Coker v. Georgia: No death penalty for rape

Coker v. Georgia challenged the Eighth Amendment, asking whether it was constitutional to sentence someone to the death penalty for rape. While already serving sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and aggravated assault, Coker escaped, broke into a woman’s house, raped her and stole her car. When found, he was charged with rape and aggravated robbery. He was given the death penalty for two reasons: the rape was committed by a person with prior convictions for capital felonies and the rape was committed in the course of committing another capital felony—the armed robbery. At the time, the U.S. government largely restricted the death sentence to criminals who killed others. Coker v. Georgia tested the proportionality of the death sentence as an appropriate punishment for other crimes. In this case, the Court noted that nearly all states at that time declined to impose such a harsh penalty, with Georgia being the only state that authorized death for the rape of an adult woman. Because rape did not involve the taking of another human life, the Court found the death penalty excessive “in its severity and revocability.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the punishment of death is “grossly disproportionate” to the crime of rape, it is likely the death penalty will only apply to acts of murder. Even though historically rape has been considered a capital offense, the ruling of Coker v. Georgia implies that the punishment of death is unconstitutional for any crime that does not involve the taking of another human life. Coker v. Georgia is significant because it narrows the death penalty for crimes of death, and establishes the “proportionality” standard of capital sentencing (i.e. “the punishment should be proportional to the crime”).

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