This case will be heard alongside Kansas v. Carr (14-449, 450). Read our preview here.
Must courts explicitly instruct juries about the relevant burden of proof for mitigating circumstances in capital murder cases?
The Supreme Court will consider whether, in capital murder cases, jury instructions given in the penalty phase that fail to affirmatively state that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Gleason argues that his Eighth Amendment right was violated because a problematic jury instruction, which lacked an affirmative statement about the appropriate burden of proof, likely precluded individual jurors from considering relevant mitigating evidence. On the other hand, Kansas maintains that Gleason’s Eighth Amendment right was not violated, because the jury properly applied the mitigating circumstances without confusion during deliberations. The Court’s decision could change how states instruct juries in capital murder cases and may lead courts to reexamine prior convictions.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court held here, or instead whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied by instructions that, in context, make clear that each juror must individually assess and weigh any mitigating circumstances?
On February 12, 2004, Sidney Gleason, Damien Thompson, Ricky Galindo, Brittany Fulton, and Mikiala Martinez robbed Paul Elliott at knifepoint in his home in Great Bend, Kansas. On February 20, 2004, Gleason and Thompson drove to Martinez’ home in Great Bend after discovering that police had interviewed Martinez and Fulton about the robbery There, Gleason shot and killed Martinez’ boyfriend, Darren Wornkey. Gleason and Thompson then drove Martinez to a rural area where Thompson shot and killed her. On February 22, 2004, a special agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation arrested Gleason and Thompson for the robbery committed against Elliot. Shortly thereafter, the State charged both Gleason and Thompson with the capital murders of Martinez and Wornkey, first-degree premeditated murder and aggravated kidnapping of Martinez, and attempted first-degree murder and aggravated robbery of Elliot.
At trial, the jury found Gleason guilty of, among other charges, capital murder for the deaths of Martinez and Wornkey. During the penalty phase, the State sought to impose the death penalty, which required the jury to find unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, that aggravating circumstances existed, and that their existence was not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances. The State alleged four aggravating circumstances: (1) Gleason had a prior felony conviction for causing injury or death; (2) Gleason intentionally or knowingly “killed or created a great risk of death to more than one person;” (3) Gleason committed the crime to escape legal responsibility; and (4) Martinez was killed in order to silence her potential testimony against Gleason. In response, Gleason presented mitigating circumstances, such as his family’s love for him, his relatively young age at the time of the crime, the public’s adequate protection with his imprisonment, and his mother’s lack of care for him when he was a child.
Prior to deliberations, the court instructed the jury that “[t]he determination of what are mitigating circumstances is for you as jurors to decide under the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating circumstances are to be determined by each individual juror when deciding whether the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the death penalty should be imposed.” The jury unanimously sentenced Gleason to death and the court approved the guilt and penalty verdicts.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Kansas affirmed the conviction, but reversed Gleason’s sentencing and remanded it to the district court, holding that the district court failed to properly instruct the jury. Specifically, the court stated that the district court failed to instruct the jury that the existence of mitigating circumstances did not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The court found that the jury instruction violated the Eighth Amendment because there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction in a way that prevented the jurors from considering relevant mitigating evidence.
In this case, the Court will decide whether, in capital murder cases, jurors must be instructed that the existence of mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. According to Kansas statute § 21-6617(e), a death penalty sentence requires the jury to find unanimously that aggravating circumstances exist beyond a reasonable doubt, and that those aggravating circumstances are not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances. Gleason argues that an affirmative instruction is necessary, because the jury here could have been confused by the court’s jury instruction, and the prosecution’s conflation of the burden of proof for establishing the existence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances during closing arguments. On the other hand, Kansas contends that the prosecution’s closing arguments created no such confusion, as the jury was instructed unambiguously to take into account all of the mitigating circumstances. And Kansas argues that the prosecution’s decision not to contest all but one of the mitigating circumstances renders moot the question of whether the jurors considered the mitigating circumstances in their ultimate decision.
JURY INSTRUCTIONS ON MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
Gleason asserts that the jury instructions for sentencing failed to adequately distinguish between the burden of proof required to establish the existence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Gleason maintains that any barrier to the jury’s accounting for mitigating circumstances in their decision-making process is at odds with the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. In support, Gleason cites the Court’s decision in Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990). In Boyde, Gleason explains, the Court stated that a “commonsense” view, rather than a “technical” parsing of language, is the proper perspective to determine whether a jury instruction likely prevented jurors from considering mitigating circumstances. Gleason asserts that Boyde focused on the jury instruction itself as the first item of inquiry, with the actual evidence presented by the parties and the arguments of counsel considered secondary. Gleason contends that the jurors did not consider all relevant mitigating circumstances, because the reasonable doubt standard for establishing aggravating circumstances was mentioned, but the lack of burden of proof needed to establish mitigating circumstances was not.
Kansas contests Gleason’s interpretation of Boyde, arguing that the Court laid out a three-pronged test to determine whether the jury in Boyde understood an instruction “to prevent the consideration of mitigating evidence.” According to Kansas, the Boyde Court stated that the language of the jury instructions, the actual mitigating evidence presented, and the arguments of counsel need to be considered together in order to ascertain whether a jury understood an instruction. Kansas agrees with the dissent in State v. Gleason, which argued that a failure to affirmatively instruct the jury that mitigating evidence need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt does not justify a reversal under the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Kansas argues that, under Boyde, a review of Gleason’s context including the arguments of counsel and the mitigating evidence itself, does not lead to the conclusion that the jury failed to consider all the mitigating circumstances. Furthermore, Kansas denies that the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence requires an affirmative instruction be made as to the burden of proof for mitigating circumstances. Kansas contends that so long as the jurors were apprised that they were to consider all of the relevant mitigating circumstances in making their decisions, nothing further is necessary.
