Coker v. Georgia
433 U.S. 584 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Coker v. Georgia

No. 75-5444

Argued March 28, 1977

Decided June 29, 1977

433 U.S. 584

Syllabus

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.

Held: The judgment upholding the death sentence is reversed, and the case is remanded. Pp. 433 U. S. 591-600; 433 U. S. 600; 433 U. S. 600-601; 433 U. S. 601.

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.

Page 433 U. S. 585

(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.

Page 433 U. S. 586

Primary Holding
Sentencing a defendant to death for committing rape violates the Eighth Amendment.
Facts
Ehrlich Anthony Coker escaped from prison, broke into the home of Allen and Elnita Carver, and raped Mrs. Carver in addition to stealing a car. He had been serving sentences for first-degree murder as well as rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault. Upon being convicted of rape and other charges, Coker was sentenced to death. He was eligible for capital punishment because he had been previously convicted of a crime that carried the death penalty and because he committed the rape in the course of committing an armed robbery, which was another crime that carried the death penalty.

Opinions

Plurality

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Potter Stewart
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens

The plurality held that the death penalty is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment when its imposition is disproportionate to the crime committed. White noted that every state except Georgia had abandoned the death penalty for this crime and that juries imposed a death sentence in fewer than 10 percent of rape cases in which the prosecution sought capital punishment. Moreover, rape, while a serious crime, is clearly less grave than premeditated murder, which is the usual basis for a death sentence. Even though aggravating factors were present, therefore, applying the death penalty based on a rape conviction is disproportionate and unconstitutional, based on prevailing trends in the United States and even specifically in Georgia.

Concurrence

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)

As with all of the other capital punishment cases reviewed by the Supreme Court since Gregg v. Georgia in the mid-1970s, Marshall wrote that the death penalty should be abolished as unconstitutional per se.

Concurrence

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)

Brennan echoed Marshall in using this case as another platform to voice his belief that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Concurrence

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)

While Powell agreed with the majority that the death penalty was disproportionate and inappropriate in this case, he felt that it should not be categorically abolished for all rape convictions because there might be situations in which aggravating circumstances warranted it.

Dissent

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Emphasizing that the defendant was a repeat offender, Burger argued that the Court should have given greater deference to legislatures in imposing harsher penalties on recidivists. He also felt that the majority understated the seriousness of rape and the long-term effects that it could inflict on the victim. He argued that imposing the death penalty for certain forms of rape might succeed in deterring rapists or might cause the crime to be reported more often. Burger did not believe that the punishment needed to inflict an amount of harm similar to the amount of harm inflicted by the criminal. He ridiculed the majority's vision by comparing it to Hammurabi's Code.

Case Commentary

The Eighth Amendment makes it unconstitutional to inflict a punishment that is grossly disproportionate to the crime or does not contribute to legitimate goals of punishment. It is important to note, however, that the holding in this case struck down the use of capital punishment only as a penalty for ordinary forms of rape. Mississippi and Florida still retained the death penalty for defendants convicted of child rape, although these laws would be invalidated by state court decisions during the 1980s. Not until Kennedy v. Louisiana did the Court firmly disallow the use of the death penalty for all crimes other than murder or treason.

Ehrlich Anthony Coker is still in Georgia prison, serving multiple life sentences.

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