Furman v. Georgia/Dissent Burger

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Furman v. Georgia
Dissenting Opinion by Warren E. Burger

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), was a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty. The Court consolidated Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas with the Furman decision, and thus also invalidated the death penalty for rape. Excerpted from Furman v. Georgia on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


At the outset, it is important to note that only two members of the Court, MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, have concluded that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for all crimes and under all circumstances. MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS has also determined that the death penalty contravenes the Eighth Amendment, although I do not read his opinion as necessarily requiring final abolition of the penalty. [1] For the reasons set forth in Parts I-IV of this opinion, I conclude that the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" cannot be construed to bar the imposition of the punishment of death.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE WHITE have concluded that petitioners' death sentences must be set aside because prevailing sentencing practices do not comply with the Eighth Amendment. For the reasons set forth in Part V of this opinion, I believe this approach fundamentally misconceives the nature of the Eighth Amendment guarantee and flies directly in the face of controlling authority of extremely recent vintage.


If we were possessed of legislative power, I would either join with MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL or, at the very least, restrict the use of capital punishment to a small category of the most heinous crimes. Our constitutional inquiry, however, must be divorced from personal feelings as to the morality and efficacy of the death penalty, and be confined to the meaning and applicability of the uncertain language of the Eighth Amendment. There is no novelty in being called upon to interpret a constitutional provision that is less than [p376] self-defining, but, of all our fundamental guarantees, the ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" is one of the most difficult to translate into judicially manageable terms. The widely divergent views of the Amendment expressed in today's opinions reveal the haze that surrounds this constitutional command. Yet it is essential to our role as a court that we not seize upon the enigmatic character of the guarantee as an invitation to enact our personal predilections into law.

Although the Eighth Amendment literally reads as prohibiting only those punishments that are both "cruel" and "unusual," history compels the conclusion that the Constitution prohibits all punishments of extreme and barbarous cruelty, regardless of how frequently or infrequently imposed.

The most persuasive analysis of Parliament's adoption of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 the unquestioned source of the Eighth Amendment wording — suggests that the prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" was included therein out of aversion to severe punishments not legally authorized and not within the jurisdiction of the courts to impose. To the extent that the term "unusual" had any importance in the English version, it was apparently intended as a reference to illegal punishments. [2] [p377]

From every indication, the Framers of the Eighth Amendment intended to give the phrase a meaning far different from that of its English precursor. The records of the debates in several of the state conventions called to ratify the 1789 draft Constitution submitted prior to the addition of the Bill of Rights show that the Framers' exclusive concern was the absence of any ban on tortures. [3] The later inclusion of the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause was in response to these objections. There was no discussion of the interrelationship of the terms "cruel" and "unusual," and there is nothing in the debates supporting the inference that the Founding Fathers would have been receptive to torturous or excessively cruel punishments even if usual in character or authorized by law.

The cases decided under the Eighth Amendment are consistent with the tone of the ratifying debates. In Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879), this Court held that execution by shooting was not a prohibited mode of carrying out a sentence of death. Speaking to the meaning [p378] of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the Court stated,

[I]t is safe to affirm that punishments of torture . . . and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment to the Constitution.

Id. at 136. The Court made no reference to the role of the term "unusual" in the constitutional guarantee.

In the case of In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890), the Court held the Eighth Amendment inapplicable to the States and added the following dictum:

So that, if the punishment prescribed for an offence against the laws of the State were manifestly cruel and unusual, as burning at the stake, crucifixion, breaking on the wheel, or the like, it would be the duty of the courts to adjudge such penalties to be within the . . . [prohibition of the New York constitution]. And we think this equally true of the Eighth Amendment, in its application to Congress.
. . . Punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death; but the punishment of death is not cruel within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution. It implies there something inhuman and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life. This language again reveals an exclusive concern with extreme cruelty. The Court made passing reference to the finding of the New York courts that electrocution was an "unusual" punishment, but it saw no need to discuss the significance of that term as used in the Eighth Amendment.

Opinions in subsequent cases also speak of extreme cruelty as though that were the sum and substance of the constitutional prohibition. See O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323, 339-340 (1892) (Field, J., dissenting); Weems [p379] v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 372-373 (1910); Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 464 (1947). As summarized by Mr. Chief Justice Warren in the plurality opinion in Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100 n. 32 (1958):

Whether the word "unusual" has any qualitative meaning different from "cruel" is not clear. On the few occasions this Court has had to consider the meaning of the phrase, precise distinctions between cruelty and unusualness do not seem to have been drawn. See Weems v. United States, supra; O'Neil v. Vermont, supra; Wilkerson v. Utah, supra. These cases indicate that the Court simply examines the particular punishment involved in light of the basic prohibition against inhuman treatment, without regard to any subtleties of meaning that might be latent in the word "unusual."

