Godfrey v. Georgia
446 U.S. 420 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420 (1980)

Godfrey v. Georgia

No. 78-6899

Argued February 20, 1980

Decided May 19, 1980

446 U.S. 420

Syllabus

Under a provision of the Georgia Code, a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to death if it is found beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense

"was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim."

(This statutory aggravating circumstance was held not to be unconstitutional on its face in Gregg v. Georgia,428 U. S. 153.) Upon a jury trial in a Georgia state court, petitioner was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The evidence showed that, after his wife, who was living with her mother, had rebuffed his efforts for a reconciliation, petitioner went to his mother-in-law's trailer; fired a shotgun through the window, killing his wife instantly; proceeded into the trailer, striking and injuring his fleeing daughter with the barrel of the gun; and then shot and instantly killed his mother-in-law. Petitioner then called the sheriff's office and, when officers arrived, acknowledged his responsibility, directed an officer to the murder weapon, and later told an officer, "I've done a hideous crime." At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge quoted to the jury the statutory provision in question, and the jury imposed death sentences on both murder convictions, specifying that the aggravating circumstance as to each conviction was that the offense "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman." The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgments in all respects, rejecting petitioner's contention that the statutory provision was unconstitutionally vague and holding that the evidence supported the jury's finding of the statutory aggravating circumstance.

Held: The judgment is reversed insofar as it leaves standing the death sentences, and the case is remanded. Pp. 446 U. S. 427-433; 446 U. S. 433-442.

243 Ga. 302, 253 S.E.2d 710, reversed and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that, in affirming the death sentences in this case the Georgia Supreme Court adopted such a broad and vague construction of the statute in question as to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 446 U. S. 427-433.

(a) If a State wishes to authorize capital punishment, it has a constitutional responsibility to tailor and apply its law in a manner that

Page 446 U. S. 421

avoids the arbitrary and capricious infliction of the death penalty, and thus it must define the crimes for which death may be imposed in a way that obviates standardless sentencing discretion. Cf. Furman v. Georgia,408 U. S. 238; Gregg v. Georgia, supra. Pp. 446 U. S. 427-48.

(b) In earlier decisions interpreting the statutory provision, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that (i) the evidence that the offense was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman" must demonstrate "torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim," (ii) the phrase "depravity of mind" comprehended only the kind of mental state that led the murderer to torture or to commit an aggravated battery before killing his victim, and (iii) the word "torture" must be construed in pari materia with "aggravated battery," so as to require evidence of serious physical abuse of the victim before death. Pp. 446 U. S. 429-432.

(c) However, the Georgia courts did not so limit the statute in the present case. Petitioner did not torture or commit an aggravated battery upon his victims, or cause either of them to suffer any physical injury preceding their deaths. Nor can the death sentences be upheld on the ground that the murders were "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that [they] involved . . . depravity of mind." Petitioner's crimes cannot be said to have reflected a consciousness materially more "depraved" than that of any person guilty of murder. Pp. 446 U. S. 432-433.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring in the judgment, expressed his continuing belief that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and also agreed with the plurality that the Georgia Supreme Court's construction of the statutory provision at issue here was unconstitutionally vague under Gregg v. Georgia, supra. He further concluded that, even under the prevailing view that the death penalty may, in some circumstances, constitutionally be imposed, it is not enough for a reviewing court to apply a narrowing construction to otherwise ambiguous statutory language, it being necessary that the jury be instructed on the proper, narrow construction of the statute, and that developments since Gregg and its progeny strongly suggest that appellate courts are incapable of guaranteeing the kind of objectivity and evenhandedness that the Court contemplated in Gregg. Pp. 446 U. S. 433-442.

STEWART, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which

Page 446 U. S. 422

BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 446 U. S. 433. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 446 U. S. 442. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 446 U. S. 444.

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