Aggravating Circumstances

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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.  

Capital Punishment

In Magwood v. Patterson, 561 U.S. 320 (2010), the Supreme Court wrote that murdering a sheriff while on duty is an aggravating circumstance "sufficient for a death sentence."

18 U.S.C. § 3592(b)–(d) contains aggravating factors to be considered in death-penalty cases.

Further Reading

For more on aggravating circumstances, see this UC Davis Law Review article, this William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal article, and this University of North Carolina Law Review article