Criminal Law Newsletter

Aggravating Circumstances to Cure Unconstitutional Standards in Death Sentence Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” as requiring that juries in death penalty cases be guided by statutes specifying the aggravating circumstances the jury must consider before imposing the death penalty. Although the death penalty itself has been upheld as constitutional under the Eighth Amendment, a capital sentence based upon a jury finding that did not allow for individual consideration of aggravating circumstances will most likely be invalidated.

The Repudiation of Automatic Death Penalty Statutes

In 1976, the Court held in Woodson v. North Carolina that the sentencing process in death penalty cases must provide an opportunity for individual consideration of the character and record of the defendant, along with mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

In Woodson, the Court reversed a death sentence based on a North Carolina law that made the death penalty mandatory for the crime of first-degree murder. The statute provided that the death penalty was a mandatory sentence for all persons convicted of first-degree murder, completely doing away with the jury’s exercise of discretion in choosing whether a convicted defendant should be sentenced to death. In striking down the law, the Court reasoned that the mandatory death penalty statute “provides no standards to guide the jury in determining which murderers shall live and which shall die.” As such, the Court concluded that “a death sentence returned pursuant to a law imposing a mandatory death penalty….constitutes cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the [Eighth Amendment].”

Governing the Exercise of the Jury’s Discretion

Although death penalty statutes must allow the jury to exercise individual discretion in choosing whether to impose the sentence of death, the Court has held that such statutes must spell out precise and instructive aggravating circumstances to guide the jury’s determination. In order to minimize the risk that the jury will impose the death sentence arbitrarily, a valid death penalty statute will typically specify several aggravating circumstances for the jury to consider, at least one of which the jury must find before the death penalty may be imposed.

Accordingly, death penalty statutes that permit the jury “unguided and unrestrained” discretion to impose the death penalty have been held unconstitutional. Further, the Court has invalidated a capital sentence based upon aggravating circumstances that were too vague. Specifically, the Court invalidated a capital sentence based upon a jury finding that the murder was “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman,” reasoning that almost every murder could be fairly categorized as such.

Giving Weight to Mitigating Factors Other Than Those Specified in Statute

In Lockett v. Ohio (1978), the Court invalidated a death penalty statute that prevented the sentencing judge from “giving independent mitigating weight to aspects of the defendant’s character and record and to the circumstances of the offense.” In Lockett, the Ohio death penalty statute required the trial judge to impose a death sentence once the jury had returned a verdict of aggravated murder, unless the judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  1. The victim had induced or facilitated the offense;
  2. The defendant was under duress, coercion, or strong provocation; or
  3. The offense was the product of the defendant’s psychosis or mental deficiency.

Allowing only for a “limited range of mitigating circumstances,” the Court concluded that the Ohio statute was unconstitutional by precluding from consideration other relevant mitigating factors, such as:

  • Whether the defendant intended to cause the victim’s death
  • The defendant’s age
  • The defendant’s comparatively minor role in the offense

Stressing the need to consider the uniqueness of each defendant in a capital case, the Court ultimately held that a death penalty statute that prevents the sentencing authority from giving weight to mitigating factors other than those specified in the statute “creates the risk that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty.”

Effect of the Invalidity of One of the Aggravating Circumstances

Despite the Court’s emphasis on the importance of specifying precise aggravating circumstances to guide a jury’s discretion in capital cases, the Court has upheld the death sentence even when one of several aggravating circumstances found by the jury was subsequently determined to be unconstitutionally vague. As long as the improper aggravating circumstance did not involve any constitutionally protected behavior and evidence in support of the improper circumstance was otherwise constitutionally admissible, a death sentence based on an improper circumstance will generally not be impaired.

In 1983, the Court held in Zant v. Stephens that the jury’s imposition of the death sentence on a man found guilty of murder was not constitutionally impaired just because it was partially based on an invalid aggravating circumstance. Specifically, the jury in that case based its sentencing determination in part on the aggravating circumstance that the defendant had a “substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions.” Although the Georgia Supreme court later held that this aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the defendant’s death sentence. The Court reasoned that the jury’s findings were based on two valid aggravating circumstances, and that “the underlying evidence as to [defendant’s] history of serious assaultive criminal convictions was fully admissible under Georgia law at the sentencing phase of the trial.”

Law Commentary Legal News
Share This Page: