Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420 (1980)

Upon reexamining the Court’s prior acceptance of Georgia’s capital sentencing scheme in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), Godfrey held that a catch-all statutory aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague. Godfrey was convicted of the murder of his wife and mother-in-law. His jury sentenced him to death after finding, consistent with a statutory aggravating circumstance, that his offenses were ‘‘outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.’’ The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the sentence.

In Gregg, the Supreme Court found that the language of the catch-all statutory aggravating circumstance could apply to all murders, but that the Georgia Supreme Court could adopt a more limited construction. In Godfrey, Justice Stewart found that Georgia had limited the application of that aggravating circumstance to murders involving torture or aggravated battery, resulting in serious physical abuse before death. Justice Stewart concluded that Godfrey’s case, however, did not involve any of these characteristics because his victims died instantaneously. Therefore, the Georgia Supreme Court failed to follow the standards that it had set forth in order to limit discretion and thus avoid the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty. Justice Stewart found that there was no way to distinguish the imposition of the death penalty in this case from other cases in which the penalty was not imposed.

Godfrey further limited the possibility of the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty by holding that a vaguely constructed aggravating circumstance provided constitutionally inadequate guidance for the jury.

EARL F. MARTIN

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

See also Capital Punishment; Capital Punishment and the Equal Protection Clause Cases; Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Capital Punishment: Eighth Amendment Limits; Capital Punishment: History and Politics

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