Coker v. Georgia: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

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In Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that issuing a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Fast Facts: Coker v. Georgia

  • Case Argued: March 28, 1977
  • Decision Issued: June 29, 1977
  • Petitioner: Erlich Anthony Coker, an inmate serving a number of sentences in a Georgia prison for murder, rape, kidnapping, and assault, who escaped and raped a woman
  • Respondent: The state of Georgia
  • Key Question: Was the imposition of the death penalty for rape a form of cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment?
  • Majority Decision: Justices White, Stewart, Blackmun, Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, Powell
  • Dissenting: Justices Burger, Rehnquist
  • Ruling: The Court found that a death sentence was a “grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment” for the crime of rape, which violated Coker's Eighth Amendment rights.

Facts of the Case

In 1974, Ehrlich Coker escaped from a Georgia prison where he was serving multiple sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault. He entered the home of Allen and Elnita Carver through a back door. Coker threatened the Carvers and tied up Allen Carver, taking his keys and wallet. He threatened Elnita Carver with a knife and raped her. Coker then got in the car and drove off, taking Elnita with him. Allen freed himself and called the police. Officers found and arrested Coker.

In 1974, the Georgia Criminal Code read, "[a] person convicted of rape shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life, or by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 20 years."

The death penalty could only be pursued for rape in Georgia if one of three “aggravating circumstances” were present:

  1. The offender had a prior conviction for a capital felony.
  2. The rape "was committed while the offender was engaged in the commission of another capital felony, or aggravated battery.”
  3. The rape "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or aggravated battery to the victim.”

The jury found Coker guilty of the first two "aggravating circumstances." He had prior convictions for capital felonies and committed armed robbery during the assault.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The case built upon a foundation that the Supreme Court had laid under Furman v. Georgia (1972) and Gregg v. Georgia (1976).

Under Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had held that the Eighth Amendment bars both “barbaric” and “excessive” punishments for crime. “Excessive” punishment was defined as punishment that:

  1. does nothing to contribute to “acceptable goals” of punishment;
  2. is purposeless or needless imposition of pain and suffering;
  3. is “grossly” disproportionate to the severity of the crime.

Gregg v. Georgia also required courts to use objective factors to establish the above criteria. A court must look at history, precedent, legislative attitudes, and jury conduct.

Arguments

The attorney representing Coker focused on the proportionality of the punishment to the crime. Imprisonment was a more appropriate punishment for rape than death, he argued. Coker's attorney further noted that there was an evident trend towards abolishing the death penalty in rape cases.

The attorney on behalf of the state of Georgia argued that the death penalty did not violate Coker's Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The state of Georgia had a vested interest in reducing recidivism by imposing harsh punishments on violent crimes, according to the attorney. He argued that the punishment of "capital crimes" should be left to state legislators.

Majority Opinion

Justice Byron Raymond White delivered the 7-2 decision. The majority found that a death sentence was “grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment” for the crime of rape. Issuing the death penalty against Coker violated the Eighth Amendment. Rape, while “highly reprehensible, both in a moral sense and in its almost total contempt for the personal integrity,” should not require capital punishment, the majority argued.

The Court dismissed the idea that “aggravating circumstances” should allow a jury to increase punishment to the level of a death sentence.

The majority noted that Georgia was the only state which still allowed a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman. Since 1973 Georgia juries had only sentenced six men to death in Georgia for rape and one of those convictions was set aside. According to the majority, these, along with other statistics, showed a growing trend towards punishments other than death for rape.

Justice White concluded the majority opinion by highlighting the fact that in Georgia, murderers were not subject to the death penalty if aggravating circumstances were not present.

Justice White wrote:

“It is difficult to accept the notion, and we do not, that the rapist, with or without aggravating circumstances, should be punished more heavily than the deliberate killer as long as the rapist does not himself take the life of his victim.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Warren Earl Burger filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Rehnquist. Justice Burger felt that the question of how to punish repeat offenders should be left up to legislators. He rejected the idea that punishment can only be as severe as the crime itself, and argued that the Court had underestimated the “profound suffering the crime imposes upon the victims and their loved ones.” Justice Burger noted that Coker had previously been convicted for two separate and brutal sexual assaults. The state of Georgia, he argued, should be allowed to more severely punish the third instance of the crime to deter other repeat offenders and encourage victim reporting.

Concurring Opinions

Multiple Justices authored concurring opinions to address specific elements of the case. Justices Brennan and Marshall, for example, wrote that the death penalty should be unconstitutional in all circumstances under the Eighth Amendment. Justice Powell, however, stated that the death penalty should be allowed in some rape cases where aggravating circumstances are present, just not the one at hand.

Impact

Coker v. Georgia was one case in a group of Eighth Amendment death penalty cases handled by the Supreme Court. While the Court found the death penalty unconstitutional when applied to the rape of an adult woman, they left it at that. The death penalty remained an option for juries hearing child rape cases in Mississippi and Florida until the 1980’s. In 2008, Kennedy v. Louisiana outlawed the death penalty, even in cases of child rape, signaling that the court would not tolerate the death penalty in cases other than murder or treason.

Sources

  • Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977).
  • Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).
  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).