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CHANDLER CLEMONS v. MISSISSIPPI

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES No. 88-6873 110 S. Ct. 1441, 494 U.S. 738, 108 L. Ed. 2d 725, 58 U.S.L.W. 4395, 1990.SCT.41665 <http://www.versuslaw.com> decided: March 28, 1990. CHANDLER CLEMONS, PETITIONERv.MISSISSIPPI ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI. Kenneth S. Resnick argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner. Marvin L. White, Jr., Assistant Attorney General of Mississippi, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Mike Moore, Attorney General.*fn* White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 755. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 756. Author: White


ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 755. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 756.

Author: White

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed on Chandler Clemons even though the jury instruction regarding one of the aggravating factors pressed by the State, that the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel," was constitutionally invalid in light of our decision in Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356 (1988). Although we hold that the Federal Constitution does not prevent a state appellate court from upholding a death sentence that is based in part on an invalid or improperly defined aggravating circumstance either by reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating evidence or by harmless-error review, we vacate the judgment below and remand, because it is unclear whether the Mississippi Supreme Court correctly employed either of these methods.

I

On the evening of April 17, 1987, petitioner Clemons complained to friends that he needed money and suggested a robbery of a pizza delivery man. Clemons used a pay telephone to order a pizza to be delivered to an apartment complex. He and two others, Calvin and Hay, went to the complex in a car and waited. When the pizza delivery vehicle arrived, Clemons and Hay got out of the car; Clemons carried a shotgun belonging to Hay. Clemons stopped and entered the delivery vehicle and ordered the driver, Arthur Shorter, to get out of the car. Shorter was told to take any money he had out of his pockets, which he did. Clemons then told Shorter to lie down, took a bag of money and some pizza from the delivery vehicle, and was about to return to the car where Calvin was sitting when Hay asked if Shorter had seen Clemons's face. When Clemons answered in the affirmative, Hay told him he had to kill Shorter. Shorter begged for his life but Clemons shot him and got into the car with Hay and Calvin. As they drove away, Calvin looked back and saw Shorter raise his head once. Shorter died shortly thereafter.

The three men eventually went home. Clemons disposed of the shotgun in a hole in his backyard. Calvin, however, later that night related the robbery and shooting incident to his sister's friend, who happened to be a county jailer. The next day Clemons was arrested at his home and later made a videotaped statement in which he admitted being part of the group that robbed Shorter but denied foreknowledge of the robbery plan and denied that he had been the killer. Before trial Clemons also told the Sheriff where he had hidden the gun.

Clemons was indicted for capital murder and, after a change of venue, was tried before a jury. The principal witness against Clemons was Calvin, who had entered into a plea agreement with the State of Mississippi. Clemons was convicted of capital murder and a sentencing hearing was held. At the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence arguably establishing that two statutory aggravating factors were present in this case: (1) that the murder was committed during the course of a robbery for pecuniary gain and (2) that it was an "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" killing. Clemons presented testimony from his mother and a psychologist regarding mitigating evidence. The State argued the "especially heinous" factor extensively and with regard to that factor the trial court instructed the jury in the bare terms of the Mississippi statute.*fn1 The jury was further instructed several times that it need not sentence Clemons to death even if it found that no mitigating circumstances were present. The jury sentenced Clemons to death, finding that both aggravating factors argued by the State were present and that they outweighed any mitigating circumstances.

Clemons appealed his conviction and sentence to the Mississippi Supreme Court, and that court affirmed. 535 So. 2d 1354 (1988). After rejecting Clemons' arguments regarding guilt and several of his challenges to the sentencing proceeding, the court addressed the validity of the "especially heinous" aggravating factor even though Clemons had never raised the issue. The court began by noting that our decision in Maynard v. Cartwright, supra, had invalidated Oklahoma's identical "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance because it was unconstitutionally vague and did not provide sufficient guidance to the jury in deciding whether to impose the death penalty. The court also recognized that we had refused to sustain the death penalty in Maynard, even though valid aggravating circumstances remained, because Oklahoma had no procedure for salvaging death sentences under such circumstances and that we had left the question of the effect of possible constitutional limiting constructions of the "especially heinous" factor to the Oklahoma courts in the first instance.

The Mississippi Supreme Court distinguished this case from Maynard and sustained Clemons' death sentence on the following grounds: (1) in Mississippi there is an established procedure that "when one aggravating circumstance is found to be invalid or unsupported by the evidence, a remaining valid aggravating circumstance will nonetheless support the death penalty verdict," 535 So. 2d, at 1362 (citing cases); (2) the Mississippi Supreme Court has previously given the "especially heinous" factor a constitutional limiting construction, narrowing that category to murders that are conscienceless or pitiless and unnecessarily torturous to the victim, id., at 1363 (citing Coleman v. State, 378 So. 2d 640, 648 (1979)); and (3) the trial court gave the jury no less than seven instructions that "singly and collectively told the jury that regardless of aggravating circumstances, they were not required to impose the death penalty," even "if . . . there were no mitigating circumstances." 535 So. 2d, at 1364 (citing instructions).

The court then stated that given all of these considerations plus "the brutal and torturous facts surrounding the murder of Arthur Shorter . . . it is inescapable that Maynard v. Cartwright does not dictate the outcome of the case sub judice." Ibid. The court added that "[w]e likewise are of the opinion beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury's verdict would have been the same with or without the 'especially heinous, atrocious or cruel' aggravating circumstance." Ibid. Finally, the court conducted its proportionality review. The court noted that it had reviewed the record and stated that "[i]n our opinion . . . the punishment of death is not too great when the aggravating and mitigating circumstances are weighed against each other . . . ." Id., at 1365. Three justices dissented, arguing that the sentence should be vacated and the case remanded to a jury for resentencing with properly defined aggravating factors. We granted certiorari, 491 U.S. 904 (1989).

