478 U.S. 1023 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

HUFFINGTON v. MARYLAND , 478 U.S. 1023 (1986)

478 U.S. 1023

No. 85-6648

Supreme Court of the United States

July 7, 1986

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice BRENNAN, dissenting.

Adhering to my view that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 227, 2950, 49 L. Ed.2d 859 (1976), I would grant certiorari and vacate the death sentence in this case.

Justice MARSHALL, dissenting in this case and in Evans v. Maryland, 478 U.S. 1010 and Foster v. Maryland, 478 U.S. 1010.

Petitioners were sentenced to death pursuant to a procedural scheme that they strenuously contend is unconstitutional. The Maryland Court of Appeals, through a highly creative reading of Maryland law and a heavy dose of procedural technicality, managed to affirm petitioners' sentences without reaching their constitutional claim. I consider such evasion repugnant, and I dissent from the Court's denial of certiorari.

The dispute in these cases rests on Md.Ann.Code, Art. 27, 413(h) ( 1957). That section, designed to guide the deliberations of the sentencing jury in capital cases, provides:

"(1) If the court or jury finds that one or more of these mitigating circumstances exist, it shall determine whether, by a preponderance of the evidence, the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances.

"(2) If it finds that the mitigating circumstances do not outweigh the aggravating circumstances, the sentence shall be death.

Page 478 U.S. 1023 , 1024

"(3) If it finds that the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances, the sentence shall be imprisonment for life."

The language of these provisions is clear: death shall be imposed whenever mitigating circumstances do not outweigh aggravating circumstances. It follows that death must be imposed when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are in equipoise. Put another way, death must be imposed unless mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances: the burden of proof on the question of whether mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances is on the defendant.

This understanding of the statute is confirmed by Maryland Rule 4-343, a recodification of Md.Rules Proc. 772A (superseded), which prescribes the verdict sheet used in Maryland capital sentencing proceedings. In Section I of that verdict sheet, the jury lists the aggravating circumstances it has found. In Section II, it lists the mitigating circumstances it has found. In Section III, it is instructed to answer "yes" or 'no' to the following statement: "Based on the evidence, we unanimously find that it has been proven by A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE that the mitigating circumstances marked 'yes' in Section II outweigh the aggravating circumstances marked 'yes' in Section I." The jury is further instructed that if Section III is marked "no," it must enter a sentence of death. This rule, enacted contemporaneously with 413, effectuates the plain language of the statute-the jury must return a sentence of death unless the defendant affirmatively proves that mitigating outweigh aggravating circumstances.

Despite the apparent clarity of the statutory language and the verdict sheet, the Maryland Court of Appeals in Tichnell v. State, 287 Md. 695, 730, 415 A.2d 830, 848-849 (1980), appeared to read the statute differently. It stated:

"Section 413 does not explicitly specify which party has the burden of producing evidence and the burden of persuasion. . . . [I] f the sentencing authority finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the mitigating circumstances do not outweigh the aggravating circumstances, the death penalty must be imposed. 413(h)(2). Because the State is attempting to establish that the imposition of the death penalty is an appropriate sentence, the statute places the risk of nonpersuasion [478 U.S. 1023 , 1025]

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