Gregg v. Georgia

Following is the case brief for Gregg v. Georgia, United States Supreme Court,(1976)

Case summary for Gregg v. Georgia:

  • Gregg was convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty under a Georgia state statute.
  • Gregg claimed the sentence violated the Eighth and 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
  • The state Supreme Court affirmed the sentence for the murder conviction and Gregg appealed.
  • The Court held that imposing the death penalty for the crime of murder is not cruel and unusual punishment and deterrence and retribution are proper purposes for carrying out such a sentence.

Gregg v. Georgia Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Gregg was convicted of robbing and murdering two men. Once the verdict was read, a penalty hearing was conducted before the same jury resulting in the imposition of the death penalty. The Georgia state Supreme Court set aside the death penalty for armed robbery but upheld the sentence for murder.

Procedural History:

Gregg petitioned to the United States Supreme Court for certiorari and the Court granted such.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The death penalty should be imposed under sentencing procedures to avoid capricious and indiscriminate use and is not a per se violation of the 14th and Eighth Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Is the death penalty a per se violation of the 14th and Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? No.

Judgment:

The Supreme Court affirmed the Georgia Supreme Court’s judgment.

Reasoning:

  • The death penalty is not per se unconstitutional.  It is accepted by the majority of the 50 states, it serves the stated purposes of retribution and deterrence and is an extreme punishment for an extreme crime.

Death for the crime of murder does not constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment in every circumstance, in violation of both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal constitution. Precedent shows that what is and is not “cruel and unusual” is a fluid concept and must be analyzed against the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

A penalty must not be “excessive.”  To determine whether a punishment is “excessive,” the punishment must not involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and cannot be grossly out of proportion to the crime’s severity.

Despite prior claims that the current “standards of decency” in the U.S. are at the point where the death penalty should not be tolerated, a large percentage of Americans regard it as both an appropriate and necessary sentence.  Currently, 35 or more states have laws permitting the death penalty as punishment for murder.  The reluctance of juries in imposing the death penalty as punishment conveys the feeling that it should be reserved for the most extreme cases

The two purposes of the death penalty are retribution and deterrence of capital crimes. Retribution is usually essential in an ordered society and reflects society’s outrage at particular conduct. Attempts to statistically evaluate the level of deterrence the death penalty actually has, have proven inconclusive. Deterrence is a complex and factual issue which should reside with the legislatures which should carefully draft their death penalty laws to avoid arbitrary or capricious execution.

Here, Georgia’s state capital punishment law states that when convicted of murder, individuals “shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life.”  The state narrowly applied the death penalty by statute through 10 additional circumstances. The jury may consider other appropriate aggravating or mitigating circumstances and the statute outlines requirements to satisfy the concerns of avoiding arbitrary imposition of the death penalty required in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

In Furman, the Court held that to properly minimize the risk of imposing the death penalty on a capriciously selected group of offenders, the decision had to be guided by standards ensuring that sentencing authority would focus on the crimes particular circumstances and defendant. Georgia’s statutory system which sentenced Gregg to death is constitutional.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Marshall):

If U.S. citizens were better informed on the morality of capital punishment, they would likely never impose it. The Court claims the two purposes for retaining the death penalty as general deterrence and retribution. Both arguments are unconvincing. To survive the Eighth Amendment, the death penalty must “comport with the basic concept of human dignity at the core of the Amendment.” After applying the above standard, taking a life out of retribution denies the wrongdoer’s dignity and worth and fails the basic test.

Significance:

Gregg v. Georgia as a landmark case expanded its prior decision in Furman, where the Court held the death penalty was unconstitutional. This case established that the death penalty is not per se unconstitutional and state legislatures should draft statutes, which impose the death penalty, to guide the jury in reaching their decision.

Student Resources:

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/428/153
https://www.oyez.org/cases/1975/74-6257

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