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Under Georgia law, a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to death if it is found beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim. O.C.G.A. § 27-2534.1 (b)(7) (1978).
Under a provision of the Georgia Code, a person convicted of murder may be sentenced to death if it is found beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim." (This statutory aggravating circumstance was held not to be unconstitutional on its face in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153.) Upon a jury trial in a Georgia state court, petitioner was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The evidence showed that, after his wife, who was living with her mother, had rebuffed his efforts for a reconciliation, petitioner went to his mother-in-law's trailer; fired a shotgun through the window, killing his wife instantly; proceeded into the trailer, striking and injuring his fleeing daughter with the barrel of the gun; and then shot and instantly killed his mother-in-law. Petitioner then called the sheriff's office and, when officers arrived, acknowledged his responsibility, directed an officer to the murder weapon, and later told an officer, "I've done a hideous crime." At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge quoted to the jury the statutory provision in question, and the jury imposed death sentences on both murder convictions, specifying that the aggravating circumstance as to each conviction was that the offense "was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman." The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgments in all respects, rejecting petitioner's contention that the statutory provision was unconstitutionally vague and holding that the evidence supported the jury's finding of the statutory aggravating circumstance.
Was the death sentence proper?
The Court reversed the death sentence and remanded the action because there was no showing that the murder was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman" due to the quick deaths of the victims and the lack of torture. As a result, the sentence appeared to have been arbitrarily and capriciously imposed because there was no showing that the jury was restrained in its discretion, and there were no aggravating circumstances.