Coker v. Georgia

Following is the case brief for Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Case Summary of Coker v. Georgia:

  • Petitioner was convicted of rape and other violent offenses.  He was sentenced to death on the rape charge.
  • The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed petitioner’s conviction and sentence.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  The Court held that the death penalty for the crime of rape is grossly disproportionate and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.

Coker v. Georgia Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Petitioner Coker was in prison for murder, rape, kidnaping, and aggravated assault.  He escaped from prison and broke into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Carver.  He tied up Mr. Carver and raped and kidnaped Mrs. Carver.  He was soon apprehended and charged with various crimes including rape.  He was found guilty of all charges by a jury.

Procedural History:

  • Following trial, petitioner was sentenced to death for the rape.  The sentencing jury also found that two aggravating factors were present — prior record, and rape committed during course of other crimes.
  • On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on the one issue of whether the death penalty for the crime of rape violates the Eighth Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Does imposing the death penalty for the crime of rape constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment?  Yes.

Judgment:

The judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The death penalty is a grossly disproportionate punishment for the crime of rape and, therefore, violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.

Reasoning:

A punishment is unconstitutionally excessive if it imposes nothing more than unnecessary pain and suffering, and is grossly out of proportion based on the severity of the crime.  With regard to current standards on the issue, most states do not allow for the death penalty for rape, and Georgia juries have only imposed the death penalty for rape in a small number of cases.

The death penalty for rape is grossly disproportionate because rape does not involve the taking of a life.  The aggravating factors found by the sentencing jury do not change that analysis.  Indeed, under Georgia law, a person who intentionally kills may not get the death penalty.  Accordingly, it is illogical to allow such a punishment for rape, when no life was taken.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinions (Brennan and Marshall):

The death penalty is under any circumstance cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Concurring Opinion (Powell):

Ordinarily, death is disproportionate punishment for the crime of rape.  Here, the crime was not committed with excessive brutality or lasting injury, therefore the plurality’s conclusion was justified.  However, the plurality went too far in finding that death is always disproportionate for the crime of rape.

Dissenting Opinion (Burger):

The Court is confusing its proper role in this case.  The Court’s job is not to effectuate the Justices’ personal views on capital punishment, but what the Constitution requires.  Here, the Court has substituted its own policy judgment for the judgment of the Georgia legislature. Rape is not a minor crime.  Thus, Georgia was constitutionally justified in determining that the death penalty is a proper punishment for that crime.

Significance:

Coker v. Georgia marked the beginning of those death penalty cases that ultimately concluded with the Court rejecting the death penalty for any non-homicide crime.  What is a bit startling about this case is Justice Powell’s mention that the rape in this case was not excessively brutal, or resulted in lasting injury.  The dissent, however, recognized what most people today would recognize — that rape does have lasting psychological injury.

Student Resources:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/433/584/case.html

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1976/75-5444

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