Oregon v. Guzek (04-928)

Appealed from: Supreme Court of Oregon

Oral argument: Dec. 7, 2005


Randy Lee Guzek, along with his friends Mark Wilson and Ross Cathey, murdered an Oregon couple in the summer of 1987. After eighteen years of litigation, involving three different appeals, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the alibi testimony Guzek attempted to introduce during the sentencing phase of his trial—statements from his grandfather and his mother placing him at home during the time of the crime—could be introduced as “mitigating evidence” tending to show that Guzek should not receive the death penalty. The State of Oregon took issue with this ruling, and appealed to the Supreme Court. It argues that such evidence cannot be admitted because the so-called “residual doubt” evidence is no longer relevant at the sentencing phase of a defendant’s capital trial. Guzek, on the other hand, argues that the Constitution requires admittance of such evidence at his sentencing phase—he claims that the jury will not improperly use this evidence and that in order to meet the state’s case and refute the state’s evidence, he must be able to introduce the so-called “residual doubt” evidence. The Supreme Court will decide whether Guzek is correct, and whether the trial court is Constitutionally required to admit this “residual doubt” evidence, despite the fact that it might introduce doubt about Guzek’s previously determined and settled guilt.

[Question(s) presented] | [Issue(s)] | [Facts] | [Discussion] | [Analysis]

Questions Presented

Does a capital defendant have a right under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution to offer evidence and argument in support of a residual-doubt claim - that is, that the jury in a penalty-phase proceeding should consider doubt about the defendant’s guilt in deciding whether to impose the death penalty?



May a defendant, in the sentencing phase of a capital crime trial, present mitigating evidence regarding his culpability to the jury that is deciding whether to impose the death penalty, when that evidence also tends to cast doubt on the defendant’s guilt?



Randy Lee Guzek has been before the Oregon Supreme Court on three occasions between 1990 and 2004, all regarding the sentencing phase of a capital trial in which he was convicted for the murders of Rod and Lois Houser. Because of the errors in the lower court and intervening new law instituted during the more than fifteen years of Guzek’s trial, the state’s highest court has repeatedly affirmed Guzek’s guilt in the murders, but vacated the jury’s sentence of death. His case is now before the Supreme Court of the United States. Once the High Court rules on the constitutionality of “residual guilt” requirements in the penalty phase of a capital trial, Guzek will again return to state court for further proceeding.

In the summer of 1987, eighteen year-old Guzek, along with two friends, Mark Wilson and Ross Cathey, planned to burglarize a home in rural Deschutes County, Oregon, and kill the resident. See Oregon v. Guzek, 797 P.2d 1031, 1032 (Or. 1990). Fortunately for the would-be victim—and unfortunately for the Housers—the plan was foiled when the men arrived at the residence and discovered it was too well-lit, and with too many cars present, to successfully pull the heist. See Oregon v. Guzek, 86 P.3d 1106, 1108 (Or. 2004). Undeterred, Guzek and his associates searched for an alternative house to burglarize. See 797 P.2d at 1032. Cathey suggested, and the others agreed, that they would target the Housers’ residence, which was discussed as a possible target earlier in the day. See id. Roy and Lois Houser were no strangers to Guzek; he had dated their niece, who lived with the Housers. See id. The Housers did not approve, and eventually the niece broke off the romance, leaving Guzek resentful of and hostile towards the entire family. See 86 P.3d at 1108.

The three men returned to Guzek’s home, where they armed themselves with firearms provided by Guzek. See id. They then drove to the Housers’ residence. See 797 P.2d at 1032. When Rod Houser answered the door, Guzek directed Wilson to shoot Houser, who was then “felled by a fatal fusillade from the .22 [caliber rifle].” Id. The men then proceeded into the house, killing Lois Houser and stealing a large amount of the couple’s private property. See 86 P.3d at 1108. The Housers’ daughters found the couple dead two days later, and eventually identified among Guzek’s possessions the stolen property from the ransacked home. See id. at 1108.

Guzek, unlike Wilson and Cathey, denied any knowledge or involvement in the crime. Guzek’s associates both accepted reduced sentences in return for their testimony against Guzek, who they described as the “ringleader.” See Brief for Respondent at 1.

Oregon capital cases are separated into “guilt phase” and “penalty phase” (or sentencing phase) trials. During the guilt phase, a defendant is found guilty or not guilty of the crime accused. In the penalty phase, the jury determines the appropriate punishment for a defendant who was found guilty in the guilt phase. A jury convicted Guzek of the aggravated murders of both Rod Houser and Lois Houser in the guilt phase of his trial, and sentenced him to death during the penalty phase. See 86 P.3d at 1108. However, this was just the beginning of Guzek’s legal perils.

