469 U.S. 971 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

MAXWELL v. PENNSYLVANIA , 469 U.S. 971 (1984)

469 U.S. 971

Frederick MAXWELL
No. 84-5350

Supreme Court of the United States

October 29, 1984

Rehearing Denied June 24, 1985.

See 472 U.S. 1033.

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern District.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

I would grant certiorari to consider the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania death penalty statute, under which the jury must impose a death sentence upon a finding of one aggravating circumstance and no mitigating circumstances. Such a scheme precludes any individualized consideration that " 'death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case,' " Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 601, 2963d 973 (1978) (plurality opinion), quoting Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305, 2991 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.), virtually eliminates the possibility of a mercy verdict, and absolves the jury from the obligation of taking moral responsibility for its actions.


Maxwell was convicted of first-degree murder, a crime punishable by death in Pennsylvania. At the sentencing hearing, the

Page 469 U.S. 971 , 972

State presented evidence of two aggravating circumstances. Maxwell did not present any evidence of mitigating circumstances, and the jury failed to find mitigating circumstances. 505 Pa. 152, 477 A.2d 1309 (1984). Maxwell's counsel, however, made a plea for mercy.

Under the Pennsylvania death penalty statute, "the verdict must be a sentence of death if the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating circumstance . . . and no mitigating circumstance . . . ." 42 Pa.Cons. Stat. 9711(c)(1)(iv) (1980) (emphasis added). The trial judge's instruction to the jury paraphrased the language of the statute.

In construing the statute, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that where no mitigating circumstances are found, "one aggravating circumstance alone requires a verdict of death." Commonwealth v. Beasley, 504 Pa. 485, 500, n. 3, 475 A.2d 730, 738, n. 3 (1984) (emphasis added). Indeed, in considering Maxwell's appeal, that court stated that because Maxwell "did not introduce any evidence of mitigating circumstances, it became unnecessary to 'weigh' opposing circumstances." 505 Pa., at 168, 477 A.2d, at 1317-1318.


I am troubled by Pennsylvania's mechanical imposition of the death penalty. Under the Pennsylvania death penalty statute, once the jury fails to find mitigating circumstances, it is precluded from making any further inquiry. At that point, in returning its verdict-the most serious judgment that our society can render-the jury acts in a merely ministerial capacity. The legislature and the courts have barred independent decisionmaking.

The Pennsylvania statute, as interpreted by the State's courts, raises two substantial questions that are worthy of this Court's attention . The first is whether placing such severe constraints on the jury is consistent with the requirement of individualized punishment in capital cases. See Lockett v. Ohio, supra, 438 U.S., at 601. The problem posed by the "mandatory" aspect of death penalty schemes in which the jury must return a death sentence without considering the appropriateness of such a sentence was discussed by Justice STEVENS in Smith v. North Carolina, 459 U.S. 1056 ( 1982) (respecting denial of certiorari). In Smith, the jury was required to make three findings: [469 U.S. 971 , 973]

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