|Harris v. Alabama (93-7659), 513 U.S. 504 (1995). |
[ Stevens ]
[ O'Connor ]
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
LOUISE HARRIS, PETITIONER v. ALABAMA
on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of alabama
A defendant convicted of capital murder in Alabama is entitled to a sentencing hearing before the trial jury, Ala. Code §13A-5-46 (1994), unless jury participation is waived by both parties and approved by the court, §13A-5-44. The State must prove statutory aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and must disprove, by a preponderance of the evidence, any mitigating circumstance the defendant may proffer. §13A-5-45(g). The jury then renders an advisory verdict. If it finds that aggravating factors, if any, outweigh mitigating circumstances, then the jury recommends death; otherwise, the verdict is life imprisonment without parole. §13A-5-46(e). The jury may recommend death only if 10 jurors so agree, while a verdict of life imprisonment requires a simple majority. §13A-5-46(f). The recommendation and vote tally are reported to the judge.
The judge then must consider all available evidence and file a written statement detailing the defendant's crime, listing specific aggravating and mitigating factors, and imposing a sentence. Alabama Code §13A-5-47(e) provides:
"In deciding upon the sentence, the trial court shall determine whether the aggravating circumstances it finds to exist outweigh the mitigating circumstances it finds to exist, and in doing so the trial court shall consider the recommendation of the jury contained in its advisory verdict, unless such verdict has been waived pursuant to Section 13A-5-46(a) or 13A-5-46(g). While the jury's recommendation concerning sentence shall be given consideration, it is not binding upon the court."
If the defendant is sentenced to death, his conviction and sentence are automatically reviewed by an appellate court and, if affirmed, a writ of certiorari is granted by the Alabama Supreme Court as a matter of right. In addition to reviewing the record for errors, the appellate courts must independently weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determine whether the death penalty is disproportionate to sentences rendered in comparable cases. §13A-5-53(b).
Petitioner Louise Harris was married to the victim, a deputy sheriff, and was also having an affair with Lorenzo McCarter. She asked McCarter to find someone to kill her husband, and McCarter to that end approached a co worker, who refused and reported the solicitation to his supervisor. McCarter then found willing accomplices in Michael Sockwell and Alex Hood, who were paid $100 and given a vague promise of more money upon performance. On the appointed night, as her husband left for work on the nightshift, Harris called McCarter on his beeper to alert him. McCarter and Hood sat in a car parked on a nearby street, and Sockwell hid in the bushes next to a stop sign. As the victim stopped his car at the intersection, Sockwell sprang forth and shot him, point blank, with a shotgun. Harris was arrested after questioning, and McCarter agreed to bear witness to the conspiracy in exchange for the prosecutor's promise not to seek the death penalty. McCarter testified that Harris had asked him to kill her husband so they could share in his death benefits, which totaled about $250,000.
The jury convicted Harris of capital murder. At the sentencing hearing, a number of witnesses attested to her good background and strong character. She was rearing seven children, held three jobs simultaneously, and participated actively in her church. The jury recommended, by a 7 to 5 vote, that she be imprisoned for life without parole. The trial judge then considered her sentence, finding the existence of one aggravating circumstance, that the murder was committed for pecuniary gain, and one statutory mitigator, that Harris had no prior criminal record. The trial judge also found as nonstatutory mitigating circumstances that Harris was a hardworking, respected member of her church and community. Noting that Harris had planned the crime and financed its commission and stood to benefit the most from her husband's murder, the judge concluded that "the one statutory aggravating circumstance found and considered far outweighs all of the non statutory mitigating circumstances, and that the sentence ought to be death." App. 7. In separate proceedings, all the conspirators were convicted of capital murder. McCarter and Hood received prison terms of life without parole; Sockwell, the triggerman, was sentenced to death after the trial judge rejected a jury recommendation, again by a 7 to 5 vote, of life imprisonment.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Harris' conviction and sentence. 632 So. 2d 503 (1992). It noted that Alabama's death penalty statute is based on Florida's sentencing scheme, which we have held to be constitutional, see Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447, 457-467 (1984); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 252 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.). One difference is that jury recommendations are to be given "great weight" by the sentencing judge in Florida, see Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d 908, 910 (Fla. 1975), whereas Alabama only requires the judge to "consider" the advisory verdict. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Harris's contention that Florida's so called Tedder standard is constitutionally required, however. 632 So. 2d, at 538. As the statute prescribes, the court then reviewed the record for prejudicial errors and independently weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Finding no errors and concluding that death was the proper sentence, the court affirmed. Id., at 542-543. The Alabama Supreme Court also affirmed, discussing an unrelated claim. 632 So. 2d 543 (1993). We granted certiorari. 512 U. S. ___ (1994).
