Commonwealth v. O’Neal




Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Citation and Year

339 N.E.2d 676 (Mass. 1975)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

MASS. CONST. Pt. 1, Art. 26 (“cruel or unusual punishments”); Arts. 1, 10, & 12 (due process)

Nature of Case

O’Neal was convicted of murder in the course of rape and given a mandatory death sentence. Though both “the parties and amici . . . presented arguments as to whether the State has a compelling interest in retention of the death penalty,” the court here considered only whether this particular mandatory death sentence violated the state constitution.


The mandatory death penalty for murder committed in the course of rape or attempted rape violates the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and is unconstitutional” under the state constitutional ban on “cruel or unusual” punishment


The court delivered its decision in multiple concurrences, but the primary opinion from Chief Justice Joseph Tauro is especially notable for two reasons: its (1) use of a “strict scrutiny” to assess the constitutionality of criminal punishments, and (2) insistence that state supreme courts have an independent obligation to interpret and enforce state constitutional rights.

On the first point, Chief Justice Tauro wrote that punishments which are not “necessary” are unconstitutional: “In order to uphold the constitutionality of punishment which inflicts such suffering and absolutely extinguishes all rights, the State must advance a substantial justification to demonstrate that the penalty of death is not disproportionate or unnecessary and is not, thus, cruel in a constitutional sense.” To assess this, “it is incumbent upon us to determine whether imposition of the mandatory death penalty for rape-murder serves a compelling State interest and whether its use is the least restrictive means toward furtherance of a permissible goal.”

He then analyzed the fit between the death sentence at issue and the state’s purported justifications, including deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution. “I am compelled to the conclusion that the Commonwealth has not sustained its burden of establishing that the death penalty is a necessary and least restrictive means for accomplishment of whatever valid interests it may have in ensuring justice and maintaining the social compact. Whatever marginal benefit use of capital punishment might have in serving the interests of retribution or moral reinforcement is not sufficient to withstand the strict constitutional scrutiny required here.”

In a separate concurrence, Justice Herbert Wilkins echoed this approach: “The Commonwealth has not established that the imposition of the death penalty for this crime serves any purpose which cannot be achieved as well by a sentence of imprisonment for life. Therefore, the sentence of death constitutes’’cruel or unusual punishment’ in violation of art. 26 of the Declaration of Rights.”

Finally, Chief Justice Tauro emphasized the role of state supreme courts in enforcing independent state constitutional rights. “I strongly disagree with Justice Reardon’s novel suggestion that we refrain from construction and application of our State Constitution while we await decision of the Federal constitutional issues in North Carolina v. Fowler, 285 N.C. 90 (1974),” Justice Tauro wrote. “The point is utterly without merit. This court not the Federal courts bears ultimate responsibility for construction of our State Constitution. Our interpretation of the State Constitution is final and cannot be challenged in the Federal courts. A Federal court decision cannot dispose of State constitutional issues confronting us.”

Justice Tauro concluded: “The fact that analysis under our State Constitution may parallel analysis under the Federal Constitution or that the analysis under the State Constitution may call for comparative construction of similar Federal provisions is no basis for evading our responsibility to declare the constitutional law which may be dispositive of the case. Although the United States Supreme Court must ultimately determine the scope and meaning of the Federal Constitution and establish uniformity of construction, State courts such as ours have the power and the obligation, when necessary, to state our own construction of the Federal Constitution in its application to a given case.”