Coker v. Georgia

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Coker v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 28, 1977
Decided June 29, 1977
Full case name Erlich Anthony Coker v. State of Georgia
Citations 433 U.S. 584 (more)
97 S. Ct. 2861; 53 L. Ed. 2d 982; 1977 U.S. LEXIS 146
Prior history After he escaped from prison, the defendant raped an adult woman. He was convicted and sentenced to death, which was upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The death penalty for rape is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment and so is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment, as cruel and unusual punishment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Plurality White, joined by Stewart, Blackmun, Stevens
Concurrence Marshall
Concurrence Brennan
Concur/dissent Powell
Dissent Burger, joined by Rehnquist
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. VIII

Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbade the death penalty for rape.


While serving several sentences for rape, kidnapping, one count of first degree murder, and aggravated assault, Ehrlich Anthony Coker escaped from prison. Coker broke into Allen and Elnita Carver's home near Waycross, Georgia, raped Elnita Carver and stole the family's vehicle. Coker was convicted of rape, armed robbery, and the other offenses. He was sentenced to death on the rape charge after the jury found two of the aggravating circumstances present for imposing such a sentence: 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. The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the death sentence.[citation needed]



Justice Byron White

Justice White wrote the plurality opinion,[1] on behalf of Justices Stewart, Blackmun, and Stevens.

The Court's proportionality jurisprudence is informed by objective evidence, which comes from the laws enacted by state legislatures and the behavior of sentencing juries. The Court had found that it was always a minority of states that allowed the death penalty for rape.[2]

In 1925, only 18 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government authorized the death penalty for rape of an adult woman. In 1963, the figure was 17 states, almost all of them in the Southern and Western United States as well as District of Columbia and the federal government.[3]

By 1971, on the eve of the Court's Furman decision, that number had declined to 16 states and the federal government. However, when Furman forced the states to rewrite their capital sentencing laws, only three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana) retained the death penalty for rape of an adult woman.[Note 1]

In 1976, the capital sentencing laws of North Carolina and Louisiana were struck down for a different reason. In response to the reversals, the legislatures of North Carolina and Louisiana did not retain the death penalty for rape. Thus, at the time of the Coker decision, only Georgia retained the death penalty for the crime of rape of an adult woman.

At the time of decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia had reviewed 63 rape cases. Only six of these involved a death sentence. The Georgia court had set aside one, leaving five death sentences for rape intact from among all the rape convictions obtained since Furman. From the statistical evidence, the Court concluded that in at least 90% of rape cases, the jury did not impose a death sentence. The objective evidence, state death penalty laws and behavior of juries, suggested that the death penalty for rape was rare indeed.[4]

However, objective evidence does not dictate the outcome of the Court's proportionality analysis. The Court also brings to bear its estimation of how the death penalty in the circumstances in question would serve the goals of retribution and deterrence. Rape is a serious crime: "short of homicide, it is the ultimate violation of self." It typically involves violence and injury, both physical and psychological, but the Court denied that it involves "serious" injury:[5] "Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life." In light of such facts, the Court concluded that death was an excessive punishment for "the rapist who, as such, does not take human life."[6]

The fact that the jury had found that two aggravating factors applied to Coker's crime (his prior convictions and the fact that the rape was committed during the course of a robbery) did not change the Court's conclusion. The rape may have been committed during the course of another crime and by a hardened criminal, but the rape did not escalate into a killing.[7]

Finally, even a deliberate killing does not merit a death sentence under Georgia law without the finding of aggravating factors.[8]

Concurring opinion[edit]

Justices Brennan[9] and Marshall[10] concurred in the judgment because the case struck down a death penalty, in keeping with their view that the death penalty is per se cruel and unusual punishment.[11]


Justice Powell[12] concurred in the judgment but emphasized that the death penalty may be appropriate for rape if there are aggravating circumstances.[13]


Chief Justice Burger, joined by Justice Rehnquist,[14] dissented because he believed that the proportionality principle the Court had engrafted onto the Eighth Amendment encroached too much on the legislative power of the states. Burger preferred to concentrate on the narrow facts of the case: was it proper for Georgia to impose the death penalty on Coker, a man who had escaped from prison while serving a sentence for murder only to rape another young woman? "Whatever one's view may be as to the State's constitutional power to impose the death penalty upon a rapist who stands before the court convicted for the first time, this case reveals a chronic rapist whose continuing danger to the community is abundantly clear."

