Woodson v. North Carolina
428 U.S. 280 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976)

Woodson v. North Carolina

No. 75-5491

Argued March 31, 1976

Decided July 2, 1976

428 U.S. 280


Following this Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238, the North Carolina law that previously had provided that in cases of first-degree murder the jury in its unbridled discretion could choose whether the convicted defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment was changed to make the death penalty mandatory for that crime. Petitioners, whose convictions of first-degree murder and whose death sentences under the new statute were upheld by the Supreme Court of North Carolina, have challenged the statute's constitutionality.

Held: The judgment is reversed insofar as it upheld the death sentences, and the case is remanded. Pp. 428 U. S. 285-305; 428 U. S. 305-306; 428 U. S. 306.

287 N.C. 578, 215 S.E.2d 607, reversed and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS concluded that North Carolina's mandatory death sentence statute violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 428 U. S. 285-305.

(a) The Eighth Amendment serves to assure that the State's power to punish is "exercised within the limits of civilized standards," Trop v. Dulles,356 U. S. 86, 356 U. S. 100 (plurality opinion), and central to the application of the Amendment is a determination of contemporary standards regarding the infliction of punishment, Gregg v. Georgia, ante at 428 U. S. 176-182. P. 428 U. S. 288.

(b) Though, at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, all the States provided mandatory death sentences for specified offenses, the reaction of jurors and legislators to the harshness of those provisions has led to the replacement of automatic death penalty statutes with discretionary jury sentencing. The two crucial indicators of evolving standards of decency respecting the imposition of punishment in our society -- jury determinations and legislative enactments -- conclusively point to the repudiation of automatic death sentences.

"The belief no longer prevails that every offense in a like legal category calls for an identical punishment without regard to the past life and habits of a particular offender,"

Williams v. New York,337 U. S. 241, 337 U. S. 247. North Carolina's mandatory death penalty statute for first-degree murder,

Page 428 U. S. 281

which resulted from the state legislature's adoption of the State Supreme Court's analysis that Furman required the severance of the discretionary feature of the old law, is a constitutionally impermissible departure from contemporary standards respecting imposition of the unique and irretrievable punishment of death. Pp. 428 U. S. 289-301.

(c) The North Carolina statute fails to provide a constitutionally tolerable response to Furman's rejection of unbridled jury discretion in the imposition of capital sentences. Central to the limited holding in that case was the conviction that vesting a jury with standardless sentencing power violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, yet that constitutional deficiency is not eliminated by the mere formal removal of all sentencing power from juries in capital cases. In view of the historic record, it may reasonably be assumed that many juries under mandatory statutes will continue to consider the grave consequences of a conviction in reaching verdict. But the North Carolina statute provides no standards to guide the jury in determining which murderers shall live and which shall die. Pp. 428 U. S. 302-303.

(d) The respect for human dignity underlying the Eighth Amendment, Trop v. Dulles, supra at 356 U. S. 100 (plurality opinion), requires consideration of aspects of the character of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense as a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of imposing the ultimate punishment of death. The North Carolina statute impermissibly treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings, but as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass to be subjected to the blind infliction of the death penalty. Pp. 428 U. S. 303-305.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN concurred in the judgment for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, ante, p. 428 U. S. 227. P. 428 U. S. 305.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, being of the view that death is a cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, concurred in the judgment. Gregg v. Georgia, ante, p. 428 U. S. 231 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). P. 428 U. S. 306.

Judgment of the Court, and opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., announced by STEWART, J. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 428 U. S. 305, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 428 U. S. 306, filed statements concurring in the judgment. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 428 U. S. 306. BLACKMUN,

Page 428 U. S. 282

J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 428 U. S. 307. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 428 U. S. 308.

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Primary Holding

A death penalty law violates the Eighth Amendment when it makes capital punishment mandatory for certain crimes.