California v. Ramos
463 U.S. 992 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992 (1983)

California v. Ramos

No. 81-1893

Argued February 22, 1983

Decided July 6, 1983

463 U.S. 992

Syllabus

At the guilt phase of respondent's California state court trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilt on a count of first-degree murder, which is punishable under California law by death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole where an alleged "special circumstance" (here the commission of murder during a robbery) is found true by the jury at the guilt phase. In addition to requiring jury instructions at the separate penalty phase on aggravating and mitigating circumstances, California law requires that the trial judge inform the jury that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole may be commuted by the Governor to a sentence that includes the possibility of parole (the so-called Briggs Instruction). At the penalty phase of respondent's trial, the judge's instructions included the Briggs Instruction. The jury returned a verdict of death. The California Supreme Court affirmed respondent's conviction but reversed the death penalty, concluding that the Briggs Instruction violated the Federal Constitution, and remanded the case for a new penalty phase.

Held:

1. The Federal Constitution does not prohibit an instruction permitting a capital sentencing jury to consider the Governor's power to commute a life sentence without possibility of parole. Pp. 463 U. S. 997-1009.

(a) The possible commutation of a life sentence does not impermissibly inject an element too speculative for the jury's consideration. By bringing to the jury's attention the possibility that the defendant may be returned to society, the Briggs Instruction invites the jury to assess whether the defendant is someone whose probable future behavior makes it undesirable that he be permitted to return to society, thus focusing the jury on the defendant's probable future dangerousness. A jury's consideration of the factor of future dangerousness was upheld in Jurek v. Texas,428 U. S. 262. Nor does giving the Briggs Instruction result in any diminution in the reliability of the sentencing decision of the kind condemned in Gardner v. Florida,430 U. S. 349, which held that a death sentence may not be imposed on the basis of a presentence investigation report containing information that the defendant has had no opportunity to explain or deny. The Briggs Instruction gives the jury accurate information of which both the defendant and his counsel are aware, and it does not preclude the defendant from offering any evidence

Page 463 U. S. 993

or argument regarding the Governor's power to commute a life sentence. Pp. 463 U. S. 1001-1004.

(b) The Briggs Instruction is not constitutionally infirm on the asserted ground that it deflects the jury's focus from its central task of undertaking an individualized sentencing determination. In the sense that the instruction focuses attention on the defendant's future dangerousness, the jury's deliberation is individualized. Also, the California sentencing system ensures that the jury will have before it information regarding the individual characteristics of the defendant and his offense. The Briggs Instruction simply places before the jury an additional element to be considered, along with many other factors, in determining which sentence is appropriate under the circumstances of the defendant's case. It does not affect the jury's guilt/innocence determination. Beck v. Alabama,447 U. S. 625, distinguished. Finally, informing the jury of the Governor's power to commute a sentence of life without possibility of parole is merely an accurate statement of a potential sentencing alternative, and corrects the misconception conveyed by the phrase "life imprisonment without possibility of parole." Pp. 463 U. S. 1005-1009.

2. Nor is the Briggs Instruction unconstitutional because it fails to inform the jury also of the Governor's power to commute a death sentence. Even assuming, arguendo, that the Briggs Instruction has the impermissible effect of skewing the jury toward imposing the death penalty, an instruction on the Governor's power to commute death sentences as well as life sentences would not restore "neutrality" or increase the reliability of the sentencing choice. In fact, advising jurors that a death verdict is theoretically modifiable, and thus not "final," may incline them to approach their sentencing decision with less appreciation for the gravity of their choice and for the moral responsibility reposed in them as sentencers. Thus, an instruction disclosing the Governor's power to commute a death sentence may operate to the defendant's distinct disadvantage. Moreover, the Briggs Instruction alone does not impermissibly impel the jury toward voting for the death sentence. This information is relevant and factually accurate, and was properly before the jury, and the trial judge's instructions did not emphasize the role of this factor in the jury's decision. Pp. 463 U. S. 1010-1012.

3. The conclusion that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments do not prohibit an instruction regarding a Governor's power to commute a life sentence does not override the judgment of state legislatures that capital sentencing juries should not be permitted to consider such matter. The States are free to provide greater protections in their criminal justice system than the Federal Constitution requires. Pp. 463 U. S. 1013-1014.

30 Cal.3d 553, 639 P.2d 908, reversed and remanded.

Page 463 U. S. 994

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, and in Parts II, III, IV, and V of which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 463 U. S. 1015. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 463 U. S. 1028, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 463 U. S. 1029, filed dissenting opinions.

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