Burger defended a state's prerogative to impose additional punishment for recidivists, including necessarily a death sentence for prisoners who commit crimes. Congress had enacted an early three-strikes law, and the federal crime of assault on a mail carrier carried a stiffer penalty for a second such offense. Other states also carried harsher penalties for "habitual criminality." He believed that "the Eighth Amendment does not prevent the State from taking an individual's 'well-demonstrated propensity for life-endangering behavior' into account in devising punitive measures which will prevent inflicting further harm upon innocent victims."

If the Court was serious about sanctioning the continued use of the death penalty, it should allow states to use it in appropriate circumstances.

Furthermore, rape is a heinous crime: "A rapist not only violates a victim's privacy and personal integrity, but inevitably causes serious psychological as well as physical harm in the process. The long-range effect upon the victim's life and health is likely to be irreparable; it is impossible to measure the harm which results." He disagreed with the Court's conclusion that there were no circumstances under which it was a proportional response to crime. Such a conclusion turned the Court into "the ultimate arbiter of the standards of criminal responsibility in diverse areas of the criminal law throughout the country."

That was an inappropriate role for the Court to assume in the American federal system. He felt that Furman had injected enough uncertainty into the debate over capital punishment; it was more expedient to allow subsequent legislative developments to evolve.

Burger also disagreed with the Court's assessment of the retribution and deterrence value of the death penalty for rape. The death penalty might deter at least one prospective rapist. It might encourage victims to report the crime. It might increase the general feeling of security among members of the community. The fact that the magnitude of the harm caused by the murderer is greater than that caused by the rapist was beside the point. The Eighth Amendment was not the Code of Hammurabi; if "innocent life and limb are to be preserved I see no constitutional barrier in punishing by death all who engage in... criminal activity which consistently poses serious danger of death or serious bodily harm." Thus, the Court had no place dictating how the states might make law in the criminal arena.


The direct consequence was the overturning of the death sentences of Coker and five other rapists sentenced to die by Georgia, such as John W. Hooks and John W. Eberheart,[15] Donald Boyer and William J. Hughes.[16]

However, the ruling did not stop two of the three states having capital child rape statutes: Mississippi[Note 2] and Florida[Note 3] (Tennessee capital child rape statutes[Note 4] were overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court because of Woodson[17]) from issuing death sentences to child rapists: William H. Shue[18][19][20] and Daniel Coler[21][22] had to wait another ruling to have their death sentence overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Florida capital child rape statutes unconstutitional only with the Robert L. Buford case in 1981 on the basis of Coker[23][24] and the Lucious L. Andrews case in 1983.[25][26]

The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Mississippi capital rape statutes in 1989, with the Alfred D. Leatherwood case on another basis, the fact that capital aggravators were written to apply to only capital murder.[27]

The main consequence of Coker was that the death penalty was largely restricted to crimes in which the defendant caused the death of another human being.

However, until Kennedy, some states were testing the limit of this restriction[28] by enacting death penalty statutes for repeat child rapists. In terms of the Court's capital punishment jurisprudence, Coker signaled the Court's commitment to employing a robust proportionality test for deciding when the death penalty would be an appropriate punishment. The Court would later use this same proportionality test to evaluate the propriety of the death penalty for felony murder (except for the actual killer), mentally retarded offenders, juvenile offenders, and eventually all crimes except murder and crimes against the state.


Erlich (also known as Ehrlech, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections, under the GDC ID 0000379279) Coker is still serving multiple life sentences as of 2013 at the Phillips State Prison, Georgia.[29]

In 2007, Coker's son, Eric Lee Coker, was sentenced in North Carolina to at least 21 years for repeatedly molesting a 14-year-old relative and then trying to hire someone to kill his wife, who now lives in Lafayette, Indiana.[30]

Kennedy case[edit]

Kennedy v. Louisiana was a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that resulted in United States Supreme Court litigation which expanded the Coker decision.

