MCCLESKEY V. KEMP, 481 U. S. 279 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987)

McCleskey v. Kemp

No. 84-6811

Argued October 15, 1986

Decided April 22, 1987

481 U.S. 279


In 1978, petitioner, a black man, was convicted in a Georgia trial court of armed robbery and murder, arising from the killing of a white police officer during the robbery of a store. Pursuant to Georgia statutes, the jury at the penalty hearing considered the mitigating and aggravating circumstances of petitioner's conduct, and recommended the death penalty on the murder charge. The trial court followed the recommendation, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. After unsuccessfully seeking postconviction relief in state courts, petitioner sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court. His petition included a claim that the Georgia capital sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In support of the claim, petitioner proffered a statistical study (the Baldus study) that purports to show a disparity in the imposition of the death sentence in Georgia based on the murder victim's race and, to a lesser extent, the defendant's race. The study is based on over 2,000 murder cases that occurred in Georgia during the 1970's, and involves data relating to the victim's race, the defendant's race, and the various combinations of such persons' races. The study indicates that black defendants who killed white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty. Rejecting petitioner's constitutional claims, the court denied his petition insofar as it was based on the Baldus study, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision on this issue. It assumed the validity of the Baldus study, but found the statistics insufficient to demonstrate unconstitutional discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment context or to show irrationality, arbitrariness, and capriciousness under Eighth Amendment analysis.


1. The Baldus study does not establish that the administration of the Georgia capital punishment system violates the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 481 U. S. 291-299.

(a) To prevail under that Clause, petitioner must prove that the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose. Petitioner offered no evidence specific to his own case that would support an

Page 481 U. S. 280

inference that racial considerations played a part in his sentence, and the Baldus study is insufficient to support an inference that any of the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose. This Court has accepted statistics as proof of intent to discriminate in the context of a State's selection of the jury venire, and in the context of statutory violations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the nature of the capital sentencing decision and the relationship of the statistics to that decision are fundamentally different from the corresponding elements in the venire selection or Title VII cases. Petitioner's statistical proffer must be viewed in the context of his challenge to decisions at the heart of the State's criminal justice system. Because discretion is essential to the criminal justice process, exceptionally clear proof is required before this Court will infer that the discretion has been abused. Pp. 481 U. S. 292-297.

(b) There is no merit to petitioner's argument that the Baldus study proves that the State has violated the Equal Protection Clause by adopting the capital punishment statute and allowing it to remain in force despite its allegedly discriminatory application. For this claim to prevail, petitioner would have to prove that the Georgia Legislature enacted or maintained the death penalty statute because of an anticipated racially discriminatory effect. There is no evidence that the legislature either enacted the statute to further a racially discriminatory purpose or maintained the statute because of the racially disproportionate impact suggested by the Baldus study. Pp. 481 U. S. 297-299.

2. Petitioner's argument that the Baldus study demonstrates that the Georgia capital sentencing system violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment must be analyzed in the light of this Court's prior decisions under that Amendment. Decisions since Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238, have identified a constitutionally permissible range of discretion in imposing the death penalty. First, there is a required threshold below which the death penalty cannot be imposed, and the State must establish rational criteria that narrow the decisionmaker's judgment as to whether the circumstances of a particular defendant's case meet the threshold. Second, States cannot limit the sentencer's consideration of any relevant circumstance that could cause it to decline to impose the death penalty. In this respect, the State cannot channel the sentencer's discretion, but must allow it to consider any relevant information offered by the defendant. Pp. 481 U. S. 299-306.

3. The Baldus study does not demonstrate that the Georgia capital sentencing system violates the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 481 U. S. 306-313.

(a) Petitioner cannot successfully argue that the sentence in his case is disproportionate to the sentences in other murder cases. On the one

Page 481 U. S. 281

hand, he cannot base a constitutional claim on an argument that his case differs from other cases in which defendants did receive the death penalty. The Georgia Supreme Court found that his death sentence was not disproportionate to other death sentences imposed in the State. On the other hand, absent a showing that the Georgia capital punishment system operates in an arbitrary and capricious manner, petitioner cannot prove a constitutional violation by demonstrating that other defendants who may be similarly situated did not receive the death penalty. The opportunities for discretionary leniency under state law do not render the capital sentences imposed arbitrary and capricious. Because petitioner's sentence was imposed under Georgia sentencing procedures that focus discretion "on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant," it may be presumed that his death sentence was not "wantonly and freakishly" imposed, and thus that the sentence is not disproportionate within any recognized meaning under the Eighth Amendment. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 428 U. S. 206, 428 U. S. 207. Pp. 481 U. S. 306-308.

(b) There is no merit to the contention that the Baldus study shows that Georgia's capital punishment system is arbitrary and capricious in application. The statistics do not prove that race enters into any capital sentencing decisions or that race was a factor in petitioner's case. The likelihood of racial prejudice allegedly shown by the study does not constitute the constitutional measure of an unacceptable risk of racial prejudice. The inherent lack of predictability of jury decisions does not justify their condemnation. On the contrary, it is the jury's function to make the difficult and uniquely human judgments that defy codification and that build discretion, equity, and flexibility into the legal system. Pp. 481 U. S. 308-312.

(c) At most, the Baldus study indicates a discrepancy that appears to correlate with race, but this discrepancy does not constitute a major systemic defect. Any mode for determining guilt or punishment has its weaknesses and the potential for misuse. Despite such imperfections, constitutional guarantees are met when the mode for determining guilt or punishment has been surrounded with safeguards to make it as fair as possible. Pp. 481 U. S. 312-313.

4. Petitioner's claim, taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie the entire criminal justice system. His claim easily could be extended to apply to other types of penalties and to claims based on unexplained discrepancies correlating to membership in other minority groups and even to gender. The Constitution does not require that a State eliminate any demonstrable disparity that correlates with a potentially irrelevant factor in order to

Page 481 U. S. 282

operate a criminal justice system that includes capital punishment. Petitioner's arguments are best presented to the legislative bodies, not the courts. Pp. 481 U. S. 314-319.

753 F.2d 877, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in all but Part I of which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 320. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in all but Part IV-B of which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 345. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 366.

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