Oregon law mandates that the Oregon Supreme Court perform an automatic and direct review of all death sentence convictions in the state. Or. Rev. Stat. 138.012(1). On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in the penalty phase of Guzek’s trial by failing to instruct the jury regarding the consideration of mitigating evidence tending to reduce Guzek’s liability, as held in Oregon v. Wagner, 786 P.2d 93, 97 (Or. 1990). See 797 P.2d at 1034-35. The court vacated the sentence of death and remanded the penalty phase of the trial back to the trial court. See id. at 1035.

On remand, a newly empanelled jury again found that Guzek committed the murders with a level of culpability that justified the death penalty. In the second automatic review, the Oregon Supreme Court found that the trial court had erred in the penalty phase again, this time by erroneously admitting “victim-impact” evidence tending to show “aggravating circumstances” of Guzek’s crime, in contradiction of a prior U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting a State to consider only mitigating evidence during the penalty phase. See Oregon v. Guzek, 906 P.2d 272, 280 (Or. 1995), quoting Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 327 (1989). Victim-impact testimony, in which the victim’s family members testify on the grief and hardship of their loss, serves only to emphasize the aggravating nature of a defendant’s crime, and is thus not permitted. See 906 P.2d at 274. The Oregon Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new penalty phase determination.

The trial court for a third time found Guzek deserving of the death penalty. See 86 P.3dat 1110. And for the third time, the Oregon Supreme Court was compelled to perform an automatic and direct review. The state’s highest court found that the trial court had erred once (or perhaps thrice) again, by failing to instruct the jury on the alternative sentence of “true life” without any possibility of parole (as opposed to “ordinary life” with parole). See id. at 1109; see also Or. Rev. Stat. 138.012(2)(A)(b)(ii). The “true life” option was introduced into Oregon law after Guzek’s crime, but the sentence should have been made available as Guzek had waived his defense against ex post facto application. See 86 P.3dat 1110. As such, the trial court’s holding was again reversible error, and the case was remanded once more.

The Oregon Supreme Court took the opportunity during the third appeal to highlight issues likely to arise on remand. Most importantly, the court held that the alibi testimony Guzek attempted to introduce—statements from his grandfather and his mother placing him at home during the time of the crime—from the guilt phase of his trial, could be introduced in the penalty phase as “mitigating evidence” tending to show that Guzek should not receive the death penalty. See id. at 1126. The Court held that under U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978), Bell v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 637 (1978), and Green v. Georgia, 442 U.S. 95 (1979), the Eighth Amendment allows defendants to introduce any mitigation evidence that is “highly relevant to the critical issue,” of sentencing, which would include Guzek’s alibi testimony. See id. at 1125-28.

This favorable dicta was ironic for Guzek, because the State of Oregon appealed the Eighth Amendment claim to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state claims that Guzek’s alibi testimony constitutes “residual doubt” evidence, which casts lingering doubt on a defendant’s guilt after conviction. See Petition for Certiorariat *i. The state alleges that under Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S.164 (1998), evidence that casts residual doubt is not included in the constitutional mandate of mitigating evidence, and as such there is no Eighth Amendment right of defendants to introduce residual doubt evidence in the penalty phase of a trial. See Brief for Petitioner at 12. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 25, 2005.



When a defendant faces the death penalty in Oregon, his trial is bifurcated. This means that a jury must first find a defendant guilty of murder (this happens in the “guilt” phase of the trial), and they will then proceed to decide whether or not the state should execute him (this is commonly referred to as the “sentencing” phase of the trial). At issue in this case, is whether evidence that casts doubt on the defendant’s guilt should be admitted during the sentencing phase of the defendant’s trial.

The Supreme Court will decide whether or not either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution give a defendant a right to introduce mitigating evidence that casts doubt on whether the defendant committed the crime, termed “residual doubt” evidence. The Eighth Amendment states simply, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted [emphasis added].” Thus, in this case the Court will decide whether sentencing the defendant to death without allowing him to introduce “residual doubt” evidence is cruel and unusual punishment. In addition to the Eighth Amendment requirements, the Fourteenth Amendment states that no State “shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. [emphasis added]” Thus the court will decide whether “due process of law” requires the state to admit “residual doubt” evidence during the sentencing phase before the state can take away the defendant’s life. Therefore, if the court finds that exclusion of “residual doubt” evidence is violative of either the Eighth of Fourteenth Amendments, then the state may not execute the defendant if it chooses to exclude such evidence.

