Coker v. Georgia
Significance: The Supreme Court held that capital punishment for the crime of rape is an excessive and disproportionate penalty, and therefore contrary to the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments in the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
While serving sentences for murder, rape, and other crimes, Ehrlich Anthony Coker escaped from a Georgia prison. That same evening he raped a woman in her home and then forced the woman to leave with him. When apprehended, he was tried on charges of rape, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Using procedures that had been approved by the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the jury found Coker guilty of rape with aggravating circumstances and sentenced him to death. By a 7-2 vote, the Court reversed the death sentence and remanded the case to the trial court for new sentencing. Writing for a plurality, Justice Byron R. White argued that the state could not sentence a defendant to a punishment disproportionate to the harm that he had inflicted on the victim. White also noted that Georgia did not apply the death penalty in cases of deliberate murder without aggravating circumstances, and he found that the disproportionality principle meant that a rapist should not be punished more severely than a deliberate murderer. Finally, observing that the Court's precedents defined the term “cruel and unusual” according to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” White pointed to the fact that Georgia was the only state to authorize the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman. The Coker decision suggested that the Court would probably not approve of capital punishment for any crime less than intentional murder. The majority of the justices have usually rejected the disproportionality principle in noncapital cases, as in Rummel v. Estelle (1980), but an important exception is Solem v. Helm (1983).