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Gregg v. Georgia

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that the use of capital punishment, with proper procedures and safeguards, is not inconsistent with the requirements of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


The Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia (1972) that capital punishment as commonly practiced in 1972 violated the U.S. Constitution. In response, thirty-five state legislatures and Congress revised their capital punishment statues in order to eliminate as much arbitrariness and unfairness as possible. The state of Georgia amended its statute to include three requirements: consideration of both aggravating and mitigating circumstances before a death sentence is rendered, a bifurcated trial for the separate determinations of guilt and punishment, and an automatic appeal to the state's highest court to examine whether a sentence of death might have been imposed in an arbitrary or disproportionate manner. After Troy Leon Gregg was sentenced to death under the new law, his lawyers appealed the case to the Supreme Court. By a 7-2 vote, the Court upheld Georgia's statute. Justice Potter Stewart's plurality opinion argued that the use of the death penalty was not cruel and unusual in and of itself. Stewart emphasized American traditions and the intent of the constitutional Framers, and he noted that current public opinion was reflected in the capital punishment statues that had been passed by the majority of the states. He insisted, moreover, that legislatures did not have the burden of proving that capital punishment was an effective deterrent and that retribution was neither a forbidden objective nor inconsistent with respect for human dignity. The two dissenters, Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall, insisted that capital punishment was inherently unconstitutional. Marshall wrote that capital punishment was not necessary as a deterrent to crime and that the public, if it were informed, would reject the practice as “morally unacceptable.” The same day the Court announced Gregg, it announced Woodson v. North Carolina (1976), which stuck down a state law requiring a mandatory death sentence for select crimes. Following the Gregg and Woodson holdings, the Court decided many issues regarding the circumstances in which capital punishment was permissible. By the late 1980's the Court appeared to reflect public opinion as it increasingly took a prodeath penalty stance. In McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), for instance, the Court rejected a challenge to capital punishment based on evidence of disparate racial impact. In 1995 a record fifty-six people were executed and more than three thousand inmates were on death row.