LOCATION: Metropolitan Police Department
DOCKET NO.: 75-5706
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court
CITATION: 428 US 242 (1976)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 1976
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1976
Clinn A. Curtis - for petitioner
Clinton A. Curtis - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Robert H. Bork - Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae
Robert L. Shevin - Argued the cause for the respondent
Facts of the case
Following his Florida conviction for first-degree murder and the imposition of the death penalty, Proffitt challenged the constitutionality of both his death sentence, alleging it was a "cruel and unusual" punishment, and Florida's capital-sentencing procedure, alleging is was arbitrary and capricious insofar as it permitted judges rather than juries to act as sole sentencing authorities.
This case is one of the five "Death Penalty Cases" along with Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas, Roberts v. Louisiana, and Woodson v. North Carolina.
Is the death penalty a "cruel and unusual" punishment? Is Florida's capital-sentencing procedure unconstitutional?
Media for Proffitt v. FloridaAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1976 in Proffitt v. Florida
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - July 02, 1976 in Proffitt v. Florida
Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:
I have the judgment to announce in 75-5706, Proffitt against the State of Florida.
This case is here on certiorari to the Supreme of Florida.
It presents the challenge to the capital punishment statute of that state.
As the justices says who have preceded have stated.
The threshold question that fundamental one presented in all five of the cases here today is as follows.
Whether the punishment of death for the crime of murder, is under all circumstances cruel and unusual, in violation of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.
If we had answered this question in the affirmative, it would be unnecessary to consider this statute and the procedures in these five states.
As has been indicated seven members of the Court have concluded that capital punishment is not unconstitutional per se.
Mr. Justice White speaking for the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Rehnquist has summarized their reasons for agreeing with this conclusion.
I now speak for Justices Stewart, Stevens and myself in our Joint opinion in Gregg v. Georgia.
We elaborate on our reasons for reaching the same conclusion.
We incorporate these reasons by reference.
In the joint opinions filed by the three of us, in each of the other four cases.
The precedence of this Court extending over many years, established the guiding principles.
The Eighth Amendment is not a static concept, it draws its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society.
A penalty must not involve unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain nor can it be substantially out of proportion to the severity of the crime.
As long as the penalty specified by the legislature comports with these criteria, we must defer to the judgment of the elected representatives of the people on this basic issue.
No one can doubt that the death penalty was contemplated when the constitution was adopted.
It was a traditional penalty both in the colonies and in England.
The text of the Fifth Amendment reiterated in part in the Fourteenth Amendment, 75 years later, makes clear the acceptance of capital punishment and in the nearly two centuries of our national existence until 1972, this Court repeatedly and often expressly recognized that capital punishment is not invalid per se.
In Trop against Dulles, decided in 1958, then Chief Justice Warren, in the same opinion in which he spoke of evolving standard of decency, said this.
“The death penalty has been employed throughout our history and in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.”
The first major challenge to the per se validity of capital punishment reached this court in 1972 in Furman.
Although the issue was strongly presented in that case.
It was not then resolved by the Court. Four justices would have held that capital punishment is not invalid per se.
Two would have reached the opposite conclusion and three justices while agreeing that the statues then before the Court were invalid as applied, left open the question whether such punishment may ever be imposed.
The principal argument presented by petitioners in Furman was that standards of decency had evolved to the point where capital punishment was no longer tolerated in this country.
It was said then that the Eight Amendment must be construed finally as prohibiting capital punishment for any crime regardless of it's depravity and of it's impact on society.
Petitioners in the prior cases the other day have renewed the standard of decency argument.
But as Mr. Justice White has noted, developments during the four years since Furman have undercut substantially, the assumptions upon which that argument was advanced.