Corbitt v. New Jersey

LOCATION:C and P Telephone Baltimore Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 77-5903
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: New Jersey Supreme Court

CITATION: 439 US 212 (1978)
ARGUED: Oct 03, 1978
DECIDED: Dec 11, 1978

John Decicco – for appellee
James K. Smith, Jr. – for appellant

Facts of the case


Media for Corbitt v. New Jersey

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 03, 1978 in Corbitt v. New Jersey

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 11, 1978 in Corbitt v. New Jersey

Byron R. White:

The other case I have to announce is McArthur Corbitt against the State of New Jersey, Number 77-5903.1

This case involves a New Jersey conviction for first-degree murder, which the petitioner in this case, McArthur Corbitt asserts it is invalid because of the peculiar punishment pattern imposed by the New Jersey statutes.

In New Jersey, the mandatory punishment for a defendant found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder is life imprisonment.

Second-degree murder is punishable by a prison term of up to 30 years.

Those charged with murder however are permitted to tender a plea of non vult which is somewhat like a plea of guilty.

If the plea is accepted, judgment of conviction follows and the defendant is subject to a sentence of either life imprisonment or a prison term up to 30 years.

Because life imprisonment is mandatory if a defendant goes to trial and has found guilty of first-degree murder as Corbitt was whereas there is the possibility of a much lesser sentence if it plea is offered and accepted.

Corbitt claims that the statutory pattern is designed to encourage guilty pleas and that is sentence of life imprisonment is nothing more than an impermissible punishment for his refusal to plead non vult and for his insistence on a jury trial.

All in violation he says of his rights under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected these claims and for the reasons stated in an opinion we have filed today, we agree with the New Jersey court.

New Jersey has not reserved the sentence of life imprisonment for those who go to trial in murder cases.

That sentence may also be imposed by a judge who accepts a plea of non vult.

And under our cases particularly those involving plea bargaining, a State does not violate the constitutional rights of a well counseled defendant as Corbitt was simply because it holds out the possibility or probability of a lesser punishment if the defendant pleads guilty.

And the judgment of the New Jersey Supreme Court is affirmed.

Mr. Justice Stewart has filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment only.

Mr. Justice Stevens has dissented and he is joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice White.