Godfrey v. Georgia

PETITIONER: Robert Franklin Godfrey
LOCATION: Polk County, Georgia

DOCKET NO.: 78-6899
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Georgia

CITATION: 446 US 420 (1980)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 1980
DECIDED: May 19, 1980
GRANTED: Oct 09, 1979

John W. Dunsmore, Jr. - for Respondent
J. Calloway Holmes, Jr. - for Petitioner

Facts of the case

In September 1977, Robert Franklin Godfrey and his wife had a heated argument. After Godfrey consumed a number of beers, threatened his wife with a knife, and tore her clothes, she threatened to leave him and then left to stay with relatives. Within a few days, she had secured a warrant against Godfrey for aggravated assault and filed for divorce. On September 20, they argued again, and Godfrey’s wife told him that reconciliation was impossible. Godfrey went to his mother-in-law’s trailer with his shotgun. He shot his wife through the window, struck his daughter with the butt of the gun, and shot his mother-in-law. Godfrey then called the police, explained what had happened, and asked them to come and pick him up.

Godfrey was indicted on two counts of murder, and one count of aggravated assault. He pled not guilty, and argued the defense of temporary insanity. Godfrey was found guilty, and at the sentencing phase of the trial, the same jury sentenced him to the death penalty on both counts of murder. Georgia law states that a person my be convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty if it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense committed was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of the mind, or an aggressive battery to the victim.” The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed.


Is the Georgia law governing the death penalty “arbitrary and capricious” in violation of the Eighth Amendment?

Media for Godfrey v. Georgia

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1980 (Part 1) in Godfrey v. Georgia

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1980 (Part 2) in Godfrey v. Georgia

Warren E. Burger:

You may continue, counsel.

John W. Dunsmore, Jr.:

Prior to the noon break, there was reference made on page 87 of the appendix to--in question 21 by the trial judge in this report in which he checked "No" after the phrase "Was the victim physically harmed or tortured?"

And then he adds on "If yes, state extent of harm or torture - excluding the actual murdering of the two victims."

That is what the trial judge thought in his mind.

It is his reflection.

He qualifies it, saying there is definitely physical harm to the victims.

And I think the record more than adequately establishes that by virtue of the nature of the wounds to these two victims.

We have argued and still maintain, consistently maintain, that the Supreme Court of Georgia when it conducts its review, as mandated by our general assembly, carefully goes over the facts to make sure that they are supported by a reasonable doubt, compares them with similar cases, and then also looks to determine whether or not there has been any arbitrariness or discrimination or prejudice in the case.

We have had the argument by petitioner that (b)(7), the seventh aggravating circumstance, is a catch-all.

And yet we have had language by our court in Harris which looked for guidance from the Dixon case.

And we are going to look at the essential, the hardcore, the gruesome type, execution type slayings.

Byron R. White:

What would you say in a case of the so-called clean rifle shot to the heart, just bang, and the prosecutor nevertheless relies on (7) as an aggravating circumstance, and the jury comes back and finds it?

John W. Dunsmore, Jr.:

All right, I think--

Byron R. White:

Would you say--and there is an Eighth Amendment challenge to that in the sense that if the seventh aggravating circumstance can cover this, it can cover anything.

And so you are back to unruled discretion.

John W. Dunsmore, Jr.:

No, I do not think we are, Justice White.

And this is why I say we are not.

I do not think the outcome would be any different as far as saying unruly discretion because if that individual preplans that execution--and let us say that he does it with a single shot rifle and stands on the top of a building and waits for his victim to come to look and pick him off--

You are just going to change my example.

I will posit any set of circumstances that you require to say that Section 7 should not reach it.

But, nevertheless, it is relied upon, and the jury finds it.

And it is affirmed.

What could we do about it?

When you say it is affirmed, you are--

Byron R. White:

By the supreme court.

John W. Dunsmore, Jr.:

I think it depends on the facts in the case.

What I am saying is you need to look at it, does it fit within the mold of the other cases, similar cases which have arisen?

Byron R. White:

What if it does not?

John W. Dunsmore, Jr.:

If it does not, then you ought to reverse it.

Byron R. White:

On what ground?