In this 5 to 4 opinion, the United States Supreme Court held that it was a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment for one aiding in the commission of a felony that resulted in murder to be sentenced to death where he did not participate in the murder and did not intend for the murder to happen.
This case arose out of the robbery and murders of a Florida elderly couple — Thomas and Eunice Kersey. On April 1, 1975, Samson and Jeanette Armstrong went to the Kersey’s residence and attempted to rob Mr. Kersey. Mrs. Kersey heard his husband’s cries for help and shot and wounded Jeanette Armstrong. Following that, the Armstrongs shot and killed the Kerseys and took their money. Evidence showed that Earl Enmund was driving the get-away vehicle.
Using the Felony-Murder Rule, the jury convicted the Armstrongs and Enmund for two counts of first degree murder and later the court sentenced them to death. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed Enmund’s death sentence.
The United States Supreme Court revered Enmund’s sentence by holding that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Court reasoned as follows:
The question before us is not the disproportionality of death as a penalty for murder, but rather the validity of capital punishment for Enmund’s own conduct. The focus must be on his culpability, not on that of those who committed the robbery and shot the victims . . . Enmund himself did not kill or attempt to kill; and, as construed by the Florida Supreme Court, the record before use does not warrant a finding that Enmund had any intention of participating in or facilitating a murder . . . For purposes of imposing the death penalty, Enmund’s criminal culpability must be limited to his participation and moral guilt. Putting Enmund to death to avenge two killings that he did not commit and had no intention of committing or causing does not measurably contribute to the retributive end of ensuring that the criminal gets his just deserts.
Id. at 798-801.
The Court, therefore, reversed and remanded the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court that had upheld the death penalty for Enmund absence any proof that he killed or attempted to kill, and regardless of whether Endmund intended or contemplated that life would be taken during the planned robbery.
Justice Brennan concurred by expressing his view that, “the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments.” Id. at 801.
The four dissenting justices took issue with the majority’s holding by concluding that it interfered with a state’s criteria for assessing legal guilt by recasting intent as a matter of federal constitutional law. Id. at 801-831.
Note: One should not confuse this case as holding that a person cannot not be found guilty of first degree murder under the felony-murder rule where he did not commit the killing and did not intend that the killing take place during the commission of the underlying felony. Instead, the Court in this case held that one convicted of first degree murder pursuant to the felony-murder rule cannot be punished with death if he did not commit the actual killings and never intended the killings to take place during the commission of the felony.
Compare with Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987).