Capital Punishment

The Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia,57 finding constitutional deficiencies in the manner in which the death penalty was arrived at but not holding the death penalty unconstitutional per se, was a watershed in capital punishment jurisprudence. In the long run the ruling may have had only minor effect in determining who is sentenced to death and who is actually executed, but it had the indisputable effect of constitutionalizing capital sentencing law and of involving federal courts in extensive review of capital sentences.58 Prior to 1972, constitutional law governing capital punishment was relatively simple and straightforward. Capital punishment was constitutional, and there were few grounds for constitutional review. Furman and the five 1976 follow-up cases that reviewed state laws revised in light of Furman reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment per se, but also opened up several avenues for constitutional review. Since 1976, the Court has issued a welter of decisions attempting to apply and reconcile the sometimes conflicting principles it had announced: that sentencing discretion must be confined through application of specific guidelines that narrow and define the category of death-eligible defendants and thereby prevent arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, but that jury discretion must also be preserved in order to weigh the mitigating circumstances of individual defendants who fall within the death-eligible class.

While the Court continues to tinker with application of these principles, it also has taken steps to attempt to reduce the many procedural and substantive opportunities for delay and defeat of the carrying out of death sentences, and to give the states more leeway in administering capital sentencing. The early post-Furman stage involving creation of procedural protections for capital defendants that were premised on a “death is different” rationale.59 Later, the Court grew increasingly impatient with the delays that were made possible through procedural protections, especially those associated with federal habeas corpus review.60 Having consistently held that capital punishment is not inherently unconstitutional, the Court seemed bent on clarifying and even streamlining constitutionally required procedures so that those states that choose to impose capital punishment may do so without inordinate delays. In the habeas context, the interest in finality at first trumped a death-is-different approach.61 Then, in In re Troy Anthony Davis,62 the Court found a death-row convict with a claim of actual innocence to be entitled to a District Court determination of his habeas petition. Justice Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, “refuse[d] to endorse” Justice Scalia’s reasoning (in a dissent joined by Justice Thomas) that would read the Constitution to permit the execution of a convict “who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man.”

The writ has also been restricted statutorily.63

Changed membership on the Court has had an effect. Gone from the Court are several Justices who believed that all capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, often resulting in consistent votes to issue stays against any challenged death sentence.64 While two current members of the Court have recently concluded that the “death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ ”65 a majority of the Court has held that it is “settled that capital punishment is constitutional,” resulting in most challenges focusing on how the death penalty is applied, such as the consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and the appropriate scope of federal review.66

General Validity and Guiding Principles.

In Trop v. Dulles, the majority refused to consider “the death penalty as an index of the constitutional limit on punishment. Whatever the arguments may be against capital punishment . . . the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.”67 But a coalition of civil rights and civil liberties organizations mounted a campaign against the death penalty in the 1960s, and the Court eventually confronted the issues involved. The answers were not, it is fair to say, consistent.

A series of cases testing the means by which the death penalty was imposed68 culminated in what appeared to be a decisive rejection of the attack in McGautha v. California.69 Nonetheless, the Court then agreed to hear a series of cases directly raising the question of the validity of capital punishment under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, and, to considerable surprise, the Court held in Furman v. Georgia70 that the death penalty, at least as administered, violated the Eighth Amendment. There was no unifying opinion of the Court in Furman; the five Justices in the majority each approached the matter from a different angle in a separate concurring opinion. Two Justices concluded that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual” per se because the imposition of capital punishment “does not comport with human dignity”71 or because it is “morally unacceptable” and “excessive.”72 One Justice concluded that because death is a penalty inflicted on the poor and hapless defendant but not the affluent and socially better defendant, it violates the implicit requirement of equality of treatment found within the Eighth Amendment.73 Two Justices concluded that capital punishment was both “cruel” and “unusual” because it was applied in an arbitrary, “wanton,” and “freakish” manner74 and so infrequently that it served no justifying end.75

Because only two of the Justices in Furman thought the death penalty to be invalid in all circumstances, those who wished to reinstate the penalty concentrated upon drafting statutes that would correct the faults identified in the other three majority opinions.76 Enactment of death penalty statutes by 35 states following Furman led to renewed litigation, but not to the elucidation one might expect from a series of opinions.77 Instead, although the Court seemed firmly on the path to the conclusion that only criminal acts that result in the deliberate taking of human life may be punished by the state’s taking of human life,78 it chose several different paths in attempting to delineate the acceptable procedural devices that must be instituted in order that death may be constitutionally pronounced and carried out. To summarize, the Court determined that the penalty of death for deliberate murder is not per se cruel and unusual, but that mandatory death statutes leaving the jury or trial judge no discretion to consider the individual defendant and his crime are cruel and unusual, and that standards and procedures may be established for the imposition of death that would remove or mitigate the arbitrariness and irrationality found so significant in Furman.79 Divisions among the Justices, however, made it difficult to ascertain the form that permissible statutory schemes may take.80

Because the three Justices in the majority in Furman who did not altogether reject the death penalty thought the problems with the system revolved about discriminatory and arbitrary imposition,81 legislatures turned to enactment of statutes that purported to do away with these difficulties. One approach was to provide for automatic imposition of the death penalty upon conviction for certain forms of murder. More commonly, states established special procedures to follow in capital cases, and specified aggravating and mitigating factors that the sentencing authority must consider in imposing sentence. In five cases in 1976, the Court rejected automatic sentencing, but approved other statutes specifying factors for jury consideration.82

First, the Court concluded that the death penalty as a punishment for murder does not itself constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Although there were differences of degree among the seven Justices in the majority on this point, they all seemed to concur that reenactment of capital punishment statutes by 35 states precluded the Court from concluding that this form of penalty was no longer acceptable to a majority of the American people. Rather, they concluded, a large proportion of American society continued to regard it as an appropriate and necessary criminal sanction. Neither is it possible, the Court continued, to rule that the death penalty does not comport with the basic concept of human dignity at the core of the Eighth Amendment. Courts are not free to substitute their own judgments for the people and their elected representatives. A death penalty statute, just as all other statutes, comes before the courts bearing a presumption of validity that can be overcome only upon a strong showing by those who attack its constitutionality. Whether in fact the death penalty validly serves the permissible functions of retribution and deterrence, the judgments of the state legislatures are that it does, and those judgments are entitled to deference. Therefore, the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and is not unconstitutionally severe. Nor is the punishment of death disproportionate to the crime being punished, murder.83

Second, however, a different majority concluded that statutes mandating the imposition of death for crimes classified as first-degree murder violate the Eighth Amendment. A review of history, traditional usage, legislative enactments, and jury determinations led the plurality to conclude that mandatory death sentences had been rejected by contemporary standards. Moreover, mandatory sentencing precludes the individualized “consideration of the character and record of the . . . offender and the circumstances of the particular offense” that “the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment” requires in capital cases.84

A third principle established by the 1976 cases was that the procedure by which a death sentence is imposed must be structured so as to reduce arbitrariness and capriciousness as much as possible.85 What emerged from the prevailing plurality opinion in these cases are requirements (1) that the sentencing authority, jury or judge,86 be given standards to govern its exercise of discretion and be given the opportunity to evaluate both the circumstances of the offense and the character and propensities of the accused;87 (2) that to prevent jury prejudice on the issue of guilt there be a separate proceeding after conviction at which evidence relevant to the sentence, mitigating and aggravating, be presented;88 (3) that special forms of appellate review be provided not only of the conviction but also of the sentence, to ascertain that the sentence was fairly imposed both in light of the facts of the individual case and by comparison with the penalties imposed in similar cases.89 The Court later ruled, however, that proportionality review is not constitutionally required.90 Gregg, Proffitt, and Jurek did not require such comparative proportionality review, the Court noted, but merely suggested that proportionality review is one means by which a state may “safeguard against arbitrarily imposed death sentences.”91

The Court added a fourth major guideline in 2002, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury comprehends the right to have a jury make factual determinations on which a sentencing increase is based.92 This means that capital sentencing schemes are unconstitutional if judges are allowed to make factual findings as to the existence of aggravating circumstances that are prerequisites for imposition of a death sentence.

Implementation of Procedural Requirements.

Most states responded to the 1976 requirement that the sentencing authority’s discretion be narrowed by enacting statutes spelling out “aggravating” circumstances, and requiring that at least one such aggravating circumstance be found before the death penalty is imposed. The Court has required that the standards be relatively precise and instructive so as to minimize the risk of arbitrary and capricious action by the sentencer, the desired result being a principled way to distinguish cases in which the death penalty should be imposed from cases in which it should not be. Thus, the Court invalidated a capital sentence based upon a jury finding that the murder was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman,” reasoning that “a person of ordinary sensibility could fairly [so] characterize almost every murder.”93 Similarly, an “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance was held to be unconstitutionally vague.94 The “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved” standard is cured, however, by a narrowing interpretation requiring a finding of infliction of mental anguish or physical abuse before the victim’s death.95

The proscription against a mandatory death penalty has also received elaboration. The Court invalidated statutes making death the mandatory sentence for persons convicted of first-degree murder of a police officer,96 and for prison inmates convicted of murder while serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.97 Flaws related to those attributed to mandatory sentencing statutes were found in a state’s structuring of its capital system to deny the jury the option of convicting on a lesser included offense, when doing so would be justified by the evidence.98 Because the jury had to choose between conviction or acquittal, the statute created the risk that the jury would convict because it felt the defendant deserved to be punished or acquit because it believed death was too severe for the particular crime, when at that stage the jury should concentrate on determining whether the prosecution had proved defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.99

The overarching principle of Furman and of the Gregg series of cases was that the jury should not be “without guidance or direction” in deciding whether a convicted defendant should live or die. The jury’s attention was statutorily “directed to the specific circumstances of the crime . . . and on the characteristics of the person who committed the crime.”100 Discretion was channeled and rationalized. But, in Lockett v. Ohio,101 a Court plurality determined that a state law was invalid because it prevented the sentencer from giving weight to any mitigating factors other than those specified in the law. In other words, the jury’s discretion was curbed too much. “[W]e conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer, in all but the rarest kind of capital case, not be precluded from considering as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.”102 Similarly, the reason that a three-justice plurality viewed North Carolina’s mandatory death sentence for persons convicted of first degree murder as invalid was that it failed “to allow the particularized consideration of relevant aspects of the character and record of each convicted defendant.”103 Lockett and Woodson have since been endorsed by a Court majority.104 Thus, a great measure of discretion was again accorded the sentencing authority, be it judge or jury, subject only to the consideration that the legislature must prescribe aggravating factors.105