I do not suggest that the presence of the word "unusual" in the Eighth Amendment is merely vestigial, having no relevance to the constitutionality of any punishment that might be devised. But where, as here, we consider a punishment well known to history, and clearly authorized by legislative enactment, it disregards the history of the Eighth Amendment and all the judicial comment that has followed to rely on the term "unusual" as affecting the outcome of these cases. Instead, I view these cases as turning on the single question whether capital punishment is "cruel" in the constitutional sense. The term "unusual" cannot be read as limiting the ban on "cruel" punishments, or as somehow expanding the meaning of the term "cruel." For this reason, I am unpersuaded by the facile argument that, since capital punishment has always been cruel in the everyday sense of the word, and has become unusual due to decreased use, it is, therefore, now "cruel and unusual." [p380]


Counsel for petitioners properly concede that capital punishment was not impermissibly cruel at the time of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment. Not only do the records of the debates indicate that the Founding Fathers were limited in their concern to the prevention of torture, but it is also clear from the language of the Constitution itself that there was no thought whatever of the elimination of capital punishment. The opening sentence of the Fifth Amendment is a guarantee that the death penalty not be imposed "unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury." The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment is a prohibition against being "twice put in jeopardy of life" for the same offense. Similarly, the Due Process Clause commands "due process of law" before an accused can be "deprived of life, liberty, or property." Thus, the explicit language of the Constitution affirmatively acknowledges the legal power to impose capital punishment; it does not expressly or by implication acknowledge the legal power to impose any of the various punishments that have been banned as cruel since 1791. Since the Eighth Amendment was adopted on the same day in 1791 as the Fifth Amendment, it hardly needs more to establish that the death penalty was not "cruel" in the constitutional sense at that time.

In the 181 years since the enactment of the Eighth Amendment, not a single decision of this Court has cast the slightest shadow of a doubt on the constitutionality of capital punishment. In rejecting Eighth Amendment attacks on particular modes of execution, the Court has more than once implicitly denied that capital punishment is impermissibly "cruel" in the constitutional sense. Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879); Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. at 464. In [p381] re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890) (dictum). It is only 14 years since Mr. Chief Justice Warren, speaking for four members of the Court, stated without equivocation:

Whatever the arguments may be against capital punishment, both on moral grounds and in terms of accomplishing the purposes of punishment — and they are forceful — the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.

Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 99. It is only one year since Mr. Justice Black made his feelings clear on the constitutional issue:

The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments." In my view, these words cannot be read to outlaw capital punishment, because that penalty was in common use and authorized by law here and in the countries from which our ancestors came at the time the Amendment was adopted. It is inconceivable to me that the framers intended to end capital punishment by the Amendment.

McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 226 (1971) (separate opinion). By limiting its grants of certiorari, the Court has refused even to hear argument on the Eighth Amendment claim on two occasions in the last four years. Witherspoon v. Illinois, cert. granted, 389 U.S. 1035, rev'd, 391 U.S. 510 (1968); McGautha v. California, cert. granted, 398 U.S. 936 (1970), aff'd, 402 U.S. 183 (1971). In these cases, the Court confined its attention to the procedural aspects of capital trials, it being implicit that the punishment itself could be constitutionally imposed. Nonetheless, the Court has now been asked to hold that a punishment clearly permissible under the Constitution at the time of its adoption and accepted as such by every [p382] member of the Court until today, is suddenly so cruel as to be incompatible with the Eighth Amendment.

Before recognizing such an instant evolution in the law, it seems fair to ask what factors have changed that capital punishment should now be "cruel" in the constitutional sense as it has not been in the past. It is apparent that there has been no change of constitutional significance in the nature of the punishment itself. Twentieth century modes of execution surely involve no greater physical suffering than the means employed at the time of the Eighth Amendment's adoption. And although a man awaiting execution must inevitably experience extraordinary mental anguish, [4] no one suggests that this anguish is materially different from that experienced by condemned men in 1791, even though protracted appellate review processes have greatly increased the waiting time on "death row." To be sure, the ordeal of the condemned man may be thought cruel in the sense that all suffering is thought cruel. But if the Constitution proscribed every punishment producing severe emotional stress, then capital punishment would clearly have been impermissible in 1791.

However, the inquiry cannot end here. For reasons unrelated to any change in intrinsic cruelty, the Eighth Amendment prohibition cannot fairly be limited to those punishments thought excessively cruel and barbarous at the time of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment. A punishment is inordinately cruel, in the sense we must deal with it in these cases, chiefly as perceived by the society so characterizing it. The standard of extreme cruelty is not merely descriptive, but necessarily embodies a moral judgment. The standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change. This notion is not [p383] new to Eighth Amendment adjudication. In Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), the Court referred with apparent approval to the opinion of the commentators that

[t]he clause of the Constitution . . . may be therefore progressive, and is not fastened to the obsolete, but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice.

217 U.S. at 378. Mr. Chief Justice Warren, writing the plurality opinion in Trop v. Dulles, supra, stated, "The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." 356 U.S. at 101. Nevertheless, the Court, up to now, has never actually held that a punishment has become impermissibly cruel due to a shift in the weight of accepted social values; nor has the Court suggested judicially manageable criteria for measuring such a shift in moral consensus.

The Court's quiescence in this area can be attributed to the fact that, in a democratic society, legislatures, not courts, are constituted to respond to the will and consequently the moral values of the people. For this reason, early commentators suggested that the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause was an unnecessary constitutional provision. [5] As acknowledged in the principal brief for petitioners,

both in constitutional contemplation and in fact, it is the legislature, not the Court, which responds to public opinion and immediately reflects the society's standards of decency. [6] [p384] Accordingly, punishments such as branding and the cutting off of ears, which were commonplace at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, passed from the penal scene without judicial intervention because they became basically offensive to the people, and the legislatures responded to this sentiment.

