Gregg v. Georgia | 1976
Harvard University Law Professor
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Legal Director
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Subject: Constitutionality of the Death Penalty
Case Decided:
July 2, 1976

Gregg v. Georgia held that Georgia's death penalty statute was constitutional. The Court claimed the statute did not constitute a "cruel and unusual" punishment and therefore did not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. This case established a constitutional basis for the death penalty, but also established limits to how it could be carried out.

Troy Leon Gregg was found guilty of two counts of murder and armed robbery. Gregg was sentenced to capital punishment for his crimes. Instead of accepting his sentence, Gregg challenged the verdict and claimed the death penalty was unconstitutional. In a 7-2 decision, the Court upheld Georgia's death penalty statute as appropriate, reasoning the punishment could act as a deterrent for would-be murderers. Dissenting were Justices Marshall and Brennan. Justice Marshall wrote that “such a punishment has as its very basis the total denial of the wrongdoer’s dignity and worth.”

A participant in Georgia’s first death row escape, Gregg escaped prison the night before his death sentence was to be carried out. He was murdered in a bar fight in North Carolina hours after his escape.

Key Players
Troy Leon Gregg
Troy Leon Gregg (April 22, 1948 – July 29, 1980) was convicted of armed robbery and murder and sentenced to death. Gregg was the first condemned individual whose death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. He was also one of four inmates responsible for the first death row breakout in Georgia history. Gregg died that same night as a result of a bar fight in North Carolina.
Justice Potter Stewart
Potter Stewart (January 23, 1915 - December 7, 1985) was a lawyer and a politician with a powerful Republican family background. He was known as an influential swing vote who helped shape American law. Justice Stewart delivered the plurality opinion in Gregg v. Georgia.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Justice William J. Brennan
William J. Brennan (April 25, 1906 - July 24, 1997) was a lawyer and one of the longest-serving justices in Supreme Court history (1956-1990). Brennan authored many landmark opinions protecting individual freedoms. In Gregg v. Georgia, Justice Brennan was one of two dissenting opinions where he stated "a punishment must not be so severe as to be degrading to human dignity.”
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Justice Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall (July 2, 1908 - January 24, 1993) was a lawyer, civil rights advocate and the first African-American justice. Known for his ardent support of individual rights, Justice Marshall's dissent in Gregg v. Georgia stated “any individual concerned about conforming his conduct to what society says is 'right' would fail to realize that murder is 'wrong' if the penalty were simply life imprisonment.”
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
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