The Court has explained this apparent contradiction as constituting recognition that “individual culpability is not always measured by the category of crime committed,”106 and as the product of an attempt to pursue the “twin objectives” of “measured, consistent application” of the death penalty and “fairness to the accused.”107 The requirement that aggravating circumstances be spelled out by statute serves a narrowing purpose that helps consistency of application; absence of restriction on mitigating evidence helps promote fairness to the accused through an “individualized” consideration of his circumstances. In the Court’s words, statutory aggravating circumstances “play a constitutionally necessary function at the stage of legislative definition [by] circumscribing the class of persons eligible for the death penalty,”108 while consideration of all mitigating evidence requires focus on “the character and record of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense” consistent with “the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment.”109 As long as the defendant’s crime falls within the statutorily narrowed class, the jury may then conduct “an individualized determination on the basis of the character of the individual and the circumstances of the crime.”110

So far, the Justices who favor abandonment of the Lockett and Woodson approach have not prevailed. The Court has, however, given states greater leeway in fashioning procedural rules that have the effect of controlling how juries may use mitigating evidence that must be admitted and considered.111 States may also cure some constitutional errors on appeal through operation of “harmless error” rules and reweighing of evidence by the appellate court.112 Also, the Court has constrained the use of federal habeas corpus to review state court judgments. As a result of these trends, the Court recognizes a significant degree of state autonomy in capital sentencing in spite of its rulings on substantive Eighth Amendment law.113

While holding fast to the Lockett requirement that sentencers be allowed to consider all mitigating evidence,114 the Court has upheld state statutes that control the relative weight that the sentencer may accord to aggravating and mitigating evidence.115 “The requirement of individualized sentencing is satisfied by allowing the jury to consider all relevant mitigating evidence”; there is no additional requirement that the jury be allowed to weigh the severity of an aggravating circumstance in the absence of any mitigating factor.116 So, too, the legislature may specify the consequences of the jury’s finding an aggravating circumstance; it may mandate that a death sentence be imposed if the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating circumstance and no mitigating circumstance,117 or if the jury finds that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances.118 And a court may instruct that the jury “must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion, or public feeling,” because in essence the instruction merely cautions the jury not to base its decision “on factors not presented at the trial.”119 However, a jury instruction that can be interpreted as requiring jury unanimity on the existence of each mitigating factor before that factor may be weighed against aggravating factors is invalid as in effect allowing one juror to veto consideration of any and all mitigating factors. Instead, each juror must be allowed to give effect to what he or she believes to be established mitigating evidence.120 Due process considerations can also come into play; if the state argues for the death penalty based on the defendant’s future dangerousness, due process requires that the jury be informed if the alternative to a death sentence is a life sentence without possibility of parole.121

What is the effect on a death sentence if an “eligibility factor” (a factor making the defendant eligible for the death penalty) or an “aggravating factor” (a factor, to be weighed against mitigating factors, in determining whether a defendant who has been found eligible for the death penalty should receive it) is found invalid? In Brown v. Sanders, the Court announced “the following rule: An invalidated sentencing factor (whether an eligibility factor or not) will render the sentence unconstitutional by reason of its adding an improper element to the aggravation scale in the weighing process unless one of the other sentencing factors enables the sentencer to give aggravating weight to the same facts and circumstances.”122

Appellate review under a harmless error standard can preserve a death sentence based in part on a jury’s consideration of an aggravating factor later found to be invalid,123 or on a trial judge’s consideration of improper aggravating circumstances.124 In each case the sentencing authority had found other aggravating circumstances justifying imposition of capital punishment, and in Zant evidence relating to the invalid factor was nonetheless admissible on another basis.125 Even in states that require the jury to weigh statutory aggravating and mitigating circumstances (and even in the absence of written findings by the jury), the appellate court may preserve a death penalty through harmless error review or through a reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating evidence.126 By contrast, where there is a possibility that the jury’s reliance on a “totally irrelevant” factor (defendant had served time pursuant to an invalid conviction subsequently vacated) may have been decisive in balancing aggravating and mitigating factors, a death sentence may not stand notwithstanding the presence of other aggravating factors.127

In Oregon v. Guzek, the Court could “find nothing in the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments that provides a capital defendant a right to introduce,” at sentencing, new evidence, available to him at the time of trial, “that shows he was not present at the scene of the crime.”128 Although “the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer . . . not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death,” such evidence is a traditional concern of sentencing because it tends to show “how, not whether,” the defendant committed the crime.129 Alibi evidence, by contrast, concerns “whether the defendant committed the basic crime,” and “thereby attacks a previously determined matter in a proceeding [i.e., sentencing] at which, in principle, that matter is not at issue.”130

Focus on the character and culpability of the defendant led the Court, initially, to hold that the Eighth Amendment “prohibits a capital sentencing jury from considering victim impact evidence” that does not “relate directly to the circumstances of the crime.”131 Four years later, the Court largely overruled132 these decisions, however, holding that the Eighth Amendment does allow the jury to consider “‘victim impact’ evidence relating to the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crimes on the victim’s family.”133 The Court reasoned that the admissibility of victim impact evidence was necessary to restore balance to capital sentencing. In the Court’s view, exclusion of such evidence “unfairly weighted the scales in a capital trial” because there are no corresponding limits on “relevant mitigating evidence a capital defendant may introduce concerning his own circumstances . . . .”134

Limitations on Capital Punishment: Methods of Execution.

Throughout the history of the United States, various meth-ods of execution have been deployed by the states in carrying out the death penalty. In the early history of the nation, hanging was the “nearly universal form of execution.”135 In the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, the states began adopting electrocution as a substitute for hanging based on the “well-grounded belief that electrocution is less painful and more humane than hanging.”136 And by the late 1970s, following Gregg, states began adopting statutes allowing for execution by lethal injection, perceiving lethal injection to be a more humane alternative to electrocution or other popular pre-Gregg means of carrying out the death penalty, such as firing squads or gas chambers.137 Today the overwhelming majority of the states that allow for the death penalty use lethal injection as the “exclusive or primary method of execution.”138

Despite a national evolution over the past two hundred years with respect to the methods deployed in carrying out the death penalty, the choice to adopt arguably more humane means of capital punishment has not been the direct result of a decision from the Supreme Court. In fact, while the Court has broadly articulated that there are some limits to the methods that can be employed in carrying out death sentences (such as torturing someone to death),139 the Supreme Court has “never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure” for carrying out the death penalty as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.140 In 1878, the Court, relying on a long history of using firing squads in carrying out executions in military tribunals, held that the “punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty” did not constitute a cruel and unusual punishment.141 Twelve years later, the Court upheld the use of the newly created electric chair, deferring to the judgment of the New York state legislature and finding that it was “plainly right” that electrocution was not “inhuman and barbarous.”142 Fifty-seven years later, a plurality of the Court concluded that it would not be “cruel and unusual” to execute a prisoner whose first execution failed due to a mechanical malfunction, as an “unforeseeable accident” did not amount to the “wanton infliction of pain” barred by the Eighth Amendment.143

The declaration in Trop that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”144 and the continued reliance on that declaration by a majority of the Court in several key Eighth Amendment cases145 set the stage for potential “method of execution” challenges to the newest mode for the death penalty: lethal injection. Following several decisions clarifying the proper procedural mechanism to raise challenges to methods of execution,146 the Court, in Baze v. Rees, rejected a method of execution challenge to Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol, a three-drug protocol consisting of (1) an anesthetic that would render a prisoner unconscious; (2) a muscle relaxant; and (3) an agent that would induce cardiac arrest.147 A plurality opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, concluded that to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a particular method for carrying out the death penalty must present a “substantial” or “objectively intolerable” risk of harm.148 In so concluding, the plurality opinion rejected the view that a prisoner could succeed on an Eighth Amendment method of execution challenge by merely demonstrating that a “marginally” safer alternative existed, because such a standard would “embroil” the courts in ongoing scientific inquiries and force courts to second guess the informed choices of state legislatures respecting capital punishment.149 As a result, the plurality reasoned that to address a “substantial risk of serious harm” effectively, the prisoner must propose an alternative method of execution that is feasible, can be readily implemented, and can significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.150 Given the “heavy burden” that the plurality placed on those pursuing an Eighth Amendment method of execution claim, the plurality upheld Kentucky’s protocol in light of (1) the consensus of state lethal injection procedures; (2) the safeguards Kentucky put in place to protect against any risks of harm; and (3) the lack of any feasible, safer alternative to the three-drug protocol.151 Four other Justices, for varying reasons, concurred in the judgment of the Court.152

Seven years later, in a seeming reprise of the Baze litigation, a majority of the Court in Glossip v. Gross formally adopted the Baze plurality’s reasoning with respect to Eighth Amendment claims involving methods of execution, resulting in the rejection of a challenge to Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol.153 Following Baze, anti-death penalty advocates successfully persuaded pharmaceutical companies to stop providing states with the anesthetic that constituted the first of the three drugs used in the protocol challenged in the 2008 case, resulting in several states, including Oklahoma, substituting a sedative called midazolam in the protocol.154 In Glossip, the Court held that Oklahoma’s use of midazolam in its execution protocol did not violate the Eighth Amendment, because the challengers had failed to present a known and available alternative to midazolam and did not adequately demonstrate that the drug was ineffective in rendering a prisoner insensate to pain.155 Ultimately, given the holdings in Baze and Glossip, and the burden those cases imposed upon the plaintiffs challenging a state’s chosen method of execution on Eighth Amendment grounds, it appears that only those modes of the death penalty that demonstrably result in substantial risks of harm for the prisoner relative to viable alternatives can be challenged as unconstitutional, a standard that may result in the political process (as opposed the judiciary) being the primary means of making wholesale changes to a particular method of execution.

Limitations on Capital Punishment: Proportionality.