Beyond any doubt, if we were today called upon to review such punishments, we would find them excessively cruel because we could say with complete assurance that contemporary society universally rejects such bizarre penalties. However, this speculation on the Court's probable reaction to such punishments is not, of itself, significant. The critical fact is that this Court has never had to hold that a mode of punishment authorized by a domestic legislature was so cruel as to be fundamentally at odds with our basic notions of decency. Cf. Weems v. United States, supra. Judicial findings of impermissible cruelty have been limited, for the most part, to offensive punishments devised without specific authority by prison officials, not by legislatures. See, e.g., Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571 (CA8 198); Wright v. McMann, 387 F.2d 519 (CA2 1967). The paucity of judicial decisions invalidating legislatively prescribed punishments is powerful evidence that, in this country, legislatures have, in fact, been responsive — albeit belatedly at times — to changes in social attitudes and moral values.

I do not suggest that the validity of legislatively authorized punishments presents no justiciable issue under the Eighth Amendment, but, rather, that the primacy of the legislative role narrowly confines the scope of judicial inquiry. Whether or not provable, and whether or not true at all times, in a democracy, the legislative judgment is presumed to embody the basic standards of decency prevailing in the society. This presumption can only be negated by unambiguous and compelling evidence of legislative default. [p385]


There are no obvious indications that capital punishment offends the conscience of society to such a degree that our traditional deference to the legislative judgment must be abandoned. It is not a punishment, such as burning at the stake, that everyone would ineffably find to be repugnant to all civilized standards. Nor is it a punishment so roundly condemned that only a few aberrant legislatures have retained it on the statute books. Capital punishment is authorized by statute in 40 States, the District of Columbia, and in the federal courts for the commission of certain crimes. [7] On four occasions in the last 11 years, Congress has added to the list of federal crimes punishable by death. [8] In looking for reliable indicia of contemporary attitude, none more trustworthy has been advanced.

One conceivable source of evidence that legislatures have abdicated their essentially barometric role with respect to community values would be public opinion polls, of which there have been many in the past decade addressed to the question of capital punishment. Without assessing the reliability of such polls, or intimating that any judicial reliance could ever be placed on them, [p386] it need only be noted that the reported results have shown nothing approximating the universal condemnation of capital punishment that might lead us to suspect that the legislatures in general have lost touch with current social values. [9]

Counsel for petitioners rely on a different body of empirical evidence. They argue, in effect, that the number of cases in which the death penalty is imposed, as compared with the number of cases in which it is statutorily available, reflects a general revulsion toward the penalty that would lead to its repeal if only it were more generally and widely enforced. It cannot be gainsaid that, by the choice of juries — and sometimes judges [10] — the death penalty is imposed in far fewer than half the cases in which it is available. [11] To go further and characterize [p387] the rate of imposition as "freakishly rare," as petitioners insist, is unwarranted hyperbole. And regardless of its characterization, the rate, of imposition does not impel the conclusion that capital punishment is now regarded as intolerably cruel or uncivilized.

It is argued that, in those capital cases where juries have recommended mercy, they have given expression to civilized values and effectively renounced the legislative authorization for capital punishment. At the same time, it is argued that, where juries have made the awesome decision to send men to their deaths, they have acted arbitrarily and without sensitivity to prevailing standards of decency. This explanation for the infrequency of imposition of capital punishment is unsupported by known facts, and is inconsistent in principle with everything this Court has ever said about the functioning of juries in capital cases.

In McGautha v. California, supra, decided only one year ago, the Court held that there was no mandate in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that juries be given instructions as to when the death penalty should be imposed. After reviewing the autonomy that juries have traditionally exercised in capital cases and noting the practical difficulties of framing manageable instructions, this Court concluded that judicially articulated standards were not needed to insure a responsible decision as to penalty. Nothing in McGautha licenses capital juries to act arbitrarily or assumes that they have so acted in the past. On the contrary, the assumption underlying the McGautha ruling is that juries "will act with [p388] due regard for the consequences of their decision." 402 U.S. at 208.

The responsibility of juries deciding capital cases in our system of justice was nowhere better described than in Witherspoon v. Illinois, supra:

[A] jury that must choose between life imprisonment and capital punishment can do little more — and must do nothing less — than express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death.
And one of the most important functions any jury can perform in making such a selection is to maintain a link between contemporary community values and the penal system — a link without which the determination of punishment could hardly reflect "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

391 U.S. at 519 and n. 15 (emphasis added). The selectivity of juries in imposing the punishment of death is properly viewed as a refinement on, rather than a repudiation of, the statutory authorization for that penalty. Legislatures prescribe the categories of crimes for which the death penalty should be available, and, acting as "the conscience of the community," juries are entrusted to determine in individual cases that the ultimate punishment is warranted. Juries are undoubtedly influenced in this judgment by myriad factors. The motive or lack of motive of the perpetrator, the degree of injury or suffering of the victim or victims, and the degree of brutality in the commission of the crime would seem to be prominent among these factors. Given the general awareness that death is no longer a routine punishment for the crimes for which it is made available, it is hardly surprising that juries have been increasingly meticulous in their imposition of the penalty. But to [p389] assume from the mere fact of relative infrequency that only a random assortment of pariahs are sentenced to death is to cast grave doubt on the basic integrity of our jury system.

