Mccleskey v. Kemp 481 U.S. 279 (1987)

Author:Leonard W. Levy

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McCleskey, a black Georgian, on being sentenced to death for the murder of a white person, sought a writ of HABEAS CORPUS on the claim that Georgia's capital-sentencing procedures violated the EQUAL PROTECTION clause of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT and the CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT clause of the Eighth Amendment. He based his claim on "the Baldus study," a statistical examination of Georgia's more than 2,000 murder cases during the 1970s. The study showed a significant correlation between race and prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty and jurors' recommendations of the death penalty. For example, death was the sentence in twenty-two percent of the cases involving black defendants and white victims, in eight percent of the cases involving white defendants and white victims, and in three percent of the cases involving white defendants and black victims. The Supreme Court, held 5?4, that McCleskey did not show that Georgia had acted unconstitutionally in sentencing him to CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

The infirmity of McCleskey's argument, according to Justice LEWIS F. POWELL, for the Court, consisted in his failure to prove that he personally had been the target of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION or that the race of his victim had anything to do with his sentence. Anyone invoking the equal-protection clause in a capital-sentencing case has the burden of showing that deliberate discrimination had a discriminatory effect "in his case." McCleskey's reliance on the Baldus study proved nothing with respect to him; moreover, every jury is unique, so that statistics concerning many juries do not establish anything regarding a particular one.

McCleskey also argued that the state violated the equal protection clause by enacting the death penalty statute and retaining it despite its supposedly discriminatory application. Powell dismissed this argument because it had no support from proof that the legislature passed and kept

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a capital punishment act because of its racially discriminatory effect. The Court had previously held in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) that Georgia's capital-sentencing system could operate fairly.

The Court found McCleskey's Eighth Amendment argument no more persuasive. In Gregg it had ruled that the jury's discretion was controlled by clear and objective standards. The statute even required the trial court to review every sentence to determine whether it was imposed under the influence of prejudice, whether the evidence...

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