484 U.S. 878 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

JOHNSON v. OKLAHOMA , 484 U.S. 878 (1987)

484 U.S. 878

Malcolm Rent JOHNSON
No. 86-7054

Supreme Court of the United States

October 5, 1987

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, 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, 231, 2973, 49 L. Ed.2d 859 (1976) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), I would vacate the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals insofar as it left undisturbed the death sentence imposed in this case. But even if I did not hold this view, I would grant this petition for certiorari for two reasons. First, the trial court incorrectly decided an unsettled question of law concerning an accused's right to the assistance of experts in preparing his defense. Second, the trial court's instructions at the sentencing hearing, in combination with the prosecutor's closing argument, deprived petitioner of his right to have the sentencing jury consider all of the mitigating evidence he offered. [ Johnson v. Oklahoma 484 U.S. 878 (1987) ][878-Continued.]


Petitioner Malcolm Johnson was charged with the first-degree murder of Ura Thompson, an elderly woman who had been raped and suffocated in her apartment. Recognizing that the prosecution's case against petitioner rested largely on the opinion of a police chemist, who would testify that petitioner's hair, blood, semen, and clothing were consistent with physical evidence found in Thompson's apartment, petitioner's counsel requested the court prior to trial to appoint a chemist to aid in petitioner's defense. Counsel argued that a chemist was needed to challenge the police chemist's qualifications and testimony and to conduct an electrophoresis test, which even the prosecution conceded could show that petitioner was not the perpetrator of the crime. The trial court agreed with counsel that the appointment of a chemist was warranted, but denied the request on the ground that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals previously had rejected the view that criminal defendants were entitled to the assistance of such experts. Brief in Opposition 8.

At trial, the prosecution presented two kinds of evidence. First, the prosecution offered evidence showing that petitioner had in his possession at the time of his arrest several items missing from Thompson's apartment. Second, the prosecution pre-

Page 484 U.S. 878 , 879

sented the testimony of the police chemist. The prosecutor referred to the chemist's testimony as the "real crux" of the State's case against petitioner. Id., at 15. The jury convicted petitioner of first-degree murder.

During a separate sentencing proceeding, defense counsel offered mitigating evidence relating to petitioner's personal background. Witnesses testifying on behalf of petitioner stated, for example, that petitioner's father frequently had beaten petitioner and his mother, that petitioner's parents eventually had separated, that petitioner had grown up in poverty, and that petitioner as a youngster had suffered from a mysterious and debilitating illness requiring a long hospital stay. Immediately after defense counsel offered this evidence, the trial court instructed the jury. As part of the charge, the trial court stated: "[Y] ou should not allow sympathy, sentiment or prejudice to affect you in reaching your decision. You should avoid any influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor when imposing sentence." Id., at 19. After the delivery of these instructions, the prosecutor gave his closing argument, in which he ridiculed the mitigating evidence that petitioner's counsel had offered. The prosecutor stated:

"I've got great empathy for his folks. But so what? . . . [H] is parents divorced when he was young. Oh, wow. . . . That's a mitigating factor for violent conduct. That's bologna [sic]. . . . Deprivation builds character. We ought to have fewer silver spoons in the mouths of our children and a little more deprivation. He wants to use that as a mitigating circumstance. . . . I was offended by what happened in this courtroom when the little children were placed on the witness stand to try to generate sympathy for a cold- blooded killer. . . . So what if he was sick or retarded: What's that got to do with-we're dealing with what he is today. . . . Not whether he had a disease when he was a baby, not whether he was mildly retarded at some time in his life. Id., at 20-21.

At the close of the sentencing hearing, the jury recommended a sentence of death, and the court imposed that sentence.


This Court long has acknowledged that when a State brings criminal proceedings against an indigent defendant, it must take [484 U.S. 878 , 880]

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