It would, of course, be unrealistic to assume that juries have been perfectly consistent in choosing the cases where the death penalty is to be imposed, for no human institution performs with perfect consistency. There are doubtless prisoners on death row who would not be there had they been tried before a different jury or in a different State. In this sense, their fate has been controlled by a fortuitous circumstance. However, this element of fortuity does not stand as an indictment either of the general functioning of juries in capital cases or of the integrity of jury decisions in individual cases. There is no empirical basis for concluding that juries have generally failed to discharge in good faith the responsibility described in Witherspoon — that of choosing between life and death in individual cases according to the dictates of community values. [12] [p390]

The rate of imposition of death sentences falls far short of providing the requisite unambiguous evidence that the legislatures of 40 States and the Congress have turned their backs on current or evolving standards of decency in continuing to make the death penalty available. For, if selective imposition evidences a rejection of capital punishment in those cases where it is not imposed, it surely evidences a correlative affirmation of the penalty in those cases where it is imposed. Absent some clear indication that the continued imposition of the death penalty on a selective basis is violative of prevailing standards of civilized conduct, the Eighth Amendment cannot be said to interdict its use. [p391]

In two of these cases we have been asked to rule on the narrower question whether capital punishment offends the Eighth Amendment when imposed as the punishment for the crime of forcible rape. [13] It is true that the death penalty is authorized for rape in fewer States than it is for murder, [14] and that, even in those States, it is applied more sparingly for rape than for murder. [15] But for the reasons aptly brought out in the opinion of MR. JUSTICE POWELL, post at 456-461, I do not believe these differences can be elevated to the level of an Eighth Amendment distinction. This blunt constitutional command cannot be sharpened to carve neat distinctions corresponding to the categories of crimes defined by the legislatures.


Capital punishment has also been attacked as violative of the Eighth Amendment on the ground that it is not needed to achieve legitimate penal aims, and is thus "unnecessarily cruel." As a pure policy matter, this approach has much to recommend it, but it seeks to give a dimension to the Eighth Amendment that it was never intended to have and promotes a line of inquiry that this Court has never before pursued.

The Eighth Amendment, as I have noted, was included in the Bill of Rights to guard against the use of torturous and inhuman punishments, not those of limited efficacy. One of the few to speak out against the adoption [p392] of the Eighth Amendment asserted that it is often necessary to use cruel punishments to deter crimes. [16] But. among those favoring the Amendment, no sentiment was expressed that a punishment of extreme cruelty could ever be justified by expediency. The dominant theme of the Eighth Amendment debates was that the ends of the criminal laws cannot justify the use of measures of extreme cruelty to achieve them. Cf. Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172-173 (1952).

The apparent seed of the "unnecessary cruelty" argument is the following language, quoted earlier, found in Wilkerson v. Utah, supra:

Difficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of the constitutional provision which provides that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted; but it is safe to affirm that punishments of torture . . . and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment to the Constitution.

99 U.S. at 135-136 (emphasis added). To lift the italicized phrase from the context of the Wilkerson opinion and now view it as a mandate for assessing the value of punishments in achieving the aims of penology is a gross distortion; nowhere are such aims even mentioned in the Wilkerson opinion. The only fair reading of this phrase is that punishments similar to torture in their extreme cruelty are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. at 463, 464, the Court made reference to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against the infliction of "unnecessary pain" in carrying out an execution. The context makes abundantly clear that the Court was disapproving the wanton infliction of physical [p393] pain, and once again not advising pragmatic analysis of punishments approved by legislatures. [17]

Apart from these isolated uses of the word "unnecessary," nothing in the cases suggests that it is for the courts to make a determination of the efficacy of punishments. The decision in Weems v. United States, supra, is not to the contrary. In Weems, the Court held that, for the crime of falsifying public documents, the punishment imposed under the Philippine Code of 15 years' imprisonment at hard labor under shackles, followed by perpetual surveillance, loss of voting rights, loss of the right to hold public office, and loss of right to change domicile freely, was violative of the Eighth Amendment. The case is generally regarded as holding that a punishment may be excessively cruel within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment because it is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime; [18] some view the decision of the Court primarily as [p394] a reaction to the mode of the punishment itself. [19] Under any characterization of the holding, it is readily apparent that the decision grew out of the Court's overwhelming abhorrence of the imposition of the particular penalty for the particular crime; it was making an essentially moral judgment, not a dispassionate assessment of the need for the penalty. The Court specifically disclaimed "the right to assert a judgment against that of the legislature of the expediency of the laws. . . ." 217 U.S. at 378. Thus, apart from the fact that the Court in Weems concerned itself with the crime committed, as well as the punishment imposed, the case marks no departure from the largely unarticulable standard of extreme cruelty. However intractable that standard may be, that is what the Eighth Amendment is all about. The constitutional provision is not addressed to social utility, and does not command that enlightened principles of penology always be followed.

By pursuing the necessity approach, it becomes even more apparent that it involves matters outside the purview of the Eighth Amendment. Two of the several aims of punishment are generally associated with capital punishment — retribution and deterrence. It is argued that retribution can be discounted because that, after all, is what the Eighth Amendment seeks to eliminate. There is no authority suggesting that the Eighth Amendment was intended to purge the law of its retributive elements, and the Court has consistently assumed that retribution is a legitimate dimension of the punishment of crimes. See Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 248 (1949); United States v. Lovett, 328 U.S. 303, 324 (1946) (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Furthermore, responsible legal thinkers of widely varying [p395] persuasions have debated the sociological and philosophical aspects of the retribution question for generations, neither side being able to convince the other. [20] It would be reading a great deal into the Eighth Amendment to hold that the punishments authorized by legislatures cannot constitutionally reflect a retributive purpose.

