433 U.S. 584 (1977), argued 28 Mar. 1977, decided 29 June 1977 by vote of 7 to 2; White for the plurality, Brennan and Marshall concurring, Powell concurring in part and dissenting in part, Burger and Rehnquist in dissent. While serving sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault, Coker escaped from a Georgia prison and, while committing an armed robbery, raped a woman. He was convicted of these crimes and received the death sentence for rape. The jury, under Georgia's bifurcated trial procedure and following the statutory guidelines approved in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), found that two aggravating circumstances existed: the petitioner had prior capital felony convictions and the rape was committed in the course of committing another capital felony, armed robbery. The Georgia Supreme Court reviewed the sentence for comparability and affirmed it. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.
Justice Byron White's plurality opinion held that the Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishments prohibited punishments that are grossly disproportionate to the crime. Such penalties are a purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering. White noted that Georgia was the only state to impose the death penalty for rape of an adult woman and that Georgia juries themselves rarely called for the death penalty in rape cases. White repeatedly emphasized that the death penalty, the deliberate taking of a human life, was proportional only to the crime of first degree murder. Justice Lewis Powell concurred only to the extent that the crime was not committed with excessive brutality and that the victim did not sustain serious or lasting injury.
The result highlights the tensions inherent in Gregg and Woodson v. North Carolina (1976). If civilized standards require highly individualized sentencing, then the very reasons for rejecting mandatory sentencing should validate jury findings in some cases that certain persons with long histories of criminal behavior deserve the death sentence. Coker's record did not contradict such a finding in his case.
Lief H. Carter