The Court has also considered whether, based on the nature of the underlying offense (or, as explored in the next topic, the capacity of the defendant), the imposition of capital punishment may be inappropriate in particular cases. “[T]he Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive or cruel and unusual punishments flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for [a] crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense.’ Whether this requirement has been fulfilled is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791 but by the norms that ‘currently prevail.’ The Amendment ‘draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’ ”156 However, the “Court has . . . made it clear that ‘[t]he Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet, whereby a temporary consensus on leniency for a particular crime fixes a permanent constitutional maximum, disabling States from giving effect to altered beliefs and responding to changed social conditions.’ ”157

In Coker v. Georgia,158 the Court held that the state may not impose a death sentence upon a rapist who did not take a human life. In Kennedy v. Louisiana,159 the Court held that this was true even when the rape victim was a child.160 In Coker the Court announced that the standard under the Eighth Amendment was that punishments are barred when they “are ‘excessive’ in relation to the crime committed. Under Gregg, a punishment is ‘excessive’ and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime. A punishment might fail the test on either ground. Furthermore, these Eighth Amendment judgments should not be, or appear to be, merely the subjective views of individual Justices; judgment should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent. To this end, attention must be given to the public attitudes concerning a particular sentence—history and precedent, legislative attitudes, and the response of juries reflected in their sentencing decisions are to be consulted.”161 Although the Court thought that the death penalty for rape passed the first test (“it may measurably serve the legitimate ends of punishment”),162 it found that it failed the second test (proportionality). Georgia was the sole state providing for death for the rape of an adult woman, and juries in at least nine out of ten cases refused to impose death for rape. Aside from this view of public perception, the Court independently concluded that death is an excessive penalty for an offender who rapes but does not kill; rape cannot compare with murder “in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public.”163 In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court found that both “evolving standards of decency” and “a national consensus” preclude the death penalty for a person who rapes a child.164

Applying the Coker analysis, the Court ruled in Enmund v. Florida165 that death is an unconstitutional penalty for felony murder if the defendant did not himself kill, or attempt to take life, or intend that anyone be killed. Although a few more states imposed capital punishment in felony murder cases than had imposed it for rape, nonetheless the weight was heavily against the practice, and the evidence of jury decisions and other indicia of a modern consensus also opposed the death penalty in such circumstances. Moreover, the Court determined that death was a disproportionate sentence for one who neither took life nor intended to do so. Because the death penalty is likely to deter only when murder is the result of premeditation and deliberation, and because the justification of retribution depends upon the degree of the defendant’s culpability, the imposition of death upon one who participates in a crime in which a victim is murdered by one of his confederates and not as a result of his own intention serves neither of the purposes underlying the penalty.166 In Tison v. Arizona, however, the Court eased the “intent to kill” requirement, holding that, in keeping with an “apparent consensus” among the states, “major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, is sufficient to satisfy the Enmund culpability requirement.”167

Limitations on Capital Punishment: Diminished Capacity.

The Court has grappled with several cases involving application of the death penalty to persons of diminished capacity. The first such case involved a defendant whose competency at the time of his offense, at trial, and at sentencing had not been questioned, but who subsequently developed a mental disorder. The Court held in Ford v. Wainwright168 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from carrying out the death penalty on an individual who is insane, and that properly raised issues of sanity at the time of execution must be determined in a proceeding satisfying the minimum requirements of due process.169 The Court noted that execution of the insane had been considered cruel and unusual at common law and at the time of adoption of the Bill of Rights, and continued to be so viewed. And, although no states purported to permit the execution of the insane, Florida and some others left the determination to the governor. Florida’s procedures, the Court held, violated due process because the decision was vested in the governor without the defendant’s having the opportunity to be heard, the governor’s decision being based on reports of three state-appointed psychiatrists.170

In Panetti v. Quarterman,171 the Court considered two of the issues raised, but not clearly answered, in Ford: what definition of insanity should be used in capital punishment cases, and what process must be afforded to the defendant to prove his incapacity. Although the court below had found that it was sufficient to establish competency that a defendant know that he is to be executed and the reason why, the Court in Panetti rejected these criteria, and sent the case back to the lower court for it to consider whether the defendant had a rational understanding of the reasons the state gave for an execution, and how that reflected on his competency.172 The Court also found that the failure of the state to provide the defendant an adequate opportunity to respond to the findings of two court-appointed mental health experts violated due process.173

In 1989, when first confronted with the issue of whether execution of the mentally retarded is constitutional, the Court found “insufficient evidence of a national consensus against executing mentally retarded people.”174 In 2002, however, the Court determined in Atkins v. Virginia175 that “much ha[d] changed” since 1989, that the practice had become “truly unusual,” and that it was “fair to say” that a “national consensus” had developed against it.176 In 1989, only two states and the Federal Government prohibited execution of the mentally retarded while allowing executions generally. By 2002, an additional 16 states had prohibited execution of the mentally retarded, and no states had reinstated the power. But the important element of consensus, the Court explained, was “not so much the number” of states that had acted, but instead “the consistency of the direction of change.”177 The Court’s “own evaluation of the issue” reinforced the consensus. Neither of the two generally recognized justifications for the death penalty—retribution and deterrence— applies with full force to mentally retarded offenders. Retribution necessarily depends on the culpability of the offender, yet mental retardation reduces culpability. Deterrence is premised on the ability of offenders to control their behavior, yet “the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that make these defendants less morally culpable . . . also make it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty and, as a result, control their conduct based on that information.”178

In Atkins, the Court wrote, “As was our approach in Ford v. Wainwright with regard to insanity, ‘we leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences.’ ”179 In Schriro v. Smith, the Court again quoted this language, holding that “[t]he Ninth Circuit erred in commanding the Arizona courts to conduct a jury trial to resolve Smith’s mental retardation claim.”180 States, the Court added, are entitled to “adopt[ ] their own measures for adjudicating claims of mental retardation,” though “those measures might, in their application, be subject to constitutional challenge.”181

In Hall v. Florida,182 however, the Court limited the states’ ability to define intellectual disability by invalidating Florida’s “bright line” cutoff based on Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test scores. A Florida statute stated that anyone with an IQ above 70 was prohibited from offering additional evidence of mental disability and was thus subject to capital punishment.183 The Court invalidated this rigid standard, observing that “[i]ntellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”184 The majority found that, although IQ scores are helpful in determining mental capabilities, they are imprecise in nature and may only be used as a factor of analysis in death penalty cases.185 This reasoning was buttressed by a consensus of mental health professionals who concluded that an IQ test score should be read not as a single fixed number, but as a range.186

Building on Hall, in Moore v. Texas the Supreme Court rejected the standards used by Texas state courts to evaluate whether a death row inmate was intellectually disabled, concluding that the standards created an “unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”187 First, Justice Ginsburg, on behalf of the Court, held that a Texas court’s conclusion that a prisoner with an IQ score of 74 could be executed was “irreconcilable with Hall” because the state court had failed to consider standard errors that are inherent in assessing mental disability.188 Second, the Moore Court determined that Texas deviated from prevailing clinical standards respecting the assessment of a death row inmate’s intellectual capabilities by (1) emphasizing the petitioner’s perceived adaptive strengths and his behavior in prison;189 (2) dismissing several traumatic experiences from the petitioner’s past;190 and (3) requiring the petitioner to show that his adaptive deficits were not due to a personality disorder or a mental health issue.191 Third, the Court criticized the prevailing standard used in Texas courts for assessing intellectual disability in death penalty cases, which had favored the “‘consensus of Texas citizens’ on who ‘should be exempted from the death penalty,’” with regard to those with “mild” intellectual disabilities in the state’s capital system, concluding that those with even “mild” levels of intellectual disability could not be executed under Atkins.192 Finally, Moore rejected the Texas courts’ skepticism of professional standards for assessing intellectual disability, standards that the state courts had viewed as being “exceedingly subjective.”193 The Supreme Court instead held that “lay stereotypes” (and not established professional standards) on an individual’s intellectual capabilities should “spark skepticism.”194 As a result, following Hall and Moore, while the states retain “some flexibility” in enforcing Atkins, the medical community’s prevailing standards appear to “supply” a key constraint on the states in capital cases.195

The Court’s conclusion that execution of juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment evolved in much the same manner. Initially, a closely divided Court invalidated one statutory scheme that permitted capital punishment to be imposed for crimes committed before age 16, but upheld other statutes authorizing capital punishment for crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. Important to resolution of the first case was the fact that Oklahoma set no minimum age for capital punishment, but by separate provision allowed juveniles to be treated as adults for some purposes.196 Although four Justices favored a flat ruling that the Eighth Amendment barred the execution of anyone younger than 16 at the time of his offense, concurring Justice O’Connor found Oklahoma’s scheme defective as not having necessarily resulted from the special care and deliberation that must attend decisions to impose the death penalty. The following year Justice O’Connor again provided the decisive vote when the Court in Stanford v. Kentucky held that the Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit imposition of the death penalty for individuals who commit crimes at age 16 or 17. Like Oklahoma, neither Kentucky nor Missouri197 directly specified a minimum age for the death penalty. To Justice O’Connor, however, the critical difference was that there clearly was no national consensus forbidding imposition of capital punishment on 16- or 17-year-old murderers, whereas there was such a consensus against execution of 15-year-olds.198

Although the Court in Atkins v. Virginia contrasted the national consensus said to have developed against executing the mentally retarded with what it saw as a lack of consensus regarding execution of juvenile offenders over age 15,199 less than three years later the Court held that such a consensus had developed. The Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons200 drew parallels with Atkins. A consensus had developed, the Court held, against the execution of juveniles who were age 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes. Since Stanford, five states had eliminated authority for executing juveniles, and no states that formerly prohibited it had reinstated the authority. In all, 30 states prohibited execution of juveniles: 12 that prohibited the death penalty altogether, and 18 that excluded juveniles from its reach. This meant that 20 states did not prohibit execution of juveniles, but the Court noted that only five of these states had actually executed juveniles since Stanford, and only three had done so in the 10 years immediately preceding Roper. Although the pace of change was slower than had been the case with execution of the mentally retarded, the consistent direction of change toward abolition was deemed more important.201

As in Atkins, the Court in Roper relied on its “own independent judgment” in addition to its finding of consensus among the states.202 Three general differences between juveniles and adults make juveniles less morally culpable for their actions. Because juveniles lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, they often engage in “impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.” Juveniles are also more susceptible than adults to “negative influences” and peer pressure. Finally, the character of juveniles is not as well formed, and their personality traits are “more transitory, less fixed.”203 For these reasons, irresponsible conduct by juveniles is “not as morally reprehensible,” they have “a greater claim than adults to be forgiven,” and “a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”204 Because of the diminished culpability of juveniles, the penological objectives of retribution and deterrence do not provide adequate justification for imposition of the death penalty. The majority preferred a categorical rule over individualized assessment of each offender’s maturity, explaining that “[t]he differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability.”205

The Roper Court found confirmation for its holding in “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.”206 Although “not controlling,” the rejection of the juvenile death penalty by other nations and by international authorities was “instructive,” as it had been in earlier cases, for Eighth Amendment interpretation.207

Limitations on Capital Punishment: Equality of Application.

