Coker v. Georgia - 433 U.S. 584 (1977)
U.S. Supreme Court
Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)
Coker v. Georgia
Argued March 28, 1977
Decided June 29, 1977
433 U.S. 584
While serving various sentences for murder, rape, kidnaping, and aggravated assault, petitioner escaped from a Georgia prison and, in the course of committing an armed robbery and other offenses, raped an adult woman. He was convicted of rape, armed robbery, and the other offenses and sentenced to death on the rape charge, when the jury found two of the aggravating circumstances present for imposing such a sentence, viz., that the rape was committed (1) by a person with prior capital felony convictions and (2) in the course of committing another capital felony, armed robbery. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and sentence.
234 Ga. 555, 216 S.E.2d 782, reversed and remanded.
MR JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR JUSTICE STEWART, MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that the sentence of death for the crime of rape is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment, and is therefore forbidden by the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment. Pp. 433 U. S. 591-600.
(a) The Eighth Amendment bars not only those punishments that are "barbaric," but also those that are "excessive" in relation to the crime committed, and a punishment is "excessive" and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment, and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime. Pp. 433 U. S. 591-592.
(b) That death is a disproportionate penalty for rape is strongly indicated by the objective evidence of present public judgment, as represented by the attitude of state legislatures and sentencing juries, concerning the acceptability of such a penalty, it appearing that Georgia is currently the only State authorizing the death sentence for rape of an adult woman, that it is authorized for rape in only two other States, but only when the victim is a child, and that, in the vast majority (9 out of 10) of rape convictions in Georgia since 1973, juries have not imposed the death sentence. Pp. 433 U. S. 593-597.
(c) Although rape deserves serious punishment, the death penalty, which is unique in its severity and irrevocability, is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such and as opposed to the murderer, does not unjustifiably take human life. Pp. 433 U. S. 597-598.
(d) The conclusion that the death sentence imposed on petitioner is disproportionate punishment for rape is not affected by the fact that the jury found the aggravating circumstances of prior capital felony convictions and occurrence of the rape while committing armed robbery, a felony for which the death sentence is also authorized, since the prior convictions do not change the fact that the rape did not involve the taking of life, and since the jury did not deem the robbery itself deserving of the death penalty, even though accompanied by the aggravating circumstances of prior capital felony convictions. Pp. 433 U. S. 598-599.
(e) That, under Georgia law, a deliberate killer cannot be sentenced to death, absent aggravating circumstances, argues strongly against the notion that, with or without such circumstances, a rapist who does not take the life of his victim should be punished more severely than the deliberate killer. P. 433 U. S. 600.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN concluded that the death penalty is, in all circumstances, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. P. 433 U. S. 600.
MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL concluded that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 433 U. S. 600-601.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL concluded that death is disproportionate punishment for the crime of raping an adult woman where, as here, the crime was not committed with excessive brutality and the victim did not sustain serious or lasting injury. P. 433 U. S. 601.
WHITE, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 433 U. S. 600, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 433 U. S. 600, filed statements concurring in the judgment. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 433 U. S. 601. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 433 U. S. 604.