Proffitt v. Florida
428 U.S. 242 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976)

Proffitt v. Florida

No. 75-5706

Argued March 31, 1976

Decided July 2, 1976

428 U.S. 242

Syllabus

Petitioner, whose first-degree murder conviction and death sentence were affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, attacks the constitutionality of the Florida capital sentencing procedure, that was enacted in response to Furman v. Georgia,408 U. S. 238. Under the new statute, the trial judge (who is the sentencing authority) must weigh eight statutory aggravating factors against seven statutory mitigating factors to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed, thus requiring him to focus on the circumstances of the crime and the character of the individual defendant. The Florida system resembles the Georgia system upheld in Gregg v. Georgia, ante p. 428 U. S. 153, except for the basic difference that, in Florida, the sentence is determined by the trial judge, rather than by the jury, which has an advisory role with respect to the sentencing phase of the trial.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 428 U. S. 251-260; 428 U. S. 260-261; 428 U. S. 261.

315 So.2d 461, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that:

1. The imposition of the death penalty is not per se cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Gregg, ante at 428 U. S. 168-187. P. 428 U. S. 247.

2. On its face, the Florida procedures for imposition of the death penalty satisfy the constitutional deficiencies identified in Furman, supra. Florida trial judges are given specific and detailed guidance to assist them in deciding whether to impose a death penalty or imprisonment for life, and their decisions are reviewed to ensure that they comport with other sentences imposed under similar circumstances. Petitioner's contentions that the new Florida procedures remain arbitrary and capricious lack merit. Pp. 428 U. S. 251-259.

(a) The argument that the Florida system is constitutionally invalid because it allows discretion to be exercised at each stage of the criminal proceeding fundamentally misinterprets Furman.Gregg, ante at 428 U. S. 199. P. 428 U. S. 254.

Page 428 U. S. 243

(b) The aggravating circumstances authorizing the death penalty if the crime is "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel," or if "[t]he defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons," as construed by the Florida Supreme Court, provide adequate guidance to those involved in the sentencing process, and, as thus construed, are not overly broad. Pp. 428 U. S. 255-256.

(c) Petitioner's argument that the imprecision of the mitigating circumstances makes them incapable of determination by a judge or jury, and other contentions in a similar vein, raise questions about line-drawing evaluations that do not differ from factors that juries and judges traditionally consider. The Florida statute gives clear and precise directions to judge and jury to enable them to weigh aggravating circumstances against mitigating ones. Pp. 428 U. S. 257-258.

(d) Contrary to petitioner's contention, the State Supreme Court's review role is neither ineffective nor arbitrary, as evidenced by the careful procedures it has followed in assessing the imposition of death sentences, over a third of which that court has vacated. Pp. 428 U. S. 258-259.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded that, under the Florida law, the sentencing judge is required to impose the death penalty on all first-degree murderers as to whom the statutory aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, and, as to those categories, the penalty will not be freakishly or rarely, but will be regularly, imposed, and, therefore, the Florida scheme does not run afoul of the Court's holding in Furman. Petitioner's contentions about prosecutorial discretion and his argument that the death penalty may never be imposed under any circumstances consistent with the Eighth Amendment are without substance. See Gregg v. Georgia, ante at 428 U. S. 224-225 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment) and Roberts v. Louisiana, post at 428 U. S. 348-350; 428 U. S. 350-356 (WHITE, J., dissenting). Pp. 428 U. S. 260-261.

MR JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurred in the judgment. See Furman v. Georgia,408 U. S. 238, 408 U. S. 405-414 (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting), and id. at 408 U. S. 375, 408 U. S. 414, and 408 U. S. 465. P. 428 U. S. 261.

Judgment of the Court, and opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., announced by POWELL, J. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 428 U. S. 260. BLACKMUN, J., filed a statement

Page 428 U. S. 244

concurring in the judgment, post, p. 428 U. S. 261. BRENNAN, J., ante p. 428 U. S. 227, and MARSHALL, J., ante p. 428 U. S. 231, filed dissenting opinions.

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Primary Holding

The death penalty could be revived in Florida because the new law required a comparison of aggravating factors to mitigating factors, which reduced the arbitrariness previously seen in application of capital punishment.