The less esoteric but no less controversial question is whether the death penalty acts as a superior deterrent. Those favoring abolition find no evidence that it does. [21] Those favoring retention start from the intuitive notion that capital punishment should act as the most effective deterrent, and note that there is no convincing evidence that it does not. [22] Escape from this empirical stalemate is sought by placing the burden of proof on the States and concluding that they have failed to demonstrate that capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. Numerous justifications have been advanced for shifting the burden, and they [p396] are not without their rhetorical appeal. However, these arguments are not descended from established constitutional principles, but are born of the urge to bypass an unresolved factual question. [23] Comparative deterrence is not a matter that lends itself to precise measurement; to shift the burden to the States is to provide an illusory solution to an enormously complex problem. If it were proper to put the States to the test of demonstrating the deterrent value of capital punishment, we could just as well ask them to prove the need for life imprisonment or any other punishment. Yet I know of no convincing evidence that life imprisonment is a more effective deterrent than 20 years' imprisonment, or even that a $10 parking ticket is a more effective deterrent than a $5 parking ticket. In fact, there are some who go so far as to challenge the notion that any punishments deter crime. [24] If the States are unable to adduce convincing proof rebutting such assertions, does it then follow that all punishments are suspect as being "cruel and unusual" within the meaning of the Constitution? On the contrary, I submit that the questions raised by the necessity approach are beyond the pale of judicial inquiry under the Eighth Amendment.


Today the Court has not ruled that capital punishment is per se violative of the Eighth Amendment, nor has it ruled that the punishment is barred for any particular class or classes of crimes. The substantially similar concurring opinions of MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE WHITE, which are necessary to support the judgment setting aside petitioners' sentences, stop [p397] short of reaching the ultimate question. The actual scope of the Court's ruling, which I take to be embodied in these concurring opinions, is not entirely clear. This much, however, seems apparent: if the legislatures are to continue to authorize capital punishment for some crimes, juries and judges can no longer be permitted to make the sentencing determination in the same manner they have in the past. [25] This approach — not urged in oral arguments or briefs — misconceives the nature of the constitutional command against "cruel and unusual punishments," disregards controlling case law, and demands a rigidity in capital cases which, if possible of achievement, cannot be regarded as a welcome change. Indeed the contrary seems to be the case.

As I have earlier stated, the Eighth Amendment forbids the imposition of punishments that are so cruel and inhumane as to violate society's standards of civilized conduct. The Amendment does not prohibit all punishments the States are unable to prove necessary to deter or control crime. The Amendment is not concerned with the process by which a State determines that a particular punishment is to be imposed in a particular case. And the Amendment most assuredly does not speak to the power of legislatures to confer sentencing discretion on juries, rather than to fix all sentences by statute.

The critical factor in the concurring opinions of both MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE WHITE is the infrequency with which the penalty is imposed. This factor is taken not as evidence of society's abhorrence [p398] of capital punishment — the inference that petitioners would have the Court draw — but as the earmark of a deteriorated system of sentencing. It is concluded that petitioners' sentences must be set aside not because the punishment is impermissibly cruel, but because juries and judges have failed to exercise their sentencing discretion in acceptable fashion.

To be sure, there is a recitation cast in Eighth Amendment terms: petitioners' sentences are "cruel" because they exceed that which the legislatures have deemed necessary for all cases; [26] petitioners' sentences are "unusual" because they exceed that which is imposed in most cases. [27] This application of the words of the Eighth Amendment suggests that capital punishment can be made to satisfy Eighth Amendment values if its rate of imposition is somehow multiplied; it seemingly follows that the flexible sentencing system created by the legislatures, and carried out by juries and judges, has yielded more mercy than the Eighth Amendment can stand. The implications of this approach are mildly ironical. For example, by this measure of the Eighth Amendment, the elimination of death-qualified juries in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), can only be seen in retrospect as a setback to "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. at 101.

This novel formulation of Eighth Amendment principles — albeit necessary to satisfy the terms of our limited grant of certiorari — does not lie at the heart of these concurring opinions. The decisive grievance of the opinions — not translated into Eighth Amendment terms — is that the present system of discretionary sentencing [p399] in capital cases has failed to produce evenhanded justice; the problem is not that too few have been sentenced to die, but that the selection process has followed no rational pattern. [28] This claim of arbitrariness is not only lacking in empirical support, [29] but also it manifestly fails to establish that the death penalty is a "cruel and unusual" punishment. The Eighth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to assure that certain types of punishments would never be imposed, not to channelize the sentencing process. The approach of these concurring opinions has no antecedent in the Eighth Amendment cases. It is essentially and exclusively a procedural due process argument.

This ground of decision is plainly foreclosed, as well as misplaced. Only one year ago, in McGautha v. California, the Court upheld the prevailing system of sentencing in capital cases. The Court concluded:

In light of history, experience, and the present limitations of human knowledge, we find it quite impossible to say that committing to the untrammeled discretion of the jury the power to pronounce life or death in capital cases is offensive to anything in the Constitution.

402 U.S. at 207. In reaching this decision, the Court had the benefit of extensive briefing, full oral argument, and six months of careful deliberations. The Court's labors are documented by 130 pages of opinions in the United States Reports. All of the arguments and factual contentions accepted [p400] in the concurring opinions today were considered and rejected by the Court one year ago. McGautha was an exceedingly difficult case, and reasonable men could fairly disagree as to the result. But the Court entered its judgment, and if stare decisis means anything, that decision should be regarded as a controlling pronouncement of law.

