Gregg v. Georgia

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Gregg v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 30–31, 1976
Decided July 2, 1976
Full case name Troy Leon Gregg v. State of Georgia; Charles William Proffitt v. State of Florida; Jerry Lane Jurek v. State of Texas; James Tyrone Woodson, et al. v. State of North Carolina; Roberts, et al. v. Louisiana
Citations 428 U.S. 153 (more)
96 S. Ct. 2909; 49 L. Ed. 2d 859; 1976 U.S. LEXIS 82
Prior history Appeals to the Supreme Courts of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana, and the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas
Holding
The death penalty does not always violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The death penalty may be constitutional if states follow certain rules, and appeals courts review death sentences. If the death penalty is mandatory, then it is unconstitutional.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Stewart, Powell, Stevens
Concurrence Rehnquist
Concurrence White, joined by Burger, Rehnquist
Concurrence Blackmun
Dissent Brennan
Dissent Marshall
Laws applied
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) were a group of landmark cases that the United States Supreme Court decided together in 1976. They had to do with capital punishment in the United States.

In these cases, the Court ruled that the states could use capital punishment (the death penalty), but only if they followed certain rules. If the states did not follow these rules when they sentenced people to death, they would be violating the Constitution of the United States by giving out a cruel and unusual punishment.[1]

In 1972, the Court had ruled that the way Georgia was using the death penalty was unconstitutional.[2] After this decision, all of the states stopped using the death penalty while they changed their capital punishment laws. Because of this, there were no executions in the United States between 1972 and 1976.[3]

However, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court ruled that Georgia's new death penalty law was constitutional, and they gave the state permission to execute Troy Leon Gregg.[1] This ended the temporary stop on executions in the United States. It made it clear to the states that as long as they followed the rules set out in the Gregg decision, they could start using the death penalty again.[3]

History: Furman v. Georgia[change | change source]

The Gregg case happened because of another Supreme Court case called Furman v. Georgia, which the Court decided In 1972. In this case, three different men who had been sentenced to death argued that Georgia was giving them a cruel and unusual punishment.[2] This is against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which makes cruel and unusual punishments illegal.[4]

The Supreme Court agreed that when Georgia gave the death penalty to these three men, the state violated the Eighth Amendment. Different Supreme Court Justices said Georgia's death penalty was 'cruel and unusual' for different reasons.[2]

The death penalty was "arbitrary"[change | change source]

Some Justices said that Georgia's use of the death penalty was arbitrary. This meant that Georgia's courts gave the death penalty to some people and not to others, even when they committed the same crime, for no good reason.[2]

  • Here is an example of arbitrary punishment: Twenty people in twenty different parts of Georgia commit murder. They are tried in twenty different courts. A few get the death penalty, and the rest get sent to prison. There is no legal reason why some people got the death penalty and the others did not. Since there is no good reason why some people got the death penalty while others did not, this punishment is arbitrary.

The death penalty was "discriminatory"[change | change source]

Other Justices said Georgia's use of the death penalty was discriminatory. They wrote that black defendants seemed more likely to get the death penalty than whites.[2] This would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that the states must give every person "the equal protection of the laws."[5] If a certain group, like black people, is more likely to get the death penalty just because of their race, they are not being treated equally under the laws.

The death penalty stops[change | change source]

After Furman, all of the states stopped using the death penalty so they could change their capital punishment laws. They wanted these new laws to make sure the death penalty would not be given in an arbitrary or discriminatory way. By early 1975, thirty states had passed new death penalty laws that they thought would satisfy the Supreme Court and let them use the death penalty in a constitutional way.[3]

Background of the case[change | change source]

Gregg started out as five separate cases in five different states: Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana.[6]

After the Furman decision, the states of Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Louisiana changed their death penalty laws to obey the Supreme Court's decision in Furman. After this, the five defendants in these cases – Troy Leon Gregg,[1] Charles William Proffitt,[7] Jerry Jurek,[8] James Tyrone Woodson,[9] and Stanislaus Roberts[10] – were each convicted of murder. Each was sentenced to death. Each defendant appealed to their state's Supreme Court. Each of the five state Supreme Courts said the death sentences were fair and legal.[1][7][8][9][10]

Next, the defendants asked the United States Supreme Court to decide whether their death sentences were constitutional. In Furman, the Court had ruled that the death penalty was sometimes cruel and unusual punishment. These five defendants were asking the Supreme Court to rule that the death penalty was always cruel and unusual punishment.[1] If the Court ruled this way, it would make the death penalty unconstitutional in the entire United States. The death penalty would be illegal in every state in the country.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the cases, but they combined them all into one case. This one case is usually called Gregg v. Georgia, because the entire name of the case is very long.[6]

Legal questions[change | change source]

The United States Supreme Court was trying to answer a few legal questions in Gregg. The most important were:[1][6]

  • Does the death penalty always violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments? Is it always cruel and unusual punishment?
    • If not, what laws do the states have to have to protect defendants' rights? What did states need to include in their laws to make sure they were not using the death penalty in cruel and unusual ways?
    • The Court planned to use the new death penalty laws written by Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Louisiana as examples.
      • Did these laws set out rules for who could get the death penalty, and why? Were these rules fair and legal?
      • Would these rules make sure the death penalty was not used in cruel, unusual, or unfair ways?

Decision[change | change source]

The Court ruled 7-2 that the death penalty is not always cruel and unusual punishment.[1] (The two Justices who disagreed, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, had already said in Furman that they thought capital punishment was always cruel and unusual.[2])

The Court set out two rules that state laws have to include to make sure their death penalty sentencing laws are constitutional:[1]

  1. There have to be objective criteria for when the state can and cannot use the death penalty. All death sentences have to be reviewed by appeals courts. These courts will help make sure each death sentence was based on objective criteria (like facts and evidence).
  2. Death sentences cannot be mandatory (required for anyone who commits a certain crime). Each judge or jury[a] has to be able to decide whether their individual defendant deserves the death penalty. When the judge or jury decides this, they must be able to think about things like details of the individual defendant's crime and their behavior.

Specifically, the Court said that Georgia's, Florida's, and Texas's new death penalty laws met these requirements. This meant these laws were constitutional, and these states could go back to executing people. [1]

The Court ruled that North Carolina's and Louisiana's new laws did not meet the requirements, because they made the death penalty mandatory (required in all cases) for some crimes.[1] This meant these laws were still unconstitutional.[6]

Importance[change | change source]

The Supreme Court's ruling in Gregg was important for several reasons:[6]

  • It made it clear that the death penalty would remain legal in the United States
    • However, it set rules for how the death penalty had to be given
    • It also added extra protections for defendants
  • It allowed states to start using the death penalty again

Notes[change | change source]

  1. In some states, judges gave death sentences; in other states, juries did.

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Reggie, Michael H. (1997). "History of the Death Penalty". In Laura E. Randa (ed.). Society’s Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty (online version). University Press of America, Inc. ISBN 978-0761807131. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/history.html.
  4. Madison, James; et al. (1789). "Bill of Rights". The Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 23, 2016. 
  5. "Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27". Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 17, 2016. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Robinson, Matthew B., & Simon, Kathleen M. (Spring 2006). "Logical and Consistent? An Analysis of Supreme Court Opinions Regarding the Death Penalty". Justice Policy Journal (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice) 3 (1): 1-59. http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/logical_and.pdf. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976).
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976).