Proffitt v. Florida

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. Florida

Audio 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.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

Objective criteria demonstrate that prevailing standards in our country do not reject capital punishment, at least as a sanction in some cases.

The most marked indication of society’s endorsement of the death penalty for murder, is a legislative response to Furman.

The legislatures of at least 35 states and the Congress of United States had enacted new statutes that provide for this penalty at least for some murders.

The Jury also is a reliable objective index of contemporary values.

It has a fearful responsibility and is directly involved, and yet since Furman and under the new statutes, Juries across the country have imposed the death penalty in more than 400 cases.

But the Eight Amendment demands more than a finding that a challenged punishment is acceptable to contemporary society.

As noted above a penalty may not be substantially out of proportion to the severity of a crime nor may it be totally without penological justification.

We cannot say that the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is without justification.

In, part capital punishment is an expression of society’s belief.

That certain crimes are so grievous, so grievous and upfront to humanity that the only adequate response is a penalty of death.

In part, capital punishment also reflects a legislative judgment that the sanction is necessary to deter capital crimes.

There is no conclusive empiric data either proving or disproving, the value of the penalty as a deterrent.

Yet we may assume, we do assume that there are murders , such as those committed in the heat of passion for which the threat of depth has little or no deterrent effect.

But there are others, for example those are deliberately planned in advance, where the penalty may well be a deterring factor, and in some cases, such as murder by a life prisoners there is no other adequate sanction.

The evaluation of the unresolved debate concerning deterrents properly rests, as Mr. Justice White has said with the legislatures.

They have the flexibility and the means to ascertain the facts that are quite unavailable to the judiciary.

It is well to remember that are we’re consent in these cases only with the imposition of capital punishment with the crime of murder.

We conclude when a life has been taken deliberately that the punishment of death is not invariably disproportionate to that crime.

It is an extreme sanction, but it is suitable for the most extreme of crimes.

I come now briefly to the Florida case itself.

I will not state the facts beyond saying that petitioner in the course of an unlawful entry into a private home at 3 am in the morning, stabbed to death his sleeping victim and beat the victim’s wife.

The Florida statute in all material respects provides the same procedural and substantive safeguards as a Judge of statute described by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Florida provides for a bifurcated procedure.

In this case after the Jury had found petitioner guilty, a separate hearing was held to determine whether the sentence should be death or life imprisonment.

The Florida statute requires consideration of specified aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Acting in light of these the Jury recommended the sentence of death.

The trial judge then imposed that sentence and identified in writing for statutory aggravating circumstances.

Again as in Georgia, for automatic review the Florida Supreme Court is required by statue.

That Court reviews and evaluate the sentence in comparison with and to assure consistency with similar cases.

For reasons more fully stated in our opinion filed today, we conclude that these safeguards provide the procedural protection that prevent the wanton and freakish imposition of capital punishment that was held unconstitutional in Furman against Georgia.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

Accordingly Mr. Justice Stewart, Justice Stevens and I would affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida, as the Chief Justice and three other justice concur in the result.

This is the judgment of the Court.

Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall have filed dissenting opinions.

Byron R. White:

I have filed an opinion in this case, concurring in the judgment and the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Rehnquist have joined the opinion I have filed.

There is no need to repeat the facts of the case or to restate the statutory procedure under which the death penalty was imposed.

We agree with the plurality that although the statutory aggravating and mitigating circumstances, under the Florida statute are not susceptible to mechanical application, they are by no means so vague and overbroad as to leave the discretion of the sentencing authority, essentially unfettered.

Under Florida law the sentencing judge is required to impose the death penalty on all first degree murders as to whom the statutory aggravating factors out weigh the mitigating factors.

There is a good reason to anticipate then that as to certain categories of murders the penalty will not be imposed freakishly or rarely but will be imposed as regularity and consequently it cannot be said that the death penalty in Florida as to those categories has creased to be a credible deterrent or majoribly to contribute any other end of punishment in the criminal justice system.

Accordingly as we see it, the Florida statutory scheme for imposing the death penalty does not run of afoul of this Court’s holding in Furman v. Georgia.

Also as in Gregg v. Georgia, we agree with the plurality in rejecting petitioner’s argument that under the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments the death penalty may never be imposed under any circumstances.

We accordingly concur in the judgment of affirmance.

Mr. Justice Blackmun also concurs in the judgment for the reasons stated in the dissent in Furman v. Georgia.