McCleskey v. Kemp Case Brief

Facts of the case

McCleskey, a black man, was convicted of murdering a police officer in Georgia and sentenced to death. In a writ of habeas corpus, McCleskey argued that a statistical study proved that the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia depended to some extent on the race of the victim and the accused. The study found that black defendants who kill white victims are the most likely to receive death sentences in the state.

Why is the case important?

McCleskey (Defendant) was sentenced to death for his role in an armed robbery, which resulted in the murder of a police officer. He challenged his sentence on the ground that it was imposed because he was black. Defendant provided statistical evidence that blacks disproportionately received death sentences when the murder victim was white.


Did the Georgia death penalty statute racially discriminate against Defendant in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Does the Georgia death penalty statute violate the Eighth Amendment by giving juries so much discretion in reaching their decision on punishment that racial discrimination may be a potential factor in their deliberations?


No. The Baldus Study provided by defendant does not demonstrate that racial discrimination was a factor in defendant, himself, receiving the death penalty. The study does not support an inference that the jury, in his own case, acted with purposeful racial discrimination – a threshold showing for proof of an Equal Protection violation.
No. The Baldus Study does not demonstrate a constitutionally significant risk of racial discrimination effecting a jury’s decision to impose the death penalty. Discretion in the criminal justice system is not in and of itself an Eight Amendment violation, particularly in light of the fact that in many instances discretion works to the benefit of the criminal defendant. Moreover, insomuch as the Eighth Amendment applies to all punishments, if defendant prevailed on these grounds, courts would soon be faced with similar claims for every other type of penalty. The disproportionate sentencing alleged with respect to race could also be expanded to discrepancies in sentencing in relation to other minority groups, or gender, or facial characteristics. The basis on which defendant challenges his sentence, statistical comparisons, lacks any limiting principle.


  • Advocates: John Charles Boger Argued the cause for the petitioner Mary Beth Westmoreland Argued the cause for the respondent
  • Petitioner: McCleskey
  • Respondent: Kemp
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: Dixie Furniture Store
Citation: 481 US 279 (1987)
Argued: Oct 15, 1986
Decided: Apr 22, 1987
McCleskey v. Kemp Case Brief