Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37 (1984)

In this case the Supreme Court refused to mandate a comparative proportionality review by an appellate court before a death sentence is carried out. The defendant was convicted of capital murder as a result of the killing of two teenage boys in order to use their car in a bank robbery. The defendant argued that the Eighth Amendment required that a particular death sentence had to be compared to sentences imposed in similar cases whenever so requested by the defendant in order to ensure that the death penalty was not being imposed discriminatorily or arbitrarily.

Although several states required their highest court to perform such a review, the Supreme Court refused to hold that a proportionality review was constitutionally required whenever the defendant requested it because there were other procedures in place that minimized the risk of arbitrary, capricious, or freakish sentences. For instance, a defendant could not be sentenced to death unless the jury found at least one special circumstance—for instance, that the murder was committed for profit or that the victim was a police officer—beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the death penalty was limited to a small subclass of cases. Furthermore, each death sentence had to be reviewed by the trial judge and the state supreme court in order to ensure that the evidence supported the finding of special circumstances before it could be carried out.

As a result of this and other holdings of the Supreme Court, a state’s death penalty scheme will pass constitutional muster as long as the state limits death sentences to a small class of cases, provides a bifurcated proceeding to consider the issues of guilt– innocence and sentencing separately, and provides for trial court and appellate review of the sentence.

KENNETH A. WILLIAMS

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

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