Although the Court's decision in McGautha was technically confined to the dictates of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than the Eighth Amendment as made applicable to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it would be disingenuous to suggest that today's ruling has done anything less than overrule McGautha in the guise of an Eighth Amendment adjudication. It may be thought appropriate to subordinate principles of stare decisis where the subject is as sensitive as capital punishment and the stakes are so high, but these external considerations were no less weighty last year. This pattern of decisionmaking will do little to inspire confidence in the stability of the law.

While I would not undertake to make a definitive statement as to the parameters of the Court's ruling, it is clear that, if state legislatures and the Congress wish to maintain the availability of capital punishment, significant statutory changes will have to be made. Since the two pivotal concurring opinions turn on the assumption that the punishment of death is now meted out in a random and unpredictable manner, legislative bodies may seek to bring their laws into compliance with the Court's ruling by providing standards for juries and judges to follow in determining the sentence in capital cases or by more narrowly defining the crimes for which the penalty is to be imposed. [30] If such standards can be devised or [p401] the crimes more meticulously defined, the result cannot be detrimental. However, Mr. Justice Harlan's opinion for the Court in McGautha convincingly demonstrates that all past efforts "to identify before the fact" the cases in which the penalty is to be imposed have been "uniformly unsuccessful." 402 U.S. at 197. One problem is that

the factors which determine whether the sentence of death is the appropriate penalty in particular cases are too complex to be compressed within the limits of a simple formula. . . .

Report of Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949-1953, Cmd. 8932, 498, p. 174 (1953). As the Court stated in McGautha,

[t]he infinite variety of cases and facets to each case would make general standards either meaningless "boilerplate" or a statement of the obvious that no jury would need.

402 U.S. at 208. But even assuming that suitable guidelines can be established, there is no assurance that sentencing patterns will change so long as juries are possessed of the power to determine the sentence or to bring in a verdict of guilt on a charge carrying a lesser sentence; juries have not been inhibited in the exercise of these powers in the past. Thus, unless the Court in McGautha misjudged the experience of history, there is little reason to believe that sentencing standards in any form will substantially alter the discretionary character of the prevailing system of sentencing in capital cases. That system may fall short of perfection, but it is yet to be shown that a different system would produce more satisfactory results.

Real change could clearly be brought about if legislatures provided mandatory death sentences in such a way as to deny juries the opportunity to bring in a verdict on a lesser charge; under such a system, the death sentence could only be avoided by a verdict of acquittal. If this is the only alternative that the legislatures can safely pursue under today's ruling, I would have preferred that the Court opt for total abolition. [p402]

It seems remarkable to me that with our basic trust in lay jurors as the keystone in our system of criminal justice, it should now be suggested that we take the most sensitive and important of all decisions away from them. I could more easily be persuaded that mandatory sentences of death, without the intervening and ameliorating impact of lay jurors, are so arbitrary and doctrinaire that they violate the Constitution. The very infrequency of death penalties imposed by jurors attests their cautious and discriminating reservation of that penalty for the most extreme cases. I had thought that nothing was clearer in history, as we noted in McGautha one year ago, than the American abhorrence of "the common law rule imposing a mandatory death sentence on all convicted murderers." 402 U.S. at 198. As the concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL shows, ante at 339, the 19th century movement away from mandatory death sentences marked an enlightened introduction of flexibility into the sentencing process. It recognized that individual culpability is not always measured by the category of the crime committed. This change in sentencing practice was greeted by the Court as a humanizing development. See Winston v. United States, 172 U.S. 303 (1899); cf. Calton v. Utah, 130 U.S. 83 (1889). See also Andres v. United States, 333 U.S. 740, 753 (1948) (Frankfurter, J., concurring). I do not see how this history can be ignored, and how it can be suggested that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of the most sensitive feature of the sentencing system.

As a general matter, the evolution of penal concepts in this country has not been marked by great progress, nor have the results up to now been crowned with significant success. If anywhere in the whole spectrum of criminal justice fresh ideas deserve sober analysis, the sentencing and correctional area ranks high on the list. But it has been widely accepted that mandatory sentences for [p403] crimes do not best serve the ends of the criminal justice system. Now, after the long process of drawing away from the blind imposition of uniform sentences for every person convicted of a particular offense, we are confronted with an argument perhaps implying that only the legislatures may determine that a sentence of death is appropriate, without the intervening evaluation of jurors or judges. This approach threatens to turn back the progress of penal reform, which has moved until recently at too slow a rate to absorb significant setbacks.


Since there is no majority of the Court on the ultimate issue presented in these cases, the future of capital punishment in this country has been left in an uncertain limbo. Rather than providing a final and unambiguous answer on the basic constitutional question, the collective impact of the majority's ruling is to demand an undetermined measure of change from the various state legislatures and the Congress. While I cannot endorse the process of decisionmaking that has yielded today's result and the restraints that that result imposes on legislative action, I am not altogether displeased that legislative bodies have been given the opportunity, and indeed unavoidable responsibility, to make a thorough reevaluation of the entire subject of capital punishment. If today's opinions demonstrate nothing else, they starkly show that this is an area where legislatures can act far more effectively than courts.

