Roberts v. Louisiana

LOCATION: Louisiana State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 75-5844
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Louisiana Supreme Court

CITATION: 428 US 325 (1976)
ARGUED: Mar 30, 1976 / Mar 31, 1976
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1976

Anthony G. Amsterdam – Argued the cause for the petitioner
James L. Babin – Argued the cause for the respondent
John L. Hill – for the State of Texas
Robert H. Bork – Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

Following his conviction for first-degree murder, and subsequent imposition of a death sentence, Roberts challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana’s death penalty scheme. This scheme mandated the death penalty’s imposition, regardless of any mercy recommendation, whenever the jury found that the defendant demonstrated a specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm while in the commission of at least one of five different narrowly defined types of homicide. The sentencing scheme also required juries, in all first-degree murder cases, to be instructed on the lesser charges of manslaughter and second degree murder even if no evidence existed to support such verdicts.

This case is one of the five “Death Penalty Cases” along with Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas, Proffitt v. Florida, and Woodson v. North Carolina.


Does Louisiana’s death-penalty sentencing scheme violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ safeguards against arbitrary and capricious death penalty impositions?

Media for Roberts v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – July 02, 1976 in Roberts v. Louisiana

John Paul Stevens:

I have the judgment to announce in Roberts against Louisiana, number 75-5844.

Again I speak for Mr. Justice Stewart and Mr. Justice Powell as well as for myself.

The question in this case is whether the imposition of the sentence of death for the crime of first-degree murder under the law of Louisiana is constitutional.

The petitioner was indicted by a Grand Jury on a charge that he committed first degree murder while engaged in an armed robbery.

The jury found the petitioner guilty as charged. As required by state law, the trial judge sentenced him to death.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana affirmed the judgment and we granted certiorari.

The Louisiana Legislature in 1973 amended the state statute relating to murder and the death penalty in apparent response to this Court’s decision in Furman.

The 1973 amendments changed the former discretionary statute to a wholly mandatory one, requiring that the death penalty be imposed whenever the jury finds the defendant guilty of the newly defined crime of first-degree murder.

Under the statute if there was a specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm, and the offender was engaged in an armed robbery, the offense is first-degree murder and the mandatory punishment is death.

Any qualification or recommendation which a jury might add to its verdict, such as a recommendation of mercy where the verdict is guilty of first-degree murder, is without any effect.

The constitutional vice of mandatory death sentence statutes, lack of focus on the circumstances of the particular offense and the character and propensities of the offender, is not resolved by Louisiana’s limitation of first-degree murder to various categories of killings.

The diversity of circumstances presented in cases falling within the single category of killings during the commission of a specified felony, as well as the variety of possible offenders involved in such crimes, underscores the rigidity of Louisiana’s enactment and its similarity to the North Carolina statute.

Louisiana’s mandatory death sentence law employs a procedure that was rejected by that State’s legislature 130 years ago and that subsequently at one time or another has been renounced by legislatures and juries in every jurisdiction in this Nation.

The Eighth Amendment, which draws much of its meaning from “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society simply cannot tolerate the reintroduction of a practice so thoroughly discredited.

Accordingly, for reasons more fully stated in the opinion which Mr. Justice Stewart, Mr. Justice Powell and I have filed with the clerk, we conclude that the death sentence imposed upon the petitioner in this case under Louisiana’s mandatory death sentence statute violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and must be set aside.

Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall have filed statements concurring in the Judgment.

Byron R. White:

The issues here are very similar to those in Woodson against North Carolina.

I have accordingly filed a dissenting opinion, this time joined by the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Blackmun and Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

The opinion states at some length why we cannot accept petitioner’s argument that capital punishment is per se invalid, petitioner’s further argument that the Louisiana scheme does not escape the strictures of Furman v. Georgia and those additional arguments offered by the plurality, which were neither pressed by the parties nor passed upon by the Louisiana Supreme Court for overruling this conviction.

As in the North Carolina case, to reach the result it does, the plurality must conclude that juries will not obey their instructions so often and so systematically that Furman v. Georgia invalidates the scheme.

It is true that the Louisiana juries are instructed as to lesser included offenses in murder cases.

But they may consider these lesser offenses only if the evidence does not support conviction for a capital offense.

This is the clear construction of the statue by the Louisiana Supreme Court and the four of us are quite unwilling to transform the plurality’s purely empirical speculation into a constitutional holding.

We would affirm the judgment of Louisiana Supreme Court.

Mr. Justice Blackmun also dissents and would affirm the judgment, for reasons stated in dissent in Furman v. Georgia.