At the heart of the controversy between the state and the defendant is whether the so-called “residual doubt” evidence is relevant at the sentencing phase of defendant’s trial, after the jury has already found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant hopes to introduce such evidence to convince the jury that the death sentence would be appropriate in the defendant’s case. For example, under Oregon law, evidence of the defendant’s guilt must be morally sufficient to justify his execution. The Supreme Court must consider whether the attempted introduction of such “residual doubt” evidence is an attempt to undermine the guilt phase of the trial, or simply an attempt to cast doubt on the whether or not the defendant should be executed. It may very well be unreasonable to present evidence in the sentencing phase of the trial that may show that the defendant is not guilty of the crime he has already been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing.

This case may have important ramifications in all jurisdictions that permit the death penalty. If the Supreme Court decides that this kind of mitigating evidence must be permitted during the guilt phase, then the prosecution in such cases may be forced to be prepared to confront a wide array of evidence, whether it would normally be admissible during the guilt phase or not. Additionally, this case may have broader ramifications for the legal system as a whole. Introduction of so-called “residual doubt” evidence might introduce doubt about the validity of the guilt-phase judgment. On the other hand, given that death penalty sentences are sometimes handed down to innocent individuals or defendants whom the law has exempted from the death penalty, it is arguable that the introduction of “residual doubt” evidence may be a positive step forward. Allowing such evidence at the sentencing phase of a capital punishment case might actually have the effect of increasing the reliability of death sentences, by exposing the jury to as much relevant evidence as possible so that they can be sure that they are secure in their decision before they impose the death sentence on a defendant.



The State of Oregon claims that the Oregon Supreme Court erred in its characterization of Guzek’s alibi testimony as falling within the constitutionally protected range of mitigating evidence as demanded by the Eighth Amendment. The State Supreme Court held in Oregon v. Guzek that evidence offered by a defendant in the penalty phase of a capital trial—though not offered in the guilt phase—that tended to show he was not present at the time of the murders, “was ‘highly relevant to a critical issue’ in the penalty phase . . . and therefore was required to be considered by the jury under the Eighth Amendment.” 86 P.3d 1106 at 1127, citing Green v. Georgia, 442 U.S. at 97.

The State argues that such an interpretation of a federal constitutional requirement is at odds with the Supreme Court’s holding in Franklin v. Lynaugh, and creates a split in the various state and federal courts, calling into question exactly what is demanded by the federal constitutional jurisprudence. See Petition for Certiorari at 10 (“Most state and federal courts have concluded that there is no constitutional requirement that residual-doubt evidence be admitted in a penalty-phase proceeding.”). The State also contends that if the Eighth Amendment does not impose a constitutional requirement on admitting residual-doubt evidence, then Oregon State law precludes Guzek from doing so.

The Supreme Court in Franklin held narrowly that a defendant has no constitutional Eighth Amendment right to a specific jury instruction on residual-doubt evidence in the penalty phase of a capital trial. See 487 U.S. at 172–73 (“[W]e note that this Court has never held that a capital defendant has a constitutional right to an instruction telling the jury to revisit the question of his identity as the murderer as a basis for mitigation.”). Further, the Court in Franklin directly declined to address the question of whether a defendant even has a “right to seek jury consideration of ‘residual doubts’ about his guilt during his sentencing hearing . . . .” Id. at 175. The Court even continued by calling such a possibility “a questionable proposal.” Id.

Regarding the evidence the Eighth Amendment does require, the State insists that the constitutional limits of mitigating evidence runs only to that of the defendant’s record, his character, and the circumstances underlying the offense in question. See Brief for Petitioner at 20–21. This, the state argues, goes primarily to the moral culpability of the defendant. See id. Support for Oregon’s position can be found in the Court’s decisions in Penry, 492 U.S. at 319, and in California v. Brown, which holds that characteristics such as “a disadvantaged background, or . . . emotional and mental problems” should be considered in a “moral response to the defendant’s background, character, and crime.” See 479 U.S. 538, 545 (1987). This moral culpability should not provide any kind of legal “excuse from criminal responsibility,” see Brief for Petitioner at ­26, but rather issues specified in the Guzek dissent, including the defendant’s reasons for committing the crime, his manner and conduct during its commission, and his respective role in engaging in the crime. See id. at 26–27, citing 86 P.3d at 478–79. Taking this with the Franklin Court’s refusal to consider any constitutional right to assert residual-doubt evidence, the State of Oregon may have a strong case before the Court on its Eighth Amendment claim.

