Public perceptions of standards of decency with respect to criminal sanctions are not conclusive. A penalty also must accord with "the dignity of man," which is the basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment. This means, at least, that the punishment not be "excessive." When a form of punishment in the abstract rather than in the particular is under consideration, the inquiry into "excessiveness" has two aspects. First, the punishment must not involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain. Second, the punishment must not be grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in in the case of Furman v. Georgia that the imposition of the death sentence under Georgia (and Texas) statutes constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because under such statutes the juries had untrammeled discretion to impose or withhold the death penalty. The Georgia legislature amended its statutory scheme imposed new guidelines and limited the class of offenders that may be subject to capital punishment. The new scheme also required at least one of ten aggravating circumstances specified in the statutes to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before death may be imposed. The defendant was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and two counts of murder. Based on the new scheme, the jury, after the penalty hearing in the bifurcated procedure, returned a sentence of death on each count, finding as statutory aggravating conditions that the murder offenses were committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of the two other capital felonies of armed robbery of the murder victims, and that the defendant committed the murders for the purpose of receiving money and an automobile of one of the victims. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and the imposition of the death sentences for murder, although but vacated the death sentences imposed for armed robbery since death penalty had rarely been imposed for that offense and the jury had improperly considered the murders as aggravating circumstances for the robberies after having considered the robberies as aggravating circumstances for the murders.
Did a statutory scheme to apply the death penalty that considers a defendant and his crime with particularity violate the Constitution?
The Court held that the punishment of death did not invariably violate the United States Constitution; that the death penalty was not a form of punishment that could never be imposed, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, regardless of the character of the offender, and regardless of the procedure followed in reaching the decision to impose it; and that the concerns that the penalty of death not be imposed in an arbitrary or capricious manner were met by a carefully drafted statute that ensured that the sentencing authority was given adequate information and guidance. With regard to the Georgia statute, the Court held that the statutory system under which defendant was sentenced, which focused the jury's attention on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant and provided a method for review, did not violate the Constitution.