NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 96-6867. Argued March 18, 1997 -- Decided June 19, 1997

At the penalty phase of petitioner's state trial on capital murder, rape, and sodomy charges, evidence was presented that he had been convicted of a host of other offenses--including the kidnaping and assault of another woman while he was on parole and the murder of a fellow prisoner during a previous prison stint. The court denied his request for a jury instruction that he was ineligible for parole if sentenced to life in prison. The jury determined that petitioner presented a future danger, and he was sentenced to death. In subsequently granting federal habeas relief, the District Court concluded that this Court's intervening decision in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154--which requires that a capital defendant be permitted to inform his sentencing jury that he is parole ineligible if the prosecution argues his future dangerousness--was not a "new" rule within the meaning of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, and thus entitled petitioner to resentencing. The Fourth Circuit reversed.

Held: Simmons' rule was new and cannot, therefore, be used to disturb petitioner's death sentence. Pp. 4-16.

(a) Under Teague, this Court will not disturb a final state conviction or sentence unless it can be said that, at the time the conviction or sentence became final, a state court would have acted objectively unreasonably by not extending the relief later sought in federal court. Teague requires a federal habeas court to determine the date on which the conviction became final; to consider whether a state court considering the defendant's claim at the time it became final would have felt compelled by existing precedent to conclude that the rule he seeks was required by the Constitution; and if not, to determine whether that new rule nonetheless falls within one of two narrow exceptions to the Teague doctrine. Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 4-5.

(b) Petitioner's conviction became final in 1988 and Simmons was decided in 1994. Simmons is an unlikely candidate for "old rule" status. There was no opinion for the Court in Simmons, and the array of views expressed there suggests that the rule announced was, in light of this Court's precedent, "susceptible to debate among reasonable minds." Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407, 415. An assessment of the legal landscape existing at the time petitioner's conviction and sentence became final bolsters this conclusion. Contrary to petitioner's position, the result in Simmons did not follow ineluctably from the decisions in Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, and Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1. The seven opinions in Gardner produced a narrow holding that a death penalty procedure permitting consideration of secret information relevant to the offender's character and record--there a presentence report not provided to the defendant--violates the Eighth Amendment. Petitioner points to no secret evidence in his case. And the evidence he sought to present to the jury was not historical evidence about his character and record but evidence concerning what might happen, under then extant law, after a sentence was imposed. In Skipper, too, it was evidence of past behavior that the defendant was unconstitutionally prevented from adducing. The distinction between information concerning state postsentencing law and evidence specifically related to the defendant was also at the heart of two other cases in 1988's complex legal landscape. In California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, the Court concluded that California had reasonably chosen to provide some, limited, postsentence information to the capital sentencing jury, namely the possibility of pardon. But the Court emphasized that this conclusion did not override the choices of other States not to permit their juries to be informed of postsentencing proceedings, including parole. The general proposition that the States retained the prerogative to determine how much (if at all) juries would be informed about the postsentencing legal regime was given further credence in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320. The Court determined there that the prosecution and judge had improperly left the jury with the impression that a death sentence was not final because it would be extensively reviewed, with a plurality concluding that, Ramos notwithstanding, sentencing juries were never to be given information about postsentencing appellate proceedings, and Justice O'Connor concluding that such information--if accurate--could be provided. In light of these cases, it would hardly have been unreasonable for a jurist in 1988 to conclude that his State had acted constitutionally by choosing not to advise its jurors as to events that would (or would not) follow their death sentence recommendation. Accordingly, Simmons announced a new rule that may not be applied here unless it falls within a Teague exception. Pp. 7-11.

(c) Simmons' narrow right of rebuttal is not a watershed rule of criminal procedure implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding under the second exception to Teague. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, distinguished. Pp. 15-16.

95 F. 3d 1214, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.