Aggravating circumstances refers to the factors that increase 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 sought 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 need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Loving v. U.S., 517 U.S. 748 (1996), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment requires additional aggravating factors demonstrating greater culpability to support the imposition of capital punishment. Similarly, in In Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U.S. 638 (1989), the Court held that allowing a judge to find the aggravating circumstances authorizing a death sentence does not contravene the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial.
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.
[Last updated in May of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]