Alabama's capital sentencing scheme is much like that of Florida. Both require jury participation in the sentencing process but give ultimate sentencing authority to the trial judge. Ala. Code §13A-5-47(e) (1994); Fla. Stat. §921.141(3) (1985). A sentence of death in both States is subject to automatic appellate review. Ala. Code §13A-5-55 (1994); Fla. Stat. §921.141(4) (1985). In Florida, as in Alabama, the reviewing courts must independently weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine the propriety of the death sentence, Ala. Code §13A-5-53(b)(2) (1994); Harvard v. State, 375 So. 2d 833 (Fla.), cert. denied, 441 U.S. 956 (1977), and must decide whether the penalty is excessive or disproportionate compared to similar cases, Ala. Code §13A-5-53(b)(3) (1994); Williams v. State, 437 So. 2d 133 (Fla. 1983), cert. denied, 466 U.S. 909 (1984).
The two States differ in one important respect. The Florida Supreme Court has opined that the trial judge must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation and may not override the advisory verdict of life unless "the facts suggesting a sentence of death [are] so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ." Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d, at 910. The same deference inures to a jury recommendation of death. See Grossman v. State, 525 So. 2d 833, 839, n. 1 (Fla. 1988) (collecting cases). The Alabama capital sentencing statute, by contrast, requires only that the judge "consider" the jury's recommendation, and Alabama courts have refused to read the Tedder standard into the statute. See Ex Parte Jones, 456 So. 2d 380, 382-383 (Ala. 1984). This distinction between the Alabama and Florida schemes forms the controversy in this case--whether the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution requires the sentencing judge to ascribe any particular weight to the verdict of an advisory jury.
We have held Florida's capital sentencing statute to be constitutional. See Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976); Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984). In Spaziano, we addressed the specific question whether Florida could, consistent with the Constitution, vest sentencing authority in the judge and relegate the jury to an advisory role. While acknowledging that sentencing power resides with the jury in most States, we made clear that the "Eighth Amendment is not violated every time a State reaches a conclusion different from a majority of its sisters over how best to administer its criminal laws." Id., at 464. We therefore rejected the contention that "placing the responsibility on a trial judge to impose the sentence in a capital case is so fundamentally at odds with contemporary standards of fairness and decency that Florida must be required to alter its scheme and give final authority to the jury to make the life or death decision." Id., at 465; see also Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 648 (1990); Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738, 745 (1990).
Asserting that the death penalty serves no function in "rehabilitation," "incapacitation," or "deterren[ce]," Justice Stevens argues that a jury "should bear the responsibility to express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death in particular cases." Post, at 3, 4 (internal quotations omitted). What purpose is served by capital punishment and how a State should implement its capital punishment scheme--to the extent that those questions involve only policy issues--are matters over which we, as judges, have no jurisdiction. Our power of judicial review legitimately extends only to determine whether the policy choices of the community, expressed through its legislative enactments, comport with the Constitution. As we have noted elsewhere, "while we have an obligation to insure that constitutional bounds are not overreached, we may not act as judges as we might as legislators." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 174-175 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.)
In various opinions on the Florida statute we have spoken favorably of the deference that a judge must accord the jury verdict under Florida law. While rejecting an ex post-facto challenge in Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282, 294 (1977), we noted the "crucial protection" provided by the standard of Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d, at 910. In the same fashion, in dismissing Spaziano's argument that the Tedder standard was wrongly applied by the lower courts in his case, we stated:
"This Court already has recognized the significant safeguard the Tedder standard affords a capital defendant in Florida. See Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282, 294-295 (1977). See also Proffitt, 428 U. S., at 249 (joint opinion). We are satisfied that the Florida Supreme Court takes that standard seriously and has not hesitated to reverse a trial court if it derogates the jury's role." Spaziano, 468 U. S., at 465.
These statements of approbation, however, do not mean that the Tedder standard is constitutionally required. As we stated in Spaziano immediately following the passage quoted above, "Our responsibility, however, is not to second guess the deference accorded the jury's recommendation in a particular case, but to ensure that the result of the process is not arbitrary or discriminatory." 468 U. S., at 465. We thus made clear that, our praise for Tedder notwithstanding, the hallmark of the analysis is not the particular weight a State chooses to place upon the jury's advice, but whether the scheme adequately channels the sentencer's discretion so as to prevent arbitrary results. See also Proffitt, 428 U. S., at 252-253 (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).
Consistent with established constitutional law, Alabama has chosen to guide the sentencing decision by requiring the jury and judge to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Harris does not challenge this legislative choice. And she objects to neither the vesting of sentencing authority in the judge nor the requirement that the advisory verdict be considered in the process. What she seeks instead is a constitutional mandate as to how that verdict should be considered; relying on Florida's standard, she suggests that the judge must give "great weight" to the jury's advice.
We have rejected the notion that "a specific method for balancing mitigating and aggravating factors in a capital sentencing proceeding is constitutionally required." Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S. 164, 179(1988). Equally settled is the corollary that the Constitution does not require a State to ascribe any specific weight to particular factors, either in aggravation or mitigation, to be considered by the sentencer. See, e.g., Blystone v. Pennsylvania, 494 U.S. 299, 306-307 (1990); Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 113-115 (1982); Proffitt, 428 U. S., at 257-258 (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.). To require that "great weight" be given to the jury recommendation here, one of the criteria to be considered by the sentencer, would offend these established principles and place within constitutional ambit micromanagement tasks that properly rest within the State's discretion to administer its criminal justice system. We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment does not require the State to define the weight the sentencing judge must accord to an advisory jury verdict.