The State also claims that the majority of federal and state court jurisprudence supports its position against a federal constitutional right of residual-doubt evidence. The Oregon Supreme Court’s decision has allegedly creates a split on the issue, with states such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, Ohio, Alabama, and Texas expressly holding no constitutional right. See Petition for Certiorariat 12–15. These states are supported by decisions of the Eleventh Circuit in Zeigler v. Crosby, 345 F.3d 1300 (2003) and the Fourth Circuit in Evans v. Thompson, 881 F.2d 117 (1989). See Petition for Certiorari at 16–17.

In contrast, the State’s points out that only South Carolina and the Fifth Circuit have ruled in line with the Oregon Supreme Court in finding a constitutional mandate to allow penalty-phase residual-doubt evidence, see id. at 19–20, and that a handful of states have allowed residual-doubt claims only on the basis of state law authority, see id. at 17–19. The State alleges that the Oregon court’s position creates an uncertain atmosphere for capital trials, and that the Supreme Court should rule definitively on the issue, to provide the various state and Circuit courts the guidance to hand down consistent decisions. See id. at 21.

Finally, the State of Oregon claims that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case will materially affect Guzek’s pending penalty phase retrial in state court—because the State alleges that Oregon has no state law basis to allow residual doubt evidence, Guzek may only admit such evidence if the Court rules in favor of a constitutional right. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. The State advances the argument that Oregon law permits only for specific questions as to whether a capital defendant deserves the death sentence, and does not ask in the penalty phase for the jury to reconsider the guilt phase’s established sentence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See id. at 15; see also Or. Rev. Stat. 163.150(1)(b).

The State hedges its “lack of state law” argument with the claim that even if such a claim existed, the Oregon Supreme Court’s holding was based on a federal constitutional ground, and as such any hypothetically legitimate state claim still fails to be a bar to Supreme Court review. See Petitioner’s Reply Brief at 7, citing California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 997 (1983). In addition, Oregon claims that state precedent has established that a penalty-phase jury’s determination “whether the death penalty is ‘morally warranted’ is limited to evidence . . . under [the Supreme Court’s] Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.” See id.

The State further claims on the grounds of res judicata and collateral estoppel that “once a ruling or decision has been made and finally affirmed in a criminal case, it is binding in further proceedings.” SeeBrief for Petitioner at 16. This is perhaps the State’s weakest argument, in light of the controversy at hand. The principles of prior adjudication bind federal law as well as state law, and the Supreme Court in Franklin failed to address any res judicata implications even while contemplating the possibility of a constitutional residual-doubt claim. See 487 U.S. 164 at 175. Furthermore, while it is possible that the Supreme Court may rule in favor of the State, it is uncertain whether Oregon’s specific prior adjudication jurisprudence would be implicated in the decision—unless the Supreme Court specifically ties its reasoning to one of res judicata as a matter of constitutional due process, the Oregon Supreme Court’s contrary holding for the defendant in Guzek implies that existing Oregon prior adjudication law does not bar the introduction of penalty-phase residual doubt evidence.

Respondent defendant Randy Lee Guzek argues that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to hear this case. See Brief for Respondent at 8. When the Oregon Supreme Court admitted his grandfather’s testimony but omitted his mother’s testimony, that court said that any evidence offered and received during the guilt phase of the trial was also admissible at the sentencing phase of the same trial. See id. Guzek alleges that the Oregon Supreme Court made a factual mistake, and claims that the mother’s testimony was also offered and received during the guilt phase of the trial. See id. Thus, Guzek claims that when the case goes back to the trial level for a new sentencing hearing, the trial judge will admit the mother’s statement. See id. at 8-9. Therefore, argues Guzek, any opinion that addresses whether or not the mother’s testimony is admissible as “residual doubt” evidence will be simply an advisory opinion, because according to Guzek, the trial judge at the new sentencing hearing will be required by Oregon law to admit the evidence. See id. Because Guzek would view any opinion as an advisory opinion, he claims that the Supreme Court is without jurisdiction. See id.

Accepting the fact that the Supreme Court may dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, Guzek does address the question presented. Guzek relies heavily on Oregon law in addition to U.S. Constitutional law. See generally Brief for Respondent. One argument is that exclusion of his mother’s testimony was unconstitutional because the testimony showed that, as required by Oregon law in order to avoid the death sentence, “evidence of his guilt was not morally sufficient to justify his execution.” See id. at 19. The Supreme Court has held that the jury must be able to take into account evidence that gives it the ability to reach “a reasoned moral response to the defendant’s background, character, and crime.” Penry, 492 U.S. at 319 (quoting Brown, 479 U.S. at 545 (O’Connor, J., concurring)). Guzek argues that this evidence is made relevant by state law and state law allows such evidence to be considered at the penalty phase. See Brief for Respondent at 27. To that end, Guzek argues that once state law has made the evidence relevant at the sentencing phase of the trial, the Eighth Amendment requires that he, as a capital defendant, is “entitled to the full moral weight of [his] evidence in favor of a sentence less than death.” See id.

