Corbitt v. New Jersey
439 U.S. 212 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Corbitt v. New Jersey, 439 U.S. 212 (1978)

Corbitt v. New Jersey

No. 77-5903

Argued October 3, 1978

Decided December 11, 1978

439 U.S. 212

Syllabus

Under the New Jersey homicide statutes, life imprisonment is the mandatory punishment for defendants convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, while a term of not more than 30 years is the punishment for second-degree murder. Trials to the court and guilty pleas are not allowed in murder cases, but a plea of non vult is allowed. If such a plea is accepted, the judge need not decide whether the murder is first or second degree, but the punishment is either life imprisonment or the same punishment as is imposed for second-degree murder. Appellant, after pleading not guilty to a murder indictment, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and accordingly sentenced to life imprisonment. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that the possibility of a sentence of less than life upon the plea of non vult, combined with the absence of a similar possibility when found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury, was an unconstitutional burden on his rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments and also violated his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Held:

1. The New Jersey sentencing scheme does not impose an unconstitutional burden on appellant's rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 439 U. S. 216-225.

(a) Although the mandatory punishment when a jury finds a defendant guilty of first-degree murder is life imprisonment, the risk of that punishment is not completely avoided by pleading non vult because the judge accepting the plea has authority to impose a life term. United States v. Jackson,390 U. S. 570, distinguished. Pp. 216-217.

(b) Not every burden on the exercise of a constitutional right, and not every pressure or encouragement to waive such a right, is invalid; specifically, there is no per se rule against encouraging guilty pleas. Here, the probability or certainty of leniency in return for a non vult plea did not invalidate the mandatory life sentence, there having been no assurances that a plea would have been accepted and if it had been that a lesser sentence would have been imposed. Cf. Bordenkircher v. Hayes,434 U. S. 357. Pp. 439 U. S. 218-222.

(c) If appellant had tendered a plea and if it had been accepted and a term of years less than life had been imposed, this would simply

Page 439 U. S. 213

have recognized that there had been a plea, and that, in sentencing, it is constitutionally permissible to take that fact into account. Absent the abolition of guilty pleas and plea bargaining, it is not forbidden under the Constitution to extend a proper degree of leniency in return for guilty pleas, and New Jersey has done no more than that. Pp. 439 U. S. 222-223.

(d) There was no element of retaliation or vindictiveness against appellant for going to trial where it does not appear that he was subjected to unwarranted charges or was being punished for exercising a constitutional right. While defendants pleading non vult may be treated more leniently than those who go to trial, withholding the possibility of leniency from the latter cannot be equated with impermissible punishment as long as plea bargaining is held to be a proper procedure. Pp. 439 U. S. 223-224.

(e) The New Jersey sentencing scheme does not exert such a powerful influence to coerce inaccurate pleas non vult as to be deemed constitutionally suspect. Here, the State did not trespass on appellant's rights so long as he was free to accept or refuse the choice presented to him by the State, i.e., to go to trial and face the risk of life imprisonment or to seek acceptance of a non vult plea and imposition of the lesser penalty. P. 439 U. S. 225.

2. Nor does the sentencing scheme infringe appellant's right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, since all New Jersey defendants are given the same choice as to whether to go to trial or plead non vult. Defendants found guilty by a jury are not penalized for exercising their right to a jury trial any more than defendants who plead guilty are penalized for giving up the chance of acquittal at trial. Equal protection does not free those who made a bad assessment of risks or a bad choice from the consequences of their decision. Pp. 439 U. S. 225-226.

74 N.J. 379, 378 A.2d 235, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 439 U. S. 226. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 439 U. S. 228.

Page 439 U. S. 214

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