One of the principal objections to imposition of the death pen-alty, voiced by Justice Douglas in his concurring opinion in Furman, was that it was not being administered fairly—that the capital sentencing laws vesting “practically untrammeled discretion” in juries were being used as vehicles for racial discrimination, and that “discrimination is an ingredient not compatible with the idea of equal protection of the laws that is implicit in the ban on ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments.”208 This argument has not carried the day. Although the Court has acknowledged the possibility that the death penalty may be administered in a racially discriminatory manner, it has made proof of such discrimination quite difficult.

A measure of protection against jury bias was provided by the Court’s holding that “a capital defendant accused of an interracial crime is entitled to have prospective jurors informed of the race of the victim and questioned on the issue of racial bias.”209

Proof of prosecution bias is another matter. The Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp210 that a strong statistical showing of racial disparity in capital sentencing cases is insufficient to establish an Eighth Amendment violation. Statistics alone do not establish racial discrimination in any particular case, the Court concluded, but “at most show only a likelihood that a particular factor entered into some decisions.”211 Just as important to the outcome, however, was the Court’s application of the two overarching principles of prior capital punishment cases: that a state’s system must narrow a sentencer’s discretion to impose the death penalty (e.g., by carefully defining “aggravating” circumstances), but must not constrain a sentencer’s discretion to consider mitigating factors relating to the character of the defendant. Although the dissenters saw the need to narrow discretion in order to reduce the chance that racial discrimination underlies jury decisions to impose the death penalty,212 the majority emphasized the need to preserve jury discretion not to impose capital punishment. Reliance on statistics to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the Court feared, could undermine the requirement that capital sentencing jurors “focus their collective judgment on the unique characteristics of a particular criminal defendant”—a focus that can result in “final and unreviewable” leniency.213

Limitations on Habeas Corpus Review of Capital Sentences.

The Court’s rulings limiting federal habeas corpus review of state convictions, reinforced by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,214 may be expected to reduce significantly the amount of federal court litigation over state imposition of capital punishment. In the habeas context, the Court rejected the “death is different” approach by applying to capital cases the same rules that limit federal petitions in non-capital cases.215 Then, in In re Troy Anthony Davis,216 the Court found a death-row convict with a claim of actual innocence to be entitled to a District Court determination of his habeas petition.217

The Court held in Penry v. Lynaugh218 that its Teague v. Lane219 rule of nonretroactivity applies to capital sentencing challenges. Under Teague, new rules of constitutional interpretation announced after a defendant’s conviction has become final will not be applied in habeas cases unless one of two exceptions applies.220 The two exceptions—the situations in which “[a] new rule applies retroactively in a collateral proceeding”—are when “(1) the rule is substantive or (2) the rule is a ‘watershed rul[e] of criminal procedure’ implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.”221 The first exception has also been stated to be “that a new rule should be applied retroactively if it places ‘certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe.’ ”222 The second exception has also been stated to be “that a new rule should be applied retroactively if it requires the observance of those procedures that . . . are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,’ ” and “without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished.”223 Further restricting the availability of federal habeas review is the Court’s definition of “new rule.” Interpretations that are a logical outgrowth or application of an earlier rule are nonetheless “new rules” unless the result was “dictated” by that precedent.224 Although in Penry itself the Court determined that the requested rule (requiring an instruction that the jury consider mitigating evidence of the defendant’s mental retardation and abused childhood) was not a “new rule” because it was dictated by Eddings and Lockett, in subsequent habeas capital sentencing cases the Court has found substantive review barred by the “new rule” limitation.225

A second restriction on federal habeas review also has ramifications for capital sentencing review. Claims that state convictions are unsupported by the evidence are weighed by a “rational factfinder” inquiry: “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”226 This same standard for reviewing alleged errors of state law, the Court determined, should be used by a federal habeas court to weigh a claim that a generally valid aggravating factor is unconstitutional as applied to the defendant.227 In addition, the Court has held that, absent an independent constitutional violation, habeas corpus relief for prisoners who assert innocence based on newly discovered evidence should generally be denied.228 In In re Troy Anthony Davis,229 however, the Court found a death-row convict with a claim of actual innocence to be entitled to a District Court determination of his habeas petition.230

Third, a different harmless error rule is applied when constitutional errors are alleged in habeas proceedings. The Chapman v. California231 rule applicable on direct appeal, requiring the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a constitutional error is harmless, is inappropriate for habeas review, the Court concluded, given the “secondary and limited” role of federal habeas proceedings.232 The appropriate test is that previously used only for non-constitutional errors: “whether the error has substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”233 Further, the “substantial and injurious effect standard” is to be applied in federal habeas proceedings even “when the state appellate court failed to recognize the error and did not review it for harmlessness under the ‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard set forth in Chapman v. California . . . .”234

A fourth rule was devised to prevent successive “abusive” or defaulted habeas petitions. Federal courts are barred from hearing such claims unless the defendant can show by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable juror would have found him eligible for the death penalty under applicable state law.


The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 prohibits federal habeas relief based on claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”236 The Court’s decision in Bell v. Cone,237 rejecting a claim that an attorney’s failure to present mitigating evidence during the capital sentencing phase of a trial and his waiver of a closing argument at sentencing should entitle a condemned prisoner to relief, illustrates how these restrictions can operate to defeat challenges to state-imposed death sentences.238

In Carey v. Musladin,239 the Court noted that it had previously held that “the State cannot, consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment, compel an accused to stand trial before a jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothes,”240 but that it had never ruled on the effect on a defendant’s fair trial rights of spectator conduct. In Carey, the spectator conduct that allegedly affected the defendant’s right to a fair trial consisted of members of the victim’s family wearing buttons with the victim’s photograph. Given the lack of holdings from the Court on the question of spectator conduct, the Court in Carey found that “it cannot be said that the state court unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law” in denying the defendant relief.241 Consequently, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 precluded habeas relief. Similarly, because the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether, during a plea hearing at which the defendant pleads guilty, defense counsel’s being linked to the courtroom by speaker phone, rather than being physically present, is likely to result in such poor performance that the Cronic standard for ineffective assistance of counsel should apply, the Court again could not say “that the state court ‘unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.’ ”242

The Court has also ruled that a death row inmate has no constitutional right to an attorney to help prepare a petition for state collateral review.243


408 U.S. 238 (1972). back
See Carol S. Steiker and Jordan M. Steiker, Sober Second Thoughts: Reflections on Two Decades of Constitutional Regulation of Capital Punishment, 109 HARV. L. REV. 355 (1995). back
See, e.g., Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 357–58 (1977): “From the point of view of the defendant, [death] is different in both its severity and its finality. From the point of view of society, the action of the sovereign in taking the life of one of its citizens also differs dramatically from any other legitimate state action. It is of vital importance . . . that any decision to impose the death sentence be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice or emotion.” back
See, e.g., Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 888 (1983): “unlike a term of years, a death sentence cannot begin to be carried out by the State while substantial legal issues remain outstanding. Accordingly, federal courts must isolate the exceptional cases where constitutional error requires retrial or resentencing as certainly and swiftly as orderly procedures will permit.” See also Gomez v. United States District Court, 503 U.S. 653 (1992) (vacating orders staying an execution, and refusing to consider, because of “abusive delay,” a claim that “could have been brought more than a decade ago”—that California’s method of execution (cyanide gas) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment). back
In Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 405 (1993), the Court rejected the position that “the fact that a death sentence has been imposed requires a different standard of review on federal habeas corpus,” and also declared that, because of “the very disruptive effect that entertaining claims of actual innocence would have on the need for finality in capital cases, and the enormous burden that having to retry cases based on often stale evidence would place on the States, the threshold showing for such an assumed right would necessarily be extraordinarily high.” Id. at 417. In a subsequent part of the opinion, however, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that “a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional,” and it imposed a high standard for making this showing. 506 U.S. at 417–419. back
557 U.S. ___, No. 08–1443 (2009). back
See, e.g., the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104–132, 110 Stat. 1214. back
For example, the position of Justices Brennan and Marshall that the “death penalty is unconstitutional in all circumstances” resulted in two automatic votes against any challenged death sentence during their time on the Court. See, e.g., Lenhard v. Wolff, 444 U.S. 807, 808 (1979) (Brennan & Marshall, JJ., dissenting). Justice Blackmun, who retired in 1994, concluded late in his career that the Court’s effort to reconcile the twin goals of fairness to the individual defendant and consistency and rationality of sentencing had failed and that the death penalty, “as currently administered, is unconstitutional.” See Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1159 (1994) (Blackmun, J., dissenting). Justice Stevens, who retired from the Court in 2010, concluded in a 2008 case that the death penalty is “patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment” because of what he perceived as its “negligible returns.” See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 86 (2008) (Stevens, J., concurring) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Nonetheless, because the “Court has held the death penalty constitutional” and out of “respect” for the Court’s precedents, Justice Stevens’ remaining years on the Court did not yield automatic votes against the death penalty akin to those of Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. back
See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. ___, No. 14–7955, slip op. at 2 (2015) (Breyer & Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting). back
See id. at 4 (Alito, J., joined by Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ.). back
356 U.S. 86, 99 (1958). back
In Rudolph v. Alabama, 375 U.S. 889 (1963), Justices Goldberg, Douglas, and Brennan, dissenting from a denial of certiorari, argued that the Court should have heard the case to consider whether the Constitution permitted the imposition of death “on a convicted rapist who has neither taken nor endangered human life,” and presented a line of argument questioning the general validity of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment. The Court addressed exclusion of death-scrupled jurors in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). Witherspoon and subsequent cases explicating it are discussed under Sixth Amendment—Impartial Jury. back
402 U.S. 183 (1971). McGautha was decided in the same opinion with Crampton v. Ohio. McGautha raised the question whether provision for imposition of the death penalty without legislative guidance to the sentencing authority in the form of standards violated the Due Process Clause; Crampton raised the question whether due process was violated when both the issue of guilt or innocence and the issue of whether to impose the death penalty were determined in a unitary proceeding. Justice Harlan for the Court held that standards were not required because, ultimately, it was impossible to define with any degree of specificity which defendant should live and which die; although bifurcated proceedings might be desirable, they were not required by due process. back
408 U.S. 238 (1972). The change in the Court’s approach was occasioned by the shift of Justices Stewart and White, who had voted with the majority in McGautha. back
408 U.S. at 257 (Justice Brennan). back
408 U.S. at 314 (Justice Marshall). back
408 U.S. at 240 (Justice Douglas). back
408 U.S. at 306 (Justice Stewart). back
408 U.S. at 310 (Justice White). The four dissenters, in four separate opinions, argued with different emphases that the Constitution itself recognized capital punishment in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, that the death penalty was not “cruel and unusual” when the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments were proposed and ratified, that the Court was engaging in a legislative act to strike it down now, and that even under modern standards it could not be considered “cruel and unusual.” Id. at 375 (Chief Justice Burger), 405 (Justice Blackmun), 414 (Justice Powell), 465 (Justice Rehnquist). Each of the dissenters joined each of the opinions of the others. back
Collectors of judicial “put downs” of colleagues should note Justice Rehnquist’s characterization of the many expressions of faults in the system and their correction as “glossolalial.” Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 317 (1976) (dissenting). back
Justice Frankfurter once wrote of the development of the law through “the process of litigating elucidation.” International Ass’n of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617, 619 (1958). The Justices are firm in declaring that the series of death penalty cases failed to conform to this concept. See, e.g., Chief Justice Burger, Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 602 (1978) (plurality opinion) (“The signals from this Court have not . . . always been easy to decipher”); Justice White, id. at 622 (“The Court has now completed its about-face since Furman”) (concurring in result); and Justice Rehnquist, id. at 629 (dissenting) (“the Court has gone from pillar to post, with the result that the sort of reasonable predictability upon which legislatures, trial courts, and appellate courts must of necessity rely has been all but completely sacrificed”), and id. at 632 (“I am frank to say that I am uncertain whether today’s opinion represents the seminal case in the exposition by this Court of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as they apply to capital punishment, or whether instead it represents the third false start in this direction within the past six years”). back
On crimes not involving the taking of life or the actual commission of the killing by a defendant, see Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977) (rape of an adult woman); Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2461 (2008) (rape of an eight-year-old child); Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982) (felony murder where defendant aided and abetted a robbery during which a murder was committed but did not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing would take place). Compare Enmund with Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987) (death sentence upheld where defendants did not kill but their involvement in the events leading up to the murders was active, recklessly indifferent, and substantial). Those cases in which a large threat, though uneventuated, to the lives of many may have been present, as in airplane hijackings, may constitute an exception to the Court’s narrowing of the crimes for which capital punishment may be imposed. The federal hijacking statute, 49 U.S.C. § 46502, imposes the death penalty only when a death occurs during commission of the hijacking. By contrast, the treason statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2381, permits the death penalty in the absence of a death, and represents a situation in which great and fatal danger might be present. But the treason statute also constitutes a crime against the state, which may be significant. In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2641, 2659 (2008), in overturning a death sentence imposed for the rape of a child, the Court wrote, “Our concern here is limited to crimes against individual persons. We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the State.” back
Justices Brennan and Marshall adhered to the view that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional. E.g., Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 600 (1977); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 619 (1978); Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 801 (1982). back
A comprehensive evaluation of the multiple approaches followed in Furman-
era cases may be found in Radin, The Jurisprudence of Death: Evolving Standards for the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, 126 U. PA. L. REV. 989 (1978).
Thus, Justice Douglas thought the penalty had been applied discriminatorily, Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), Justice Stewart thought it “wantonly and . . . freakishly imposed,” id. at 310, and Justice White thought it had been applied so infrequently that it served no justifying end. Id. at 313. back
The principal opinion was in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) (upholding statute providing for a bifurcated proceeding separating the guilt and sentencing phases, requiring the jury to find at least one of ten statutory aggravating factors before imposing death, and providing for review of death sentences by the Georgia Supreme Court). Statutes of two other states were similarly sustained, Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976) (statute generally similar to Georgia’s, with the exception that the trial judge, rather than jury, was directed to weigh statutory aggravating factors against statutory mitigating factors), and Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976) (statute construed as narrowing death-eligible class, and lumping mitigating factors into consideration of future dangerousness), while those of two other states were invalidated, Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976), and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976) (both mandating death penalty for first-degree murder). back
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 168–87 (1976) (Justices Stewart, Powell, and Stevens); Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 350–56 (1976) (Justices White, Blackmun, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger). The views summarized in the text are those in the Stewart opinion in Gregg. Justice White’s opinion basically agrees with this opinion in concluding that contemporary community sentiment accepts capital punishment, but did not endorse the proportionality analysis. Justice White’s Furman dissent and those of Chief Justice Burger and Justice Blackmun show a rejection of proportionality analysis. Justices Brennan and Marshall dissented, reiterating their Furman views. Gregg, 428 U.S. at 227, 231. back
Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976); Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976). Justices Stewart, Powell, and Stevens composed the plurality, and Justices Brennan and Marshall concurred on the basis of their own views of the death penalty. Id. at 305, 306, 336. back
Here adopted is the constitutional analysis of the Stewart plurality of three. “[T]he holding of the Court may be viewed as the position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds,” Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 169 n.15 (1976), a comment directed to the Furman opinions but equally applicable to these cases and to Lockett. See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 192–94 (1977). back
The Stewart plurality noted its belief that jury sentencing in capital cases performs an important social function in maintaining the link between contemporary community values and the penal system, but agreed that sentencing may constitutionally be vested in the trial judge. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 190 (1976). Subsequently, however, the Court issued several opinions holding that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is violated if a judge makes factual findings (e.g., as to the existence of aggravating circumstances) upon which a death sentence is based. Hurst v. Florida, 577 U.S. ___ , No. 14–7505, slip op. at 1–2 (2016); Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Notably, one Justice in both cases would have found that the Eighth Amendment—not the Sixth Amendment—requires that “a jury, not a judge, make the decision to sentence a defendant to death.” Ring, 536 U.S. at 614 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment). See also Hurst, slip op. at 1 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment). back
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 188–95 (1976). Justice White seemed close to the plurality on the question of standards, id. at 207 (concurring), but while Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist joined the White opinion “agreeing” that the system under review “comports” with Furman, Justice Rehnquist denied the constitutional requirement of standards in any event. Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 319–21 (1976) (dissenting). In McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 207–08 (1971), the Court had rejected the argument that the absence of standards violated the Due Process Clause. On the vitiation of McGautha, see Gregg, 428 U.S. at 195 n.47, and Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 598–99 (1978). In assessing the character and record of the defendant, the jury may be required to make a judgment about the possibility of future dangerousness of the defendant, from psychiatric and other evidence. Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 275–76 (1976). Moreover, testimony of psychiatrists need not be based on examination of the defendant; general responses to hypothetical questions may also be admitted. Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880 (1983). But cf. Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454 (1981) (holding Self-incrimination and Counsel Clauses applicable to psychiatric examination, at least when a doctor testifies about his conclusions with respect to future dangerousness). back