II

We deal first with petitioner's submission that it is constitutionally impermissible for an appellate court to uphold a death sentence imposed by a jury that has relied in part on an invalid aggravating circumstance. In Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983), we determined that in a State like Georgia, where aggravating circumstances serve only to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty and not to determine the punishment, the invalidation of one aggravating circumstance does not necessarily require an appellate court to vacate a death sentence and remand to a jury. We withheld opinion, however, "concerning the possible significance of a holding that a particular aggravating circumstance is 'invalid' under a statutory scheme in which the judge or jury is specifically instructed to weigh statutory aggravating and mitigating circumstances in exercising its discretion whether to impose the death penalty." Id., at 890. In Mississippi, unlike the Georgia scheme considered in Zant, the finding of aggravating factors is part of the jury's sentencing determination, and the jury is required to weigh any mitigating factors against the aggravating circumstances.*fn2 Although these differences complicate the questions raised, we do not believe that they dictate reversal in this case.

A

Nothing in the Sixth Amendment as construed by our prior decisions indicates that a defendant's right to a jury trial would be infringed where an appellate court invalidates one of two or more aggravating circumstances found by the jury, but affirms the death sentence after itself finding that the one or more valid remaining aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating evidence. Any argument that the Constitution requires that a jury impose the sentence of death or make the findings prerequisite to imposition of such a sentence has been soundly rejected by prior decisions of this Court. Cabana v. Bullock, 474 U.S. 376 (1986), held that an appellate court can make the findings required by Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), in the first instance and stated that "[t]he decision whether a particular punishment -- even the death penalty -- is appropriate in any given case is not one that we have ever required to be made by a jury." 474 U.S. at 385. Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984), ruled that neither the Sixth Amendment, nor the Eighth Amendment, nor any other constitutional provision provides a defendant with the right to have a jury determine the appropriateness of a capital sentence; neither is there a double jeopardy prohibition on a judge's override of a jury's recommended sentence. Likewise, the Sixth Amendment does not require that a jury specify the aggravating factors that permit the imposition of capital punishment, Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U.S. 638 (1989), nor does it require jury sentencing, even where the sentence turns on specific findings of fact. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 93 (1986).

B

To avoid the import of these cases, Clemons argues that under Mississippi law only a jury has the authority to impose a death sentence, see Miss. Code Ann. ยง 99-19-101 (Supp. 1989), and that he therefore has a liberty interest under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in having a jury make all determinations relevant to his sentence. He therefore argues that an appellate court cannot reweigh the balance of factors when the jury has found and relied on an invalid aggravating circumstance. Capital sentencing proceedings must of course satisfy the dictates of the Due Process Clause, Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 358 (1977) (plurality opinion), and we have recognized that when state law creates for a defendant a liberty interest in having a jury make particular findings, speculative appellate findings will not suffice to protect that entitlement for due process purposes. Hicks v. Oklahoma, 447 U.S. 343 (1980). However, these two general propositions do not lead to the result Clemons seeks.

In Hicks v. Oklahoma, sentence had been imposed under an invalid recidivist statute that provided for a mandatory 40-year sentence. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence because it was within the range of possible sentences the jury validly could have imposed. Hicks claimed, and the State conceded, that in Oklahoma only the jury could impose sentence. We held that under state law Hicks had a liberty interest in having the jury impose punishment, an interest that could not be overcome by the "frail conjecture" that the jury "might" have imposed the same sentence in the absence of the recidivist statute. Id., at 346. We specifically pointed out, however, that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals did not "purport to cure the deprivation by itself reconsidering the appropriateness" of the 40-year sentence, id., at 347 (footnote omitted), thus suggesting that appellate sentencing, if properly conducted, would not violate due process of law.

Contrary to the situation in Hicks, the state court in this case, as it had in others, asserted its authority under Mississippi law to decide for itself whether the death sentence was to be affirmed even though one of the two aggravating circumstances on which the jury had relied should not have been, or was improperly, presented to the jury. The court did not consider itself bound in such circumstances to vacate the death sentence and to remand for a new sentencing proceeding before a jury. We have no basis for disputing this interpretation of state law, which was considered by the court below to be distinct from its asserted authority to affirm the sentence on the ground of harmless error, and which plainly means that we must reject Clemons' assertion that he had an unqualified liberty interest under the Due Process Clause to have the jury assess the consequence of the invalidation of one of the aggravating circumstances on which it had been instructed. In this respect, the case is analogous to Cabana v. Bullock, supra, where we specifically rejected a due process challenge based on Hicks because state law created no entitlement to have a jury make findings that an appellate court also could make.*fn3 474 U.S. at 387, and n. 4. C

Clemons also submits that appellate courts are unable to fully consider and give effect to the mitigating evidence presented by defendants at the sentencing phase in a capital case and that it therefore violates the Eighth Amendment for an appellate court to undertake to reweigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances in an attempt to salvage the death sentence imposed by a jury. He insists, therefore, that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing before a jury and that the decision below must be reversed. We are unpersuaded, however, that our cases require this result. Indeed, they point in the opposite direction.

The primary concern in the Eighth Amendment context has been that the sentencing decision be based on the facts and circumstances of the defendant, his background, and his crime. See, e. g., Spaziano v. Florida, supra, at 460; Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S., at 879; Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110-112 (1982); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 601-605 (1978) (plurality opinion); Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and STEVENS, JJ.). In scrutinizing death penalty procedures under the Eighth Amendment, the Court has emphasized the "twin objectives" of "measured consistent application and fairness to the accused." Eddings, supra, at 110-111. See also ...


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