California v. Brown,
479 U.S. 538 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538 (1987)

California v. Brown

No. 85-1563

Argued December 2, 1986

Decided January 27, 1987

479 U.S. 538


A jury found respondent guilty of forcible rape and first-degree murder at his California state court trial. At the penalty phase, the trial court instructed the jury to consider and weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but cautioned that the jury "must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling." On automatic appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed respondent's death sentence, holding that the quoted instruction violated federal constitutional law by denying respondent the right to have "sympathy factors" raised by the evidence considered by the jury when determining the appropriate penalty.

Held: The instruction in question does not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when given during the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. Pp. 479 U. S. 541-543.

(a) The instruction does not violate either of the Eighth Amendment's prerequisites to a valid death sentence that sentencers not be given unbridled discretion and that defendants be allowed to introduce any relevant mitigating evidence. P. 479 U. S. 541.

(b) The California Supreme Court improperly focused solely on the word "sympathy" in the instruction. A reasonable juror would be unlikely to single out the word "sympathy" from the other nouns accompanying it, and would most likely interpret the admonition to avoid basing a decision on "mere sympathy" as a directive to ignore only the sort of sympathy that was not rooted in the aggravating and mitigating evidence introduced during the penalty phase. Pp. 479 U. S. 541-543.

(c) By limiting the jury's sentencing considerations to record evidence, the instruction serves the useful purpose of cautioning the jury against reliance on extraneous emotional factors, and thereby fosters the Eighth Amendment's need for reliability in death sentence determinations and ensures the availability of meaningful judicial review. P. 479 U. S. 543.

40 Cal.3d 512, 709 P.2d 440, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 479 U. S. 544. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Parts II, III, IV, and V of which STEVENS,

Page 479 U. S. 539

J., joined, post, p. 479 U. S. 547. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 479 U. S. 561.

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