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 163, 190–92, 195 (1976) (plurality opinion). McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183 (1971), had rejected a due process requirement of bifurcated trials, and the Gregg plurality did not expressly require it under the Eighth Amendment. But the plurality’s emphasis upon avoidance of arbitrary and capricious sentencing by juries seems to look inevitably toward bifurcation. The dissenters in Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 358 (1976), rejected bifurcation and viewed the plurality as requiring it. All states with post-Furman capital sentencing statutes took the cue by adopting bifurcated capital sentencing procedures, and the Court has not been faced with the issue again. See Raymond J. Pascucci, et al., Special Project, Capital Punishment in 1984: Abandoning the Pursuit of Fairness and Consistency, 69 CORNELL L. REV. 1129, 1224–25 (1984). back
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 195, 198 (1976) (plurality); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 250–51, 253 (1976) (plurality); Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 276 (1976) (plurality). back
Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37 (1984). back
465 U.S. at 50. back
Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). See also Hurst v. Florida, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14–7505, slip op. at 1–2 (2016). back
Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 428–29 (1980) (plurality opinion). back
Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356, 363–64 (1988). But see Tuilaepa v. California, 512 U.S. 967 (1994) (holding that permitting capital juries to consider the circumstances of the crime, the defendant’s prior criminal activity, and the age of the defendant, without further guidance, is not unconstitutionally vague). back
Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990). Accord, Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764 (1990). See also Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 201 (1976) (upholding full statutory circumstance of “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim”); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 255 (1976) (upholding “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” aggravating circumstance as interpreted to include only “the conscienceless or pitiless crime which is unnecessarily torturous to the victim”); Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527 (1992) (impermissible vagueness of “heinousness” factor cured by narrowing interpretation including strangulation of a conscious victim); Arave v. Creech, 507 U.S. 463 (1993) (consistent application of narrowing construction of phrase “exhibited utter disregard for human life” to require that the defendant be a “cold-blooded, pitiless slayer” cures vagueness); Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447 (2005) (presumption that state supreme court applied a narrowing construction because it had done so numerous times). back
Roberts v. Louisiana, 431 U.S. 633 (1977) (per curiam) (involving a different defendant from the first Roberts v. Louisiana case, 428 U.S. 325 (1976). back
Sumner v. Shuman, 483 U.S. 66 (1987). back
Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980). The statute made the guilt determination “depend . . . on the jury’s feelings as to whether or not the defendant deserves the death penalty, without giving the jury any standards to guide its decision on this issue.” Id. at 640. Cf. Hopper v. Evans, 456 U.S. 605 (1982). No such constitutional infirmity is present, however, if failure to instruct on lesser included offenses is due to the defendant’s refusal to waive the statute of limitations for those lesser offenses. Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984). See Hopkins v. Reeves, 524 U.S. 88 (1998) (defendant charged with felony murder did not have right to instruction as to second degree murder or manslaughter, where Nebraska traditionally did not consider these lesser included offenses). See also Schad v. Arizona, 501 U.S. 624 (1991) (first-degree murder defendant, who received instruction on lesser included offense of second-degree murder, was not entitled to a jury instruction on the lesser included offense of robbery). In Schad the Court also upheld Arizona’s characterization of first degree murder as a single crime encompassing two alternatives, premeditated murder and felony-murder, and not requiring jury agreement on which alternative had occurred. back
Also impermissible as distorting a jury’s role are prosecutor’s comments or jury instructions that mislead a jury as to its primary responsibility for deciding whether to impose the death penalty. Compare Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320 (1985) (jury’s responsibility is undermined by court-sanctioned remarks by prosecutor that jury’s decision is not final, but is subject to appellate review) with California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992 (1983) (jury responsibility not undermined by instruction that governor has power to reduce sentence of life imprisonment without parole). See also Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231 (1988) (poll of jury and supplemental jury instruction on obligation to consult and attempt to reach a verdict was not unduly coercive on death sentence issue, even though consequence of failing to reach a verdict was automatic imposition of life sentence without parole); Romano v. Oklahoma, 512 U.S. 1 (1994) (imposition of death penalty after introduction of evidence that defendant had been sentenced to death previously did not diminish the jury’s sense of responsibility so as to violate the Eighth Amendment); Jones v. United States, 527 U.S. 373 (1999) (court’s refusal to instruct the jury on the consequences of deadlock did not violate Eighth Amendment, even though court’s actual instruction was misleading as to range of possible sentences). back
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197–98 (1976) (plurality). back
438 U.S. 586 (1978). The plurality opinion by Chief Justice Burger was joined by Justices Stewart, Powell, and Stevens. Justices Blackmun, Marshall, and White concurred in the result on separate and conflicting grounds. Id. at 613, 619, 621. Justice Rehnquist dissented. Id. at 628. back
438 U.S. at 604 (emphasis in original). Although, under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the state must bear the burden “to prove the existence of aggravating circumstances, a defendant’s constitutional rights are not violated by placing on him the burden of proving mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency.” Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 650 (1990) (plurality). A fortiori, a statute “may direct imposition of the death penalty when the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigators do not outweigh aggravators, including where the aggravating circumstances and mitigating circumstances are in equipoise.” Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163, 173 (2006). back
Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 303 (1976) (opinion of Justice Stewart, joined by Justices Powell and Stevens). Accord, Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976) (statute mandating death penalty for five categories of homicide constituting first-degree murder). back
Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110 (1982) (adopting Lockett); Sumner v. Shuman, 483 U.S. 66 (1987) (adopting Woodson). The majority in Eddings was composed of Justices Powell, Brennan, Marshall, Stevens, and O’Connor; Chief Justice Burger and Justices White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist dissented. The Shuman majority was composed of Justices Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, Powell, Stevens, and O’Connor; dissenting were Justices White and Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist. Woodson and the first Roberts v. Louisiana had earlier been followed in the second Roberts v. Louisiana, 431 U.S. 633 (1977), a per curiam opinion from which Chief Justice Burger, and Justices Blackmun, White, and Rehnquist dissented. back
Justice White, dissenting in Lockett from the Court’s holding on consideration of mitigating factors, wrote that he “greatly fear[ed] that the effect of the Court’s decision today will be to compel constitutionally a restoration of the state of affairs at the time Furman was decided, where the death penalty is imposed so erratically and the threat of execution is so attenuated for even the most atrocious murders that ‘its imposition would then be the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.’ ” 438 U.S. at 623. More recently, Justice Scalia voiced similar misgivings. “Shortly after introducing our doctrine requiring constraints on the sentencer’s discretion to ‘impose’ the death penalty, the Court began developing a doctrine forbidding constraints on the sentencer ’s discretion to ‘decline to impose’ it. This second doctrine— counterdoctrine would be a better word—has completely exploded whatever coherence the notion of ‘guided discretion’ once had. . . . In short, the practice which in Furman had been described as the discretion to sentence to death and pronounced constitutionally prohibited, was in Woodson and Lockett renamed the discretion not to sentence to death and pronounced constitutionally required.” Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 661, 662 (1990) (concurring in the judgment). For a critique of these criticisms of Lockett, see Scott E. Sundby, The Lockett Paradox: Reconciling Guided Discretion and Unguided Mitigation in Capital Sentencing, 38 UCLA L. REV. 1147 (1991). back
Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 333 (1976) (plurality opinion of Justices Stewart, Powell, and Stevens) (quoting Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 402 (1972) (Chief Justice Burger dissenting)). back
Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110–11 (1982). back
Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 878 (1983). This narrowing function may be served at the sentencing phase or at the guilt phase; the fact that an aggravating circumstance justifying capital punishment duplicates an element of the offense of first-degree murder does not render the procedure invalid. Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231 (1988). back
Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982) (quoting Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 304 (1976) (plurality opinion)). back
Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 879 (1983). back
See, e.g., Johnson v. Texas, 509 U.S. 350 (1993) (consideration of youth as a mitigating factor may be limited to jury estimation of probability that defendant would commit future acts of violence). back
Richmond v. Lewis, 506 U.S. 40 (1992) (no cure of trial court’s use of invalid aggravating factor where appellate court fails to reweigh mitigating and aggravating factors). back
As such, the Court has opined that it is not the role of the Eighth Amendment to establish a special “federal code of evidence” governing “the admissibility of evidence at capital sentencing proceedings.” See Romano v. Oklahoma, 512 U.S. 1, 11–12 (1994). Instead, the test for a constitutional violation attributable to evidence improperly admitted at a capital sentencing proceeding is whether the evidence “so infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to render the jury’s imposition of the death penalty a denial of due process.” Id. at 12. As a consequence, the Court found nothing constitutionally impermissible with a state having joint sentencing proceedings for two defendants whose underlying conviction arose from the same single chain of events. See Kansas v. Carr, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14–449, slip op. at 15–16 (2016) (rejecting the argument that joinder of two defendants was fundamentally unfair because evidence that one defendant unduly influenced another defendant’s conduct may have “infected” the jury’s decision making). Indeed, the Court approvingly noted that joint proceedings before a single jury for defendants that commit the same crimes are “not only permissible but are often preferable” in order to avoid the “wanto[n] and freakis[h]” imposition of the death sentence. See id. at 17 (citing Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 206–207 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, & Stevens, JJ.)). back
See, e.g., Hitchcock v. Dugger, 481 U.S. 393 (1987) (instruction limiting jury to consideration of mitigating factors specifically enumerated in statute is invalid); Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989) (jury must be permitted to consider the defendant’s evidence of mental retardation and abused background outside of context of deliberateness or assessment of future dangerousness); Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1 (1986) (exclusion of evidence of defendant’s good conduct in jail denied defendant his Lockett right to introduce all mitigating evidence); Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233 (2007) (jury must be permitted to consider the defendant’s evidence of childhood neglect and mental illness damage outside of the context of assessment of future dangerousness); Brewer v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 286 (2007) (same). But cf. Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S. 164 (1988) (consideration of defendant’s character as revealed by jail behavior may be limited to context of assessment of future dangerousness). back
“Neither [Lockett nor Eddings] establishes the weight which must be given to any particular mitigating evidence, or the manner in which it must be considered; they simply condemn any procedure in which such evidence has no weight at all.” Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939, 961 n.2 (1983) (Justice Stevens concurring in judgment). back
Blystone v. Pennsylvania, 494 U.S. 299, 307 (1990). back
494 U.S. at 307. back
Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990). A court is not required give a jury instruction expressly directing the jury to consider mitigating circumstance, as long as the instruction actually given affords the jury the discretion to take such evidence into consideration. Buchanan v. Angelone, 522 U.S. 269 (1998). In this vein, the Court has held that capital sentencing courts are not obliged to inform the jury affirmatively that mitigating circumstances lack the need for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. See Kansas v. Carr, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14–449, slip op. at 11 (2016) (noting that ambiguity in capital sentencing instructions gives rise to constitutional error only if there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way that prevents consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence). By the same token, a court did not offend the Constitution by directing the jury’s attention to a specific paragraph of a constitutionally sufficient instruction in response to the jury’s question about proper construction of mitigating circumstances. Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U.S. 225 (2000). Nor did a court offend the Constitution by instructing the jury to consider “[a]ny other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime,” without specifying that such circumstance need not be a circumstance of the crime, but could include “some likelihood of future good conduct.” This was because the jurors had heard “extensive forward-looking evidence,” and it was improbable that they would believe themselves barred from considering it. Ayers v. Belmontes, 549 U.S. 7, 10, 15, 16 (2006). back
California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 543 (1987). back
Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 (1988); McKoy v. North Carolina, 494 U.S. 433 (1990). Compare Smith v. Spisak, 558 U.S. ___, No. 08–724, slip op. at 2–9 (2010) (distinguishing jury instructions in Mills from instructions directing each juror to independently assess any mitigating factors before jury as a whole balanced the weight of mitigating evidence against each aggravating factor, with unanimity required before balance in favor of an aggravating factor may be found). back
Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994). See also Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. ___, No. 15–8366, slip op. at 3–4 (2016) (holding that the possibility of clemency and the potential for future “legislative reform” does not justify a departure from the rule of Simmons); Kelly v. South Carolina, 534 U.S. 246, 252 (2002) (concluding that a prosecutor need not express an intent to rely on future dangerousness; logical inferences may be drawn); Shafer v. South Carolina, 532 U.S. 36, 40 (2001) (holding that an amended South Carolina law still runs afoul of Simmons). back
546 U.S. 212, 220 (2006). In some states, “the only aggravating factors permitted to be considered by the sentencer [are] the specified eligibility factors.” Id. at 217. These are known as weighing states; non-weighing states, by contrast, are those that permit “the sentencer to consider aggravating factors different from, or in addition to, the eligibility factors.” Id. Prior to Brown v. Sanders, in weighing states, the Court deemed “the sentencer’s consideration of an invalid eligibility factor” to require “reversal of the sentence (unless a state appellate court determined the error was harmless or reweighed the mitigating evidence against the valid aggravating factors).” Id. back
Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983). back
Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 954 (1983). back
In Eighth Amendment cases as in other contexts involving harmless constitutional error, the court must find that error was “ ‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in that it did not contribute to the [sentence] obtained.’ ” Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 540 (quoting Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967)). Thus, where psychiatric testimony was introduced regarding an invalid statutory aggravating circumstance, and where the defendant was not provided the assistance of an independent psychiatrist in order to develop rebuttal testimony, the lack of rebuttal testimony might have affected how the jury evaluated another aggravating factor. Consequently, the reviewing court erred in reinstating a death sentence based on this other valid aggravating factor. Tuggle v. Netherland, 516 U.S. 10 (1995). back
Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990). Cf. Parker v. Dugger, 498 U.S. 308 (1991) (affirmance of death sentence invalid because appellate court did not reweigh non-statutory mitigating evidence). back
Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578 (1988). back
546 U.S. 517, 523 (2006). back
546 U.S. at 524, 526 (Court’s emphasis deleted in part). back
546 U.S. at 526. back
See Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 501–02 (1987); see also South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805, 811 (1989) (concluding that Booth extended to a prosecutor’s statements about a victim’s personal qualities). back
The Court has refrained from overturning Booth’s holding that the admission of a victim’s family members’ characterizations and opinions about the “underlying crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence” violate the Eighth Amendment. See Bosse v. Oklahoma, 580 U.S. ___, No. 15–9173, slip op. at 1 (2016). Instead, the Court has overruled Booth’s central holding that “evidence and argument relating to the victim and the impact of the victim’s death on the victim’s family are inadmissible at a capital sentencing hearing.” See Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 830 n.2 (1991). back
See Payne, 501 U.S. at 817. back
Id. at 822. back
See State v. Frampton, 627 P. 2d 922, 934 (Wash. 1981). back
See Malloy v. South Carolina, 237 U.S. 180, 185 (1915). back
See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 42 (2008) (plurality opinion). back
Id. back
See Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 135–36 (1879) (noting in dicta that certain forms of torture, such as drawing and quartering, disemboweling alive, beheading, public dissection, and burning alive, are “forbidden by . . . [the] Constitution”). back
See Baze, 553 U.S. at 48 (plurality opinion). back
See Wilkerson, 99 U.S. at 134–35. back
See In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447 (1890). back
See Louisiana ex. rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 464 (1947) (plurality opinion). Justice Frankfurter concurred in judgment, providing the fifth vote for the Court’s judgment. Id. at 466 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). He grounded his decision on whether the Eighth Amendment had been incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, ultimately concluding that Louisiana’s choice of execution cannot be said to be “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Id. at 471. back
See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion). back
See, e.g., Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407, 419 (2008); Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992); Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346 (1981); Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976) (joint opinion). back
See, e.g., Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006) (ruling that a challenge to the constitutionality of an execution method could be brought as a civil rights claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1983); Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637 (2004) (same). back
553 U.S. 35, 44 (2008). back
Id. at 50. back
Id. at 51. back
Id. at 52. back
Id. at 53–61. back
Justice Stevens, while announcing his skepticism regarding the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole, concluded that, based on existing precedent, the petitioners’ evidence failed to prove a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 71–87 (Stevens, J., concurring). Justice Thomas, on behalf of himself and Justice Scalia, rejected the idea that the Court had the capacity to adjudicate claims involving methods of execution properly and instead argued that an execution method violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain. Id. at 94–107 (Thomas, J., concurring). Justice Breyer concluded that insufficient evidence in either the record or in available medical literature demonstrated that Kentucky’s lethal injection method created significant risk of unnecessary suffering. Id. at 107–13 (Breyer, J., concurring). back
See 576 U.S. ___, No. 14–7955, slip op. (2015). back
Id. at 5–7. back
Id. at 16–29. back
Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2641, 2649 (2008) (citations omitted). back
128 S. Ct. at 2675 (Alito, J., dissenting) (quoting Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 990 (1991)). back
433 U.S. 584 (1977). Justice White’s opinion was joined only by Justices Stewart, Blackmun, and Stevens. Justices Brennan and Marshall concurred on their view that the death penalty is per se invalid, id. at 600, and Justice Powell concurred on a more limited basis than Justice White’s opinion. Id. at 601. Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist dissented. Id. at 604. back
128 S. Ct. 2641 (2008). Justice Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined. back
The Court noted, however, that “[o]ur concern here is limited to crimes against individual persons [where a victim’s life is not taken]. We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the State.” 128 S. Ct. at 2659. back
433 U.S. at 592. back
433 U.S. at 593 n.4. back
433 U.S. at 598. back
128 S. Ct. 2641, 2649, 2653 (2008). The Court noted that, since Gregg, it had “spent more than 32 years articulating limiting factors that channel the jury’s discretion to avoid the death penalty’s arbitrary imposition in the case of capital murder. Though that practice remains sound, beginning the same process for crimes for which no one has been executed in more than 40 years would require experimentation in an area where a failed experiment would result in the execution of individuals undeserving of the death penalty. Evolving standards of decency are difficult to reconcile with a regime that seeks to expand the death penalty to an area where standards to confine its use are indefinite and obscure.” Id. at 2661. back
458 U.S. 782 (1982). Justice White wrote the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. Justice O’Connor, with Justices Powell and Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger, dissented. Id. at 801. Accord, Cabana v. Bullock, 474 U.S. 376 (1986) (also holding that the proper remedy in a habeas case is to remand for state court determination as to whether Enmund findings have been made). back
Justice O’Connor thought the evidence of contemporary standards did not support a finding that capital punishment was not appropriate in felony murder situations. 458 U.S. at 816–23. She also objected to finding the penalty disproportionate, first because of the degree of participation of the defendant in the underlying crime, id. at 823–26, but also because the Court appeared to be constitutionalizing a standard of intent required under state law. back
481 U.S. 137, 158 (1987). The decision was 5–4. Justice O’Connor’s opinion for the Court viewed a “narrow” focus on intent to kill as “a highly unsatisfactory means of definitively distinguishing the most culpable and dangerous of murderers,” id. at 157, and concluded that “reckless disregard for human life” may be held to be “implicit in knowingly engaging in criminal activities known to carry a grave risk of death.” Id. back
477 U.S. 399 (1986). back
There was an opinion of the Court only on the first issue: that the Eighth Amendment creates a right not to be executed while insane. The Court’s opinion did not attempt to define insanity; Justice Powell’s concurring opinion would have held the prohibition applicable only for “those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” 477 U.S. at 422. back
There was no opinion of the Court on the issue of procedural requirements. Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens, would hold that “the ascertainment of a prisoner’s sanity . . . calls for no less stringent standards than those demanded in any other aspect of a capital proceeding.” 477 U.S. at 411–12. Concurring Justice Powell thought that due process might be met by a proceeding “far less formal than a trial,” that the state “should provide an impartial officer or board that can receive evidence and argument from the prisoner’s counsel.” Id. at 427. Concurring Justice O’Connor, joined by Justice White, emphasized Florida’s denial of the opportunity to be heard, and did not express an opinion on whether the state could designate the governor as decisionmaker. Thus Justice Powell’s opinion, requiring the opportunity to be heard before an impartial officer or board, set forth the Court’s holding. back
127 S. Ct. 2842 (2007). back
127 S. Ct. at 2862. In Panetti, the defendant, despite apparent mental problems, was found to understand both his imminent execution and the fact that the State of Texas intended to execute him for having murdered his mother-in-law and father-in-law. It was argued, however, that defendant, suffering from delusions, believed that the stated reason for his execution was a “sham” and that the state wanted to execute him to “stop him from preaching.” back
127 S. Ct. at 2858. back
Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 335 (1989). Although unwilling to conclude that execution of a mentally retarded person is “categorically prohibited by the Eighth Amendment,” id. at 335, the Court noted that, because of the requirement of individualized consideration of culpability, a retarded defendant is entitled to an instruction that the jury may consider and give mitigating effect to evidence of retardation or a background of abuse. Id. at 328. See also Tennard v. Dretke, 542 U.S. 274 (2004) (evidence of low intelligence should be admissible for mitigating purposes without being screened on basis of severity of disability). back
536 U.S. 304 (2002). Atkins was 6–3 decision by Justice Stevens. back
536 U.S. at 314, 316. back
536 U.S. at 315. back
536 U.S. at 320. The Court also noted that reduced capacity both increases the risk of false confessions and reduces a defendant’s ability to assist counsel in making a persuasive showing of mitigation. back
536 U.S. at 317 (citation omitted), quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 416–17 (1986). back
546 U.S. 6, 7 (2005) (per curiam). back
546 U.S. at 7. back
572 U.S. ___, No. 12–10882, slip op. (2014). back
FLA. STAT. § 921.137. back
Hall, slip op. at 21. back
Id. Of those states that allow for the death penalty, a number of them do not have strict cut-offs for IQ scores. See, e.g., CAL. PENAL CODE § 1376 (West 2016); LA. CODE CRIM. PROC. ANN. art. 905.5.1 (2016); NEV. REV. STAT. § 174.098.7; UTAH CODE ANN. § 77–15a–102 (Lexis-Nexis 2016). Similarly, the U.S. Code does not set a strict IQ cutoff. See 18 U.S.C. § 3596(c) (2012). back
This range, referred to as a “standard error or measurement” or “SEM,” is used by many states in evaluating the existence of intellectual disability. Hall, slip op. at 12. back
See 581 U.S. ___, No. 15–797, slip op. at 2 (2017). back
Id. at 10. back
Id. at 12 (“[T]he medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits.”) (emphasis in original); see also id. at 13 (“Clinicians, however, caution against reliance on adaptive strengths developed in a controlled setting, as prison surely is.”) (internal citations and quotations omitted). back
Id. at 13–14 (“Clinicians rely on such factors as cause to explore the prospect of intellectual disability further, not to counter the case for a disability determination.”). back