Guzek also claims that exclusion of his mother’s testimony prevented him from proving that he did not deliberately kill the victims. See id. at 28. Oregon law requires that the defendant deliberately killed the victims, and therefore Guzek was unable to show that his culpability did not justify the jury’s imposition of a sentence of death. See id.; Or. Rev. Stat. § 163.150(1)(b)(A). Guzek claims that once the state introduced his codefendants testimony to show that he acted deliberately, he had a right to introduce evidence to the contrary. See id. Guzek claims that his mother’s testimony was offered at the sentencing phase to impeach the credibility of the state’s evidence obtained from his codefendants. See id. at 28-29. Guzek argues that after the original 1988 jury found that he acted “intentionally” the 1997 sentencing jury still had to find that he acted with the legally different mental state of “deliberately.” See id. at 29-30.

Thus, because the state only introduced evidence during the sentencing phase from his codefendants to prove that Guzek acted with a “deliberate” state of mind, Guzek argues that he was entitled to rebut his codefendants’ testimony.  Guzek submits that one way of doing this was to introduce doubt that he was someplace else while the homicides were being planned, even though he may have intentionally murdered his victims. See id. at 30. Alternatively, by introducing his mother’s testimony at the sentencing phase, he might have been able to show that his codefendant’s lied in parts of their testimony. See id. at 31. By showing that his codefendants lied, Oregon law permits a jury to then “discredit other aspects of the codefendants’ stories.” See id. at 31; Or. Rev. Stat. § 10.095(3). Therefore, even if Guzek can introduce doubt about whether he was at a particular location at a particular time, when his codefendants claimed he was there, regardless of whether that period of time was when the crime was being planned, Guzek can then cast doubt on the legitimacy of his codefendants’ testimony as to his location at the actual time the crimes were being planned. See id. at 31-32. If Guzek is able to discredit the codefendants’ testimony proffered by the state to prove deliberativeness, as required by Oregon law, and introduce reasonable doubt in at least one juror’s mind, then the jury cannot give the go ahead for him to be executed. See id. at 33. This would be the case even if the jury believed he intentionally killed the victims. See id.

Guzek claims that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments required the court to permit evidence that could impeach his codefendants’ testimony. See id. at 34. To support this proposition, Guzek relies on Green. In Green, the trial court refused to admit evidence from an inmate witness, which would have shown that Green’s codefendant inflicted the fatal gunshot wounds that killed the defendant’s alleged victim. The Supreme Court held that the trial court’s failure to admit this evidence, similar in nature to the so-called “residual doubt” evidence in the instant case, was a violation of “Green’s due process right to present crucial defensive evidence at the penalty phase of his capital trial.” Green, 442 U.S. at 97.

The Supreme Court has stated that “Capital sentencing proceedings must of course satisfy the dictates of the Due Process Clause, Clemmons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738, 746 (1990), and one of the hallmarks of due process in our adversary system is the defendant’s ability to meet the State’s case against him. Cf. Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690 (1986).” Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, 175 (1994) (quoting Ramos, 463 U.S. at 1002-03). Thus, Guzek argues that in order to “meet the State’s case” the trial court must admit the so-called “residual doubt” evidence—Guzek asserts that this is very different from relitigating his guilt, as Oregon and its amici argue. See Brief for Respondent at 38.



The State of Oregon and Randy Guzek clearly have two different views of so-called “residual doubt” evidence and its relevance at the sentencing phase of the trial. Oregon argues that evidence casting doubt on Guzek’s guilt is no longer relevant, given the fact that the jury has already determined that Guzek is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It further claims that any evidence admitted during the sentencing phase should address the defendant’s moral culpability rather than his legal culpability. On the other hand, Guzek sees this “residual doubt” evidence as absolutely relevant to the sentencing phase. Guzek claims that the jury will be able to put the “residual doubt” evidence to proper use in determining whether or not he should be sentenced to death. Most importantly, he claims that without the ability to admit this evidence, he will not be able to rebut the state’s evidence introduced during the sentencing phase of his level of higher culpability—deliberativeness—which he must rebut in order to avoid being executed by the state.



Prepared by: Aseem Gupta and Kenneth Hwang

Additional Sources