefore would hold, on that ground alone, that death is today a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Clause. “Justice of this kind is obviously no less shocking than the crime itself, and the new ‘official’ murder, far from offering redress for the offense committed against society, adds instead a second defilement to the first.” …