The legislatures are free to eliminate capital punishment for specific crimes or to carve out limited exceptions to a general abolition of the penalty, without adherence to the conceptual strictures of the Eighth Amendment. The legislatures can and should make an assessment of the deterrent influence of capital punishment, both generally and as affecting the commission of specific types of [p404] crimes. If legislatures come to doubt the efficacy of capital punishment, they can abolish it, either completely or on a selective basis. If new evidence persuades them that they have acted unwisely, they can reverse their field and reinstate the penalty to the extent it is thought warranted. An Eighth Amendment ruling by judges cannot be made with such flexibility or discriminating precision.

The world-wide trend toward limiting the use of capital punishment, a phenomenon to which we have been urged to give great weight, hardly points the way to a judicial solution in this country under a written Constitution. Rather, the change has generally come about through legislative action, often on a trial basis and with the retention of the penalty for certain limited classes of crimes. [31] Virtually nowhere has change been wrought by so crude a tool as the Eighth Amendment. The complete and unconditional abolition of capital punishment in this country by judicial fiat would have undermined the careful progress of the legislative trend and foreclosed further inquiry on many as yet unanswered questions in this area.

Quite apart from the limitations of the Eighth Amendment itself, the preference for legislative action is justified by the inability of the courts to participate in the [p405] debate at the level where the controversy is focused. The case against capital punishment is not the product of legal dialectic, but rests primarily on factual claims, the truth of which cannot be tested by conventional judicial processes. The five opinions in support of the judgments differ in many respects, but they share a willingness to make sweeping factual assertions, unsupported by empirical data, concerning the manner of imposition and effectiveness of capital punishment in this country. Legislatures will have the opportunity to make a more penetrating study of these claims with the familiar and effective tools available to them as they are not to us.

The highest judicial duty is to recognize the limits on judicial power and to permit the democratic processes to deal with matters falling outside of those limits. The "hydraulic pressure[s]" [32] that Holmes spoke of as being generated by cases of great import have propelled the Court to go beyond the limits of judicial power, while fortunately leaving some room for legislative judgment.


