Woodson v. North Carolina

Facts of the Case

Defendants participated in an armed robbery during which one person was killed and another severely wounded. They were convicted in state court of first-degree murder, which imposed a mandatory death sentence. Defendants challenged that the sentence was unconstitutional and petitioned for a writ of certiorari. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did the mandatory death penalty law violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?


In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that the North Carolina law was unconstitutional. The Court found three problems with the law: First, the law depart[ed] markedly from contemporary standards concerning death sentences. The historical record indicated that the public had rejected mandatory death sentences. Second, the law provided no standards to guide juries in their exercise of the power to determine which first-degree murderers shall live and which shall die. Third, the statute failed to allow consideration of the character and record of individual defendants before inflicting the death penalty. The Court noted that the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment required such considerations.

Case Information

  • Citation: 428 US 280 (1976)
  • Argued: Mar 31, 1976
  • Decided Jul 2, 1976