EFFECT OF THE PROSECUTOR’S CLOSING ARGUMENTS ON THE JURY’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE BURDEN OF PROOF
Gleason asserts that the prosecution’s closing arguments only served to deepen the jury’s confusion regarding their instructions. Gleason states that the prosecution’s closing argument never explicitly mentioned the relevant burden of proof for mitigating circumstances, and only instructed the jury to weigh “everything.” As a result, Gleason argues, the jury did not receive satisfactory instruction on the burden of proof required to establish the existence of mitigating circumstances. Additionally, Gleason claims that the prosecution’s attack on a few of the mitigating circumstances, such as asking whether evidence existed to substantiate the relevant claims, further cast doubt on the relevant burden of proof. Lastly, Gleason argues that such an analysis is not “technical hair-splitting,” which the Court disclaimed in its previous decisions, but rather an evaluation of the context of the case from the commonsense approach the Court advocated in Boyde.
Kansas challenges this interpretation of the prosecution’s closing arguments, noting that, for eight of the nine mitigating circumstances, the prosecution’s inquiries did not dispute any of the material facts presented by the defense. Even if the prosecution did challenge Gleason’s alleged inability to understand his crimes, Kansas asserts that the prosecution only illuminated the lack of evidence presented to support Gleason’s claim. Kansas purports that this attack focused on the weight the evidence should carry in the jury’s decision-making, rather than an affirmation of the relevant burden of proof required to prove the claim’s existence. Kansas concludes that both parties’ closing arguments underscored the importance of considering mitigating evidence in reaching a decision. Kansas asserts that both parties instructed the jurors to weigh the mitigating circumstances as they saw fit and to consider mercy a legitimate factor in their analysis.
IMPLICATIONS FOR FEDERAL LAW
In the alternative, Gleason maintains that the Court could decline to decide the merits of the Eighth Amendment issue and declare that the Kansas Supreme Court decision should stand on an adequate and independent state ground. As the Kansas Supreme Court was only adjudicating Kansas’ law, Gleason contends that the court would produce the same decision on remand, thereby making the Supreme Court’s decision an advisory opinion. Moreover, Gleason claims that, in the interests of comity and federalism, states should be allowed to afford criminal defendants more protections than are required by the federal Constitution or other states.
Kansas rejects the notion that the Kansas Supreme Court is providing a supra-constitutional protection in this case, because such a decision is highly inconsistent with how similarly situated states treat Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Citing a wide variety of opinions from various state supreme courts, federal courts, and military tribunals, Kansas claims that the Kansas Supreme Court decision is an “outlier” that does not comport with the manner in which courts have dealt with Eighth Amendment jurisprudence in the past.
This case will consider whether a defendant’s Eighth Amendment rights are violated if a jury in a capital-sentencing proceeding is not instructed that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Kansas argues that courts are not required to give such an instruction and that the jury properly considered the relevant mitigating evidence in this case. Gleason contends that the lack of an affirmative instruction may prevent the jury from considering relevant mitigating evidence.
ARBITRARY DISRUPTION IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, National District Attorneys Association, and California District Attorneys Association (collectively “CJLF”), in support of petitioner, argue that affirming the Supreme Court of Kansas’ decision will negatively impact the criminal justice system by causing a large, arbitrary disruption. In particular, according to CJLF, most capital cases within a specific time window will be vacated, which could cause criminals who were correctly convicted to escape justice arbitrarily. CJLF notes that the Court and lower federal courts have decreasingly “tinkered” with capital sentencing procedures. CJLF concedes that state courts may still change sentencing procedures. But, CJLF argues, if state courts can invoke the Constitution (by way of a Supreme Court decision) to change these procedural standards in capital murder cases, review before the Court will be “the only remedy” for “novel” changes.
Gleason notes that there are several states where jury instructions already give affirmative statements about the standard of proof for mitigating circumstances. Thus, Gleason contends that the relevant sentences given to defendants in these states will not be affected by upholding the Kansas Supreme Court decision. In addition, for those states that do not already give such instructions, Gleason asserts that upholding the Kansas Supreme Court decision will not affect those states’ sentencing procedures. Specifically, Gleason argues that the issue is narrow because it is limited to this particular case.
The Court will consider whether juries in the penalty phase of capital punishment cases need to be instructed affirmatively that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Gleason argues that such instructions are necessary, and claims that the instructions in this case, when combined with misleading closing statements by the prosecution, could have confused jurors regarding the burden of proof. In response, Kansas contends that the relevant instructions and statements induced no such confusion among the jurors, but rather clearly illuminated the appropriate weight each circumstance should be given in the jury’s deliberations. The outcome of the case will have an impact on how states instruct juries in capital punishment cases, and will affect the degree to which prosecutors can directly call into question the evidence marshaled to support the mitigating circumstances presented by the defense.
- Rick Dean, U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Carr Brothers, Gleason Appeals in October Session, The Topeka Capital-Journal (June 29, 2015).
- Lyle Denniston, A Modest Gain for Electronic Privacy, SCOTUSblog.com (Mar. 30, 2015).
- Roxana Hegeman, Carr Brothers’ Death Sentences to Be Reviewed by U.S. Supreme Court, The Wichita Eagle (Mar. 30, 2015).