McCleskey v. Kemp

LOCATION:Dixie Furniture Store

DOCKET NO.: 84-6811
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 481 US 279 (1987)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1986
DECIDED: Apr 22, 1987

John Charles Boger – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Mary Beth Westmoreland – Argued the cause for the respondent

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.


Did the statistical study prove that McCleskey’s sentence violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for McCleskey v. Kemp

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 15, 1986 in McCleskey v. Kemp

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 22, 1987 in McCleskey v. Kemp

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 84-6811, McCleskey against Kemp will be announced by Justice Powell.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This capital case is here from the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The case involves a relevance of a complex statistical study in Georgia that indicates generally that racial considerations may enter into the capital sentencing process in some cases.

In 1978, McCleskey, a black man, was convicted in Georgia of murdering a white police officer during the robbery of a store.

Under Georgia’s bifurcated sentencing procedure, the jury recommended the death sentence.

It found two statutory aggravating circumstances to exist beyond a reasonable doubt.

McCleskey offered no mitigating evidence.

The court followed the jury recommendation.

McCleskey’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed on appeal by the Georgia Supreme Court.

In his habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, McCleskey argued that the entire Georgia capital punishment system is administered in a racially discriminatory manner, based on the race of the victim and to a lesser extent on the race of the defendant.

McCleskey has supported his claim with a complex multiple regression analysis called the Baldus study.

The District Court held an extensive evidentiary hearing on McCleskey’s petition.

It concluded that McCleskey had failed to show unconstitutional discrimination against him.

It found also that the Baldus study was statistically flowing.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc assume the statistical validity of the Baldus study.

It nevertheless held that McCleskey had not demonstrated that his sentence was in imposed in unconstitutional manner.

For the reasons stated on the opinion filed today we affirm.

We hold first that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, McCleskey must prove that the decision makers in his case acted with the discriminatory purpose.

A wide range of variables necessarily enter into in a capital sentencing determination.

These must be considered by the prosecutor in exercising discretion whether or not to prosecute it.

In the end the collective judgment of a jury determines the sentence.

The generalized statistics of the Baldus study failed to raise an inference that McCleskey was discriminated against on the basis of his race or the race of the victim.

The study also fails to support McCleskey’s claim that his sentence is arbitrary in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In Gregg against Georgia this Court held that the Georgia death penalty procedures properly channel a sentencing jury’s discretion.

McCleskey’s arguments are best presented to legislative bodies.

Capital punishment is a law in more than two thirds of our states.

Congress also has authorized a death penalty for aircraft piracy.

It is the duty of courts to determine on a case-by-case basis, whether these laws are applied consistently with the Constitution.

Despite McCLeskey’s wide range in arguments, had basically challenged the validity of capital punishment in our multi racial society, the only question before us is whether in this case in which McCleskey’s guilt has not questioned, the law of Georgia was properly applied.

We agree with the District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that this was carefully and correctly done in this case.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Marshall has joined and in all but part 1 of which Justices Blackmun and Stevens have joined.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall and Stevens have joined and in all but part 4B of which Justice Brennan has joined.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackman has joined.