Harris argues that, under Alabama law, the verdict is more than advisory and that the jury in fact enjoys the key sentencing role, subject only to review by the judge. For support, she points to Alabama cases reversing death sentences where prejudicial errors were committed before the advisory jury. See Ex parte Williams, 556 So. 2d 744, 745 (Ala. 1987). Unless the jury played a key role, so goes the argument, reversal would not be warranted because the sentencing judge was not exposed to the same harmful error. The flaw in this contention is that reversal is proper so long as the jury recommendation plays a role in the judge's decision, not necessarily a determinative one. If the judge must consider the jury verdict in sentencing a capital defendant, as the statute plainly requires, then it follows that a sentence is invalid if the recommendation upon which it partially rests was rendered erroneously. In Espinosa v. Florida, 505 U. S. ___ (1992), the advisory jury, but not the sentencing judge, was presented with an invalid aggravating factor. We summarily reversed the death sentence, explaining that "Florida has essentially split the weighing process in two. Initially, the jury weighs aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the result of that weighing process is then in turn weighed within the trial court's process of weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 3). Error is committed when the jury considers an invalid factor and its verdict is in turn considered by the judge: "This kind of indirect weighing of an invalid aggravating factor creates the same potential for arbitrariness as the direct weighing of an invalid aggravating factor, and the result, therefore, was error." Ibid. (citation omitted). Such consequential error attaches whenever the jury recommendation is considered in the process, not only when it is given great weight by the judge.
We have observed in the Florida context that permitting the trial judge to reject the jury's advisory verdict may afford capital defendants "a second chance for life with the trial judge," Dobbert, 432 U. S., at 296. In practice, however, Alabama's sentencing scheme has yielded some ostensibly surprising statistics. According to the Alabama Prison Project, there have been only 5 cases in which the judge rejected an advisory verdict of death, compared to 47 instances where the judge imposed a death sentence over a jury recommendation of life. Statistics compiled by the Alabama Prison Project (Nov. 29, 1994) (lodged with the Clerk of this Court). But these numbers do not tell the whole story. We do not know, for instance, how many cases in which a jury recommendation of life imprisonment is adopted would have ended differently had the judge not been required to consider the jury's advice. Without such a subjective look into the minds of the decisionmakers, the deceptively objective numbers afford at best an incomplete picture. Even assuming that these statistics reflect a true view of capital sentencing in Alabama, they say little about whether the scheme is constitutional. That question turns not solely on a numerical tabulation of actual death sentences as compared to a hypothetical alternative, but rather on whether the penalties imposed are the product of properly guided discretion and not of arbitrary whim. If the Alabama statute indeed has not had the effect that we or its drafters had anticipated, such unintended results would be of little constitutional consequence. An ineffectual law is for the State legislature to amend, not for us to annul.
Harris draws our attention to apparent disparities in the weight given to jury verdicts in different cases in Alabama. For example, the trial judge here did not specify his reason for rejecting the jury's advice but in another case wrote that he accorded "great weight" to the recommendation, State v. Coral, No. CC-88-741 (Montgomery Cty., June 26, 1992), Alabama Sentencing Orders, p. 72 (lodged with the Clerk of this Court). In rejecting the jury verdict, other judges have commented variously that there was a "reasonable basis" to do so, State v. Parker, No. CC-88-105 (Colbert Cty., Dec. 3, 1991) Alabama Sentencing Orders, p. 408, that the verdict was "unquestionably a bizarre result," Ex parte Hays, 518 So. 2d 768, 777 (Ala. 1986), or that "if this were not a proper case for the death penalty to be imposed, a proper case could scarcely be imagined," State v. Frazier, No. CC-85-3291 (Mobile Cty., July 31, 1990) Alabama Sentencing Orders, p. 139. Juxtaposing these statements, Harris argues that the Alabama statute permits judges to reject arbitrarily the advisory verdict, thereby abusing their sentencing discretion.
But these statements do not indicate that the judges have divergent understandings of the statutory requirement that the jury verdicts be considered; they simply illustrate how different judges have "considered" the jury's advice. There is no reason to expect that the advisory verdicts will be treated uniformly in every case. The Alabama statute provides that the weighing process-shall not be defined to mean a mere tallying of aggravating and mitigating circumstances for the purpose of numerical comparison," Ala. Code §13A-5-48 (1994), which is no less than what the Constitution requires, see Proffitt, 428 U. S., at 258 (joint opinion). The disparate treatment of jury verdicts simply reflects the fact that, in the subjective weighing process, the emphasis given to each decisional criterion must of necessity vary in order to account for the particular circumstances of each case. See Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982) ("[A] consistency produced by ignoring individual differences is a false consistency"). In any event, Harris does not show how the various statements affect her case. She does not bring an equal protection claim, and she does not contest the lower courts' conclusion that her sentence is proportionate to that imposed in similar cases. The sentiments expressed in unrelated cases do not render her punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.
The Constitution permits the trial judge, acting alone, to impose a capital sentence. It is thus not offended when a State further requires the sentencing judge to consider a jury's recommendation and trusts the judge to give it the proper weight. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court.
It is so ordered.