  1. . See n. 25, infra.
  2. . See Granucci, "Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted:" The Original Meaning, 57 Calif.L.Rev. 839, 85860 (1969). Earlier drafts of the Bill of Rights used the phrase "cruel and illegal." It is thought that the change to the "cruel and unusual" wording was inadvertent, and not intended to work any change in meaning. Ibid. The historical background of the English Bill of Rights is set forth in the opinion of MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, ante at 316-318.
  3. . See 2 J. Elliot's Debates 111 (2d ed. 1876); 3 id. at 447-448, 451-452.
  4. . But see Bluestone & McGahee, Reaction to Extreme Stress: Impending Death by Execution, 119 Am.J.Psychiatry 393 (1962).
  5. . See 2 J. Story, On the Constitution § 1903 (5th ed. 1891); 1 T. Cooley, Constitutional Limitations 694 (8th ed. 1927). See also Joseph Story on Capital Punishment (ed. by J. Hogan), 43 Calif.L.Rev. 76 (1955).
  6. . Brief for Petitioner in Aikens v. California, No. 68-5027, p. 19 (cert. dismissed, 406 U.S. 813 (1972)). See post, at 443 n. 38. This, plainly, was the foundation of Mr. Justice Black's strong views on this subject expressed most recently in McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 226 (1971) (separate opinion).
  7. . See Department of Justice, National Prisoner Statistics No. 46, Capital Punishment 1930-1970, p. 50 (Aug. 1971). Since the publication of the Department of Justice report, capital punishment has been judicially abolished in California, People v. Anderson, 6 Cal. 3d 628, 493 P.2d 880, cert. denied, 406 U.S. 958 (1972). The States where capital punishment is no longer authorized are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  8. . See Act of Jan. 2, 1971, Pub.L. 91-644, Tit. IV, § 15, 84 Stat. 1891, 18 U.S.C. § 351; Act of Oct. 15, 1970, Pub.L. 91-452, Tit. XI, § 1102(a), 84 Stat. 956, 18 U.S.C. § 844(f)(i); Act of Aug. 28, 1965, 79 Stat. 580, 18 U.S.C. § 1751; Act of Sept. 5, 1961, § 1, 75 Stat. 466, 49 U.S.C. § 1472(i). See also opinion of MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, post at 412-413.
  9. . A 1966 poll indicated that 42% of those polled favored capital punishment while 47% opposed it, and 11% had no opinion. A 1969 poll found 51% in favor, 40% opposed, and 9% with no opinion. See Erskine, The Polls: Capital Punishment, 34 Public Opinion Quarterly 290 (1970).
  10. . The jury plays the predominant role in sentencing in capital cases in this country. Available evidence indicates that where the judge determines the sentence, the death penalty is imposed with a slightly greater frequency than where the jury makes the determination. H. Kalven & H. Zeisel, The American Jury 436 (1966).
  11. . In the decade from 1961-1970, an average of 106 persons per year received the death sentence in the United States, ranging from a low of 85 in 1967 to a high of 140 in 1961; 127 persons received the death sentence in 1970. Department of Justice, National Prisoner Statistics No. 46, Capital Punishment 1930-1970, p. 9. See also Bedau, The Death Penalty in America, 35 Fed.Prob., No. 2, p. 32 (1971). Although accurate figures are difficult to obtain, it is thought that from 15% to 20% of those convicted of murder are sentenced to death in States where it is authorized. See, e.g., McGee, Capital Punishment as Seen by a Correctional Administrator, 28 Fed.Prob., No. 2, pp. 11, 12 (1964); Bedau, Death Sentences in New Jersey 1907-1960, 19 Rutgers L.Rev. 1, 30 (1964); Florida Division of Corrections, Seventh Biennial Report (July 1, 1968, to June 30, 1970) 82 (1970); H. Kalven & H. Zeisel, The American Jury 435-436 (1966). The rate of imposition for rape and the few other crimes made punishable by death in certain States is considerably lower. See, e.g., Florida Division of Corrections, Seventh Biennial Report, supra, at 83; Partington, The Incidence of the Death Penalty for Rape in Virginia, 22 Wash. & Lee L.Rev. 43-44, 71-73 (1965).
  12. . Counsel for petitioners make the conclusory statement that "[t]hose who are selected to die are the poor and powerless, personally ugly and socially unacceptable." Brief for Petitioner in No. 68-5027, p. 51. However, the sources cited contain no empirical findings to undermine the general premise that juries impose the death penalty in the most extreme cases. One study has discerned a statistically noticeable difference between the rate of imposition on blue collar and white collar defendants; the study otherwise concludes that juries do follow rational patterns in imposing the sentence of death. Note, A Study of the California Penalty Jury in First-Degree-Murder Cases, 21 Stan.L.Rev. 1297 (1969). See also H. Kalven & H. Zeisel, The American Jury 434-449 (1966).
  13. . Jackson v. Georgia, No. 65030; Branch v. Texas, No. 69-5031.
  14. . Rape is punishable by death in 16 States and in the federal courts when committed within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. 18 U.S.C. § 2031. The States authorizing capital punishment for rape are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
  15. . See n. 11, supra.
  16. . l Annals of Cong. 754 (1789) (remarks of Rep. Livermore).
  17. . Petitioner Francis had been sentenced to be electrocuted for the crime of murder. He was placed in the electric chair, and the executioner threw the switch. Due to a mechanical difficulty, death did not result. A new death warrant was issued fixing a second date for execution. The Court held that the proposed execution would not constitute cruel and unusual punishment or double jeopardy.
  18. . There is no serious claim of disproportionality presented in these cases. Murder and forcible rape have always been regarded as among the most serious crimes. It cannot be said that the punishment of death is out of all proportion to the severity of these crimes.
  19. . See Packer, Making the Punishment Fit the Crime, 77 Harv. L.Rev.1071, 1075 (1964).
  20. . See Hart, The Aims of the Criminal Law, 23 Law & Contemp. Prob. 401 (1958); H. Packer, The Limits of the Criminal Sanction 37-39 (1968); M. Cohen, Reason and Law 41-44 (1950); Report of Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949-1953, Cmd. 8932, 52, pp. 17-18 (1953); Hart, Murder and the Principles of Punishment: England and the United States, 52 NW.U.L.Rev 433, 446-455 (1957); H. L. A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality 60-69 (1963).
  21. . See, e.g., Sellin, Homicides in Retentionist and Abolitionist States, in Capital Punishment 135 et seq. (T. Sellin ed. 1967); Schuessler, The Deterrent Influence of the Death Penalty, 284 Annals 54 (1952).
  22. . See, e.g., Hoover, Statements in Favor of the Death Penalty, in H. Bedau, The Death Penalty in America 130 (1967 rev. ed.); Allen, Capital Punishment: Your Protection and Mine, in The Death Penalty in America, supra, at 135. See also Hart, 52 NW.U.L.Rev. supra, at 457; Bedau, The Death Penalty in America, supra, at 265-266.
  23. . See Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 531 (1968) (MARSHALL, J.) (plurality opinion).
  24. . See, e.g., K. Menninger, The Crime of Punishment 206-208 (1968).
  25. . Much in the concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS similarly suggests that it is the sentencing system, rather than the punishment itself, that is constitutionally infirm. However, the opinion also indicates that, in the wake of the Court's decision in McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183 (1971), the validity of the sentencing process is no longer open to question.
  26. . See concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE STEWART, ante at 309-310; concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE WHITE, ante at 312.
  27. . See concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE STEWART, ante at 309-310; cf. concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE WHITE, ante at 312.
  28. . This point is more heavily emphasized in the opinion of MR. JUSTICE STEWART than in that of MR. JUSTICE WHITE. However, since MR. JUSTICE WHITE allows for statutes providing a mandatory death penalty for "more narrowly defined categories" of crimes, it appears that he, too, is more concerned with a regularized sentencing process than with the aggregate number of death sentences imposed for all crimes.
  29. . See n. 12, supra.
  30. . It was pointed out in the Court's opinion in McGautha that these two alternatives are substantially equivalent. 402 U.S. at 206 n. 16.
  31. . See Patrick, The Status of Capital Punishment: A World Perspective, 56 J.Crim.L.C. & P.S. 397 (1965). In England, for example, 1957 legislation limited capital punishment to murder, treason, piracy with violence, dockyards arson, and some military offenses. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 eliminated the penalty for murder on a five-year trial basis. 2 Pub. Gen. Acts, c. 71, p. 1577 (Nov. 8, 1965). This abolition was made permanent in 1969. See 793 Parl.Deb., H.C. (5th ser.) 1294-1298 (1969); 306 Parl.Deb., H.L. (5th ser.) 1317-1322 (1969). Canada has also undertaken limited abolition on a five-year experimental basis. Stats. of Canada 1967-1968, 16 & 17 Eliz. 2, c. 15, p. 145.
  32. . Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U.S. 197, 401 (1904) (dissenting opinion).