Summary of McCleskey v. Kemp
Citation: 481 U.S. 279
Relevant Facts: McCleskey was a black man who was convicted of murdering a Georgia police officer, and consequently sentenced to capital punishment. Appealing to the Court in a writ of habeas corpus, McCleskey argued that the literature on the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia demonstrated that there was a positive correlation between the imposition of the punishment and race, to the detriment of black defendants. Specifically, black defendants who kill white defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty than whites who kill whites or blacks who kill blacks.
Issues: When presented to the Supreme Court, the legal question asked was whether the statistical studies proved that McCleskey’s sentence violated his Eighth and Fourteenthth Amendment Rights (cruel and unusual punishment and equal protection).
Holding: The Supreme Court held that no, McCleskey’s rights had not been violated.
Reasoning: The majority of the Court found that McCleskey could not definitively prove that he had been purposefully discriminated against, and that such discrimination adversely affected his trial. Consequently, because he could not prove that critical test, no constitutional violation could be found. Justice Powell did not apply the statistical study that was the basis of McCleskey’s claims, asserting that each case is unique, and so, even if the aggregate data regarding cases in the state indicated a sociological trend, it is not something that the law needs to or even can consider. Justice Powell argued that if anything, the information that McCleskey presented is most appropriate to be disseminated via the state legislature rather than the judiciary.
Dissent: Justices Brennan, Blackmun and Stevens dissented. Within their dissent(s), the basic argument or premise was that all capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment and thus in violation of an individual’s Eighth Amendment rights. All three justices vividly discussed their reservations about the imposition of the death penalty granted the common sense and historical information they had, and knowledge they possessed about how the penalty has been imposed in historically racist fashions, thus being in violation of convicts’ Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Conclusion: This case is particularly important because it is not merely about capital punishment, or even capital punishment as it has been imposed against racial minorities. Rather, it is important because the Court ruled that in cases in which petitioners allege that their equal protection rights have been violated, they must do more than show that discrimination has taken place; they must also demonstrate that said discrimination has had a particularly injurious effect on the defendant. Additionally, even when that has been proven, the government should be dealt with via bureaucratic means rather than judicial means.