Aggravating circumstances refers to factors that increases the severity or culpability of a criminal act. Typically, the presence of an aggravating circumstance will lead to a harsher penalty for a convicted criminal.
Some generally recognized aggravating circumstances include heinousness of the crime, lack of remorse, and prior conviction of another crime. Recognition of particular aggravating circumstances varies by jurisdiction.
A mitigating factor is the opposite of an aggravating circumstance, as a mitigating factor provides reasons as to why punishment for a criminal act's ought to be lessened.
Using Aggravating Circumstances
In Cunningham v. California, 549 U.S. 270 (2007), the Supreme Court held that a jury may only use aggravating circumstances to impose a harsher sentence than usual when the jury had found those factors to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. The Cunningham court, however, also stated that prior convictions do not to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
18 U.S.C. § 3592(b)–(d) contains aggravating factors to be considered in death-penalty cases.