Coker v. Georgia

433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Quick Summary

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Ehrlich Coker (defendant) was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for raping an adult woman after escaping from prison. The case was escalated to the United States Supreme Court.

The dispute revolved around whether capital punishment for rape violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court concluded that the death penalty was disproportionate for rape where no life was taken, thereby reversing the original sentence.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Ehrlich Coker (defendant), while serving sentences for grave offenses including murder, made an escape from a Georgia prison. On the night of his escape, he entered the home of Allen and Elnita Carver. Coker threatened the couple, restrained Mr. Carver, and subsequently raped Mrs. Carver. He then kidnapped her using the Carver’s vehicle but was soon captured by the police. Mrs. Carver was found unharmed.

Georgia law at the time allowed for the death penalty in cases of rape if aggravating circumstances were present. Coker was found guilty of rape and other crimes, and the jury, considering his prior capital felonies and the concurrent armed robbery, sentenced him to death for the rape charge. This decision was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, leading to an appeal to the United States Supreme Court on Eighth Amendment grounds.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Coker was convicted in Georgia state court for rape and sentenced to death.
  2. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.
  3. Coker appealed to the United States Supreme Court on Eighth Amendment grounds.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the imposition of the death penalty for the crime of rape violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Rule of Law

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The Eighth Amendment prohibits not only barbaric punishments but also those that are excessive in relation to the crime committed. A punishment is excessive and unconstitutional if it makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment or is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The Court examined historical data and current legislative judgment on the acceptability of the death penalty for rape. They observed that by 1977, Georgia was the only state that allowed the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman. The rarity of such punishment across states, along with infrequent jury decisions to impose it, indicated societal consensus against it as a proportionate penalty for rape.

The Court also reasoned that while rape is a heinous crime deserving severe punishment, it does not involve taking a life, which sets it apart from murder, a crime for which the death penalty is typically reserved. The death penalty’s severity and irrevocability were deemed excessive for someone who did not take a life. The presence of aggravating circumstances in Coker’s case did not alter this conclusion.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court, holding that the death penalty as a punishment for the rape of an adult woman is disproportionate and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Key Takeaways

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  1. The death penalty is not always an acceptable form of punishment for all capital crimes; it must be proportionate to the crime committed.
  2. Rape, while serious, does not warrant a death sentence under the Eighth Amendment as it does not involve taking a life.
  3. Legislative and jury patterns across states indicate a societal consensus against capital punishment for rape, influencing the Court’s determination on proportionality.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors does the Court consider in determining whether a punishment is excessive under the Eighth Amendment?

To determine if a punishment is excessive, the Court assesses both societal attitudes and the principle of proportionality between the nature of the offense and the severity of the punishment. The Court may examine legislative actions, sentencing practices across various jurisdictions, and historical perspective on the punishment for similar offenses.

  • For example: if society’s views have evolved to consider certain punishments unacceptable for a type of offense, this societal change would weigh against such penalties being constitutionally permissible.

In what ways may a court assess whether a sentence contributes to acceptable goals of punishment?

A court evaluates a sentence’s alignment with acceptable goals of punishment such as retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. The court scrutinizes whether the punishment serves any of these purposes effectively and justifiably when applied to the particular crime and offender.

  • For example: imposing a hefty fine for a minor traffic violation would likely be considered contradictory to the goal of retribution, as it would exceed what is deemed a proportional response to the severity of the offense.

How does juror behavior reflect societal consensus on appropriate punishments?

Juror behavior is indicative of societal consensus as juries are composed of citizens who reflect prevailing societal values. When juries consistently abstain from choosing certain punishments, it suggests a collective judgment that those penalties are no longer seen as fitting or acceptable.

  • For example: if juries across various jurisdictions seldom impose the death penalty for non-homicide crimes, this pattern could signal a societal shift away from viewing capital punishment as appropriate for such offenses.


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