On May 22, 2007, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that it is constitutional to impose the death penalty for rape if the victim is a child.[31] Ruling on an appeal brought in the case of defendant Patrick Kennedy, Justice Jeffrey Victory wrote for the court that the Louisiana law allowing the imposition of the death penalty under those circumstances was consistent with Coker because an aggravating circumstance, the age of the victim, justified the death penalty.

The case was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2008 (Kennedy v. Louisiana), thus expanding Coker to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all cases that do not involve murder or crimes against the State.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Three more (Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee) had the death penalty for child rape.
  2. ^

    SEC. 97-3-65. Rape; carnal knowledge of child under fourteen years of age. (1) Every person eighteen (18) years of age or older who shall be convicted of rape by carnally and unlawfully knowing a child under the age of fourteen (14) years, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to death or imprisonment for life in the State Penitentiary; [..]

    — Miss. Code 97-3-65
  3. ^

    A person 18 years of age or older who commits sexual battery upon, or in an attempt to commit sexual battery injures the sexual organs of, a person less than 12 years of age commits a capital felony, punishable as provided in ss. 775.082 and 921.141.

    — Fl. Stat. 794.011(2) (a)
  4. ^

    Whoever is convicted of the rape of any female under twelve years of age shall suffer death by electrocution.

    — Tenn. Code Ann. §39-3702 (1975 repl. vol.)


  1. ^ Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 586-600
  2. ^ A Cruel and Unusual Punishment
  3. ^ Death As A Penalty For Rape
  4. ^ Id., at 596-597
  5. ^ Id., at 598
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Id., at 599
  8. ^ Id., at 600
  9. ^ "BRENNAN, J., Concurring in the Judgment". 
  10. ^ "MARSHALL, J., Concurring in the Judgment". 
  11. ^ Id., at 600-601
  12. ^ "POWELL, J., Concurring in the Judgment in Part, Dissenting in Part". 
  13. ^ Id., at 601-602
  14. ^ "BURGER, C.J., Dissenting Opinion". 
  15. ^ "Eberheart v. State 28776". 
  16. ^ "Rape verdict based on non-fatal issue". Beaver Country Times. UPI. June 29, 1977. Retrieved September 29, 2013. 
  17. ^ Collins v. State, 550 S. W. 2d 643, 646 (Tenn. 1977)
  18. ^ Lee, Al (June 26, 1979). "Convicted Rapist Returning To Ocala For Resentencing". Ocala Star-Banner. p. 2A. Retrieved October 5, 2013. 
  19. ^ "Court Overturns Rapist's Death Sentence". Lakeland Ledger. Associated Press. December 8, 1978. p. 4A. Retrieved October 5, 2013. 
  20. ^ Shue v. State 366 So.2d 387 (1978)
  21. ^ Putnam, Walter (November 20, 1982). "Man Charged In Rape Of Daughter Set Free". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. p. 10B. Retrieved October 3, 2013. 
  22. ^ von Drehle, David (2006). "Dancing on the head of a pin". Among the Lowest of the Dead. University of Michigan Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780472031238. 
  23. ^ "Buford v. State 403 So.2d 943 (1981)". 
  24. ^ "Child Rape Death Ruling To Face Test". Ocala Star-Banner. Associated Press. July 25, 1981. p. 1. Retrieved October 11, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Judge Sentences Man To Death For A Rape". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Associated Press. May 2, 1981. Retrieved September 29, 2013. 
  26. ^ "State Death Row Loses Last Non-Murderer". Ocala Star-Banner. Associated Press. December 9, 1983. Retrieved September 29, 2013. 
  27. ^ Leatherwood v. State
  28. ^ Hilton, Hilary (May 2, 2007). "Death Penalty for Child Molesters?". Times. Retrieved September 29, 2013. 
  29. ^ Offender Query
  31. ^ Volokh, Eugene (May 23, 2007). "Death Penalty for Child Rape". The Volokh Conspiracy. Retrieved October 3, 2013. 

External links[edit]