Id. at 14 (“The existence of a personality disorder or mental-health issue, in short, is not evidence that a person does not also have intellectual disability.”) (internal citations and quotations omitted). back
Id. at 15. In so concluding, the Court noted that “[m]ild levels of intellectual disability . . . nevertheless remain intellectual disabilities,” and “States may not execute anyone in the entire category of intellectually disabled offenders.” Id. (emphasis in original) (internal citations and quotations omitted). back
See Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1, 8 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004). back
See Moore, slip op. at 15. back
Id. at 17. back
Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988). back
Wilkins v. Missouri was decided along with Stanford. back
Compare Thompson, 487 U.S. at 849 (O’Connor, J., concurring) (two-thirds of all state legislatures had concluded that no one should be executed for a crime committed at age 15, and no state had “unequivocally endorsed” a lower age limit) with Stanford, 492 U.S. at 370 (15 of 37 states permitting capital punishment decline to impose it on 16-year-old offenders; 12 decline to impose it on 17-year-old offenders). back
536 U.S. at 314, n.18. back
543 U.S. 551 (2005). The case was decided by 5–4 vote. Justice Kennedy wrote the Court’s opinion, and was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Justice O’Connor, who had joined the Court’s 6–3 majority in Atkins, wrote a dissenting opinion, as did Justice Scalia, who was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas. back
Dissenting in Roper, Justice O’Connor disputed the consistency of the trend, pointing out that since Stanford two states had passed laws reaffirming the permissibility of executing 16- and 17-year-old offenders. 543 U.S. at 596. back
543 U.S. at 564. The Stanford Court had been split over the appropriate scope of inquiry in cruel and unusual punishment cases. Justice Scalia’s plurality would have focused almost exclusively on an assessment of what the state legislatures and Congress have done in setting an age limit for application of capital punishment. 492 U.S. at 377 (“A revised national consensus so broad, so clear and so enduring as to justify a permanent prohibition upon all units of democratic government must appear in the operative acts (laws and the application of laws) that the people have approved.”). The Stanford dissenters would have broadened this inquiry with a proportionality review that considers the defendant’s culpability as one aspect of the gravity of the offense, that considers age as one indicator of culpability, and that looks to other statutory age classifications to arrive at a conclusion about the level of maturity and responsibility that society expects of juveniles. 492 U.S. at 394–96. The Atkins majority adopted the approach of the Stanford dissenters, conducting a proportionality review that brought their own “evaluation” into play along with their analysis of consensus on the issue of executing the mentally retarded. back
543 U.S. at 569, 570. back
543 U.S. at 570. back
543 U.S. at 572–573. Strongly disagreeing, Justice O’Connor wrote that “an especially depraved juvenile offender may . . . be just as culpable as many adult offenders considered bad enough to deserve the death penalty. . . . [E]specially for 17-year-olds . . . the relevant differences between ‘adults’ and ‘juveniles’ appear to be a matter of degree, rather than of kind.” Id. at 600. back
543 U.S. at 578 (noting “the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty,” id. at 575). back
543 U.S. at 577, 578. Citing as precedent Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 102–03 (1958) (plurality opinion); Atkins, 536 U.S. at 317 n.21; Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 796–97, n.22 (1982), Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 830–31 & n.31 (1988) (plurality opinion); and Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 596 n.10 (1977) (plurality opinion). back
408 U.S. at 248, 257. back
Turner v. Murray, 476 U.S. 28, 36–37 (1986). back
481 U.S. 279 (1987) (5-to-4 decision). back
481 U.S. at 308. back
481 U.S. at 339–40 (Brennan), 345 (Blackmun), 366 (Stevens). back
481 U.S. at 311. Concern for protecting “the fundamental role of discretion in our criminal justice system” also underlay the Court’s rejection of an equal protection challenge in McCleskey. See discussion of “Capital Punishment” under the Fourteenth Amendment, infra. See also United States v. Bass, 536 U.S. 862 (2002) (per curiam), requiring a threshold evidentiary showing before a defendant claiming selective prosecution on the basis of race is entitled to a discovery order that the government provide information on its decisions to seek the death penalty. back
Pub. L. 104–132, 110 Stat. 1214. back
Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 405 (1993) (“we have ‘refused to hold that the fact that a death sentence has been imposed requires a different standard of review on federal habeas corpus’ ”) (quoting Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1, 9 (1989)). back
557 U.S. ___, No. 08–1443 (2009). back
Justice Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, noted that the fact that seven of the state’s key witnesses had recanted their trial testimony, and that several people had implicated the state’s principal witness as the shooter, made the case “exceptional.” Justices Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented. back
492 U.S. 302 (1989). back
489 U.S. 288 (1989). back
The “new rule” limitation was suggested in a plurality opinion in Teague, and a Court majority in Penry and later cases adopted it. In Danforth v. Minnesota, 128 S. Ct. 1029, 1033 (2008), the Court held that Teague does not “constrain[ ] the authority of state courts to give broader effect to new rules of criminal procedure than is required by that opinion.” back
Whorton v. Bockting, 549 U.S. 406, 416 (2007). In Saffle v. Parks, 494 U.S. 484, 494, 495 (1990), the Court stated the two exceptions as follows: “The first exception permits the retroactive application of a new rule if the rule places a class of private conduct beyond the power of the State to proscribe . . . or addresses a ‘substantive categorical guarante[e] accorded by the Constitution,’ such as a rule ‘prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.’ . . . The second exception is for ‘watershed rules of criminal procedure’ implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.” back
Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. at 311, quoting Mackey v. United States, 401 U.S. 667, 692 (1971). “Teague by its terms applies only to procedural rules.” Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 620 (1998). “New substantive rules generally apply retroactively . . . because they necessarily carry a significant risk that a defendant stands convicted of an act that the law does not make criminal or faces a punishment that the law cannot impose on him.” Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 351, 352 (2004) (internal quotation marks omitted) (the holding of Ring v. Arizona, that “a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury [may not] find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty,” 542 U.S. at 353, quoting Ring, 536 U.S. at 609, was a procedural, not a substantive rule). back
Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. at 311, 313, quoting Mackey v. United States, 401 U.S. at 693. The second exception was at issue in Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990), in which the Court held the exception inapplicable to the Caldwell v. Mississippi rule that the Eighth Amendment is violated by prosecutorial misstatements characterizing the jury’s role in capital sentencing as merely recommendatory. It is “not enough,” the Court in Sawyer explained, “that a new rule is aimed at improving the accuracy of a trial. More is required. A rule that qualifies under this exception must not only improve accuracy, but also ‘alter our understanding of the bedrock procedural elements’ essential to the fairness of a proceeding.” Id. at 242. back
Penry, 492 U.S. at 314; accord, Whorton v. Bockting, 549 U.S. 406, 416 (2007). Put another way, it is not enough that a decision is “within the ‘logical compass’ of an earlier decision, or indeed that it is ‘controlled’ by a prior decision.” A decision announces a “new rule” if its result “was susceptible to debate among reasonable minds” or if it would not have been “an illogical or even a grudging application” of the prior decision to hold it inapplicable. Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407, 415 (1990). back
See, e.g., Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407 (1990) (1988 ruling in Arizona v. Roberson, that the Fifth Amendment bars police-initiated interrogation following a suspect’s request for counsel in the context of a separate investigation, announced a “new rule” not dictated by the 1981 decision in Edwards v. Arizona that police must refrain from all further questioning of an in-custody accused who invokes his right to counsel); Saffle v. Parks, 494 U.S. 484 (1990) (habeas petitioner’s request that capital sentencing be reversed because of an instruction that the jury “avoid any influence of sympathy” is a request for a new rule not “compel[led]” by Eddings and Lockett, which governed what mitigating evidence a jury must be allowed to consider, not how it must consider that evidence); Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990) (1985 ruling in Caldwell v. Mississippi, although a “predictable development in Eighth Amendment law,” established a “new rule” that false prosecutorial comment on jurors’ responsibility can violate the Eighth Amendment by creating an unreasonable risk of arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, since no case prior to Caldwell had invalidated a prosecutorial comment on Eighth Amendment grounds). But see Stringer v. Black, 503 U.S. 222 (1992) (neither Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356 (1988), nor Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990), announced a “new rule”). back
Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 781 (1990) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). back
Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780–84 (1990). The lower court erred, therefore, in conducting a comparative review to determine whether application in the defendant’s case was consistent with other applications. back
Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993) (holding that a petitioner would have to meet an “extraordinarily high” threshold of proof of innocence to warrant federal habeas relief). Accord, House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 554–55 (2006) (defendant failed to meet Herrera standard but nevertheless put forward enough evidence of innocence to meet the less onerous standard of Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995), which “held that prisoners asserting innocence as a gateway to [habeas relief for claims forfeited under state law] must establish that, in light of new evidence, ‘it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ” Id. at 2076–2077, quoting Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. at 327.) The Court here distinguished “freestanding” claims under Herrera from “gateway” claims under Schlup, the difference apparently being that success on a freestanding claim results in the overturning of a conviction, whereas success on a gateway claim results in a remand to the trial court to hear the claim. See also Article III, Habeas Corpus: Scope of the Writ. back
557 U.S. ___, No. 08–1443 (2009). back
Justice Stevens, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, “refuse[d] to endorse” Justice Scalia’s reasoning (in a dissent joined by Justice Thomas) that would read the Constitution to permit the execution of a convict “who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man.” back
386 U.S. 18 (1967). back
Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 633 (1993). back
Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. at 637 (quoting Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 776 (1946)). Brecht was a non-capital case, but the rule was subsequently applied in a capital case. Calderon v. Coleman, 525 U.S. 141 (1998) (per curiam). In Hedgpeth v. Pulido, 129 S. Ct. 530 (2008) (per curiam), the Court held that a reviewing court should apply Brecht’s “substantial and injurious effect” standard where conviction was based on a general verdict after jury had been instructed on alternative theories of guilt and may have relied on an invalid one. back
Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 114 (2007). back
Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333 (1992). The focus on eligibility limits inquiry to elements of the crime and to aggravating factors, and thereby prevents presentation of mitigating evidence. Here the court was barred from considering an allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to introduce the defendant’s mental health records as a mitigating factor at sentencing. back
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). back
535 U.S. 685 (2002). back
The state court’s decision, which applied the rule from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), rather than the rule from United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), to hold that the attorney’s performance was not constitutionally inadequate, was not “contrary to” clearly established law. Cronic had held that there are some situations, e.g., when counsel “entirely fails to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing,” so presumptively unfair as to obviate the need to show actual prejudice to the defendant’s case. See “Effective Assistance of Counsel” under Sixth Amendment. The Bell v. Cone Court emphasized the word “entirely,” noting that the petitioner challenged the defense attorney’s performance only “at specific points” in the process. Nor was the second statutory test met. Strickland, a “highly deferential” test asking whether an attorney’s performance fell below an “objective standard of reasonableness,” was not “unreasonably applied.” The attorney could reasonably have concluded that evidence presented during the guilt phase of the trial was still “fresh” to the jury, and that repetition through the presentation of mitigating evidence or through a closing statement was unnecessary to counter the state’s presentation of aggravating circumstances justifying a death sentence. back
549 U.S. 70 (2006). back
Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 512 (1976). back
549 U.S. at 77 (quoting from 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). back
Wright v. Van Patten, 128 S. Ct. 743 (2008) (per curiam), quoting Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 77 (2006) (under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), defendant not entitled to habeas relief). back
Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1 (1989) (“unit attorneys” assigned to prisons were available for some advice prior to filing a claim). back