Respondent, a disgruntled ex-employee of a married couple,
entered the couple's home, shot the wife twice with a shotgun, shot
and killed the husband, and then slit the wife's throat and stabbed
her twice. Respondent was tried in an Oklahoma court and found
guilty of the first-degree murder of the husband. The jury imposed
the death penalty upon finding that two statutory aggravating
circumstances, including the circumstance that the murder was
"especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel," had been established,
and that these circumstances outweighed the mitigating evidence.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on direct appeal,
and later affirmed a denial of state collateral relief. The Federal
District Court then denied respondent's habeas corpus petition, but
the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statutory words
"heinous," "atrocious," and "cruel" do not on their face offer
sufficient guidance to the jury to escape the strictures of
Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238
court also ruled that the Oklahoma courts had not adopted a
limiting construction that cured the infirmity, concluding that the
construction utilized by the state appellate court, which simply
declared that the facts of the case were so plainly "especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel" that the death penalty was warranted,
was itself unconstitutionally vague under the Eighth Amendment to
the Federal Constitution. The court therefore enjoined the
execution of the death sentence, but without prejudice to further
state proceedings for redetermination of the sentence.
As applied in this case, the statutory
aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague. Pp.
486 U. S.
(a) The State's contention that factual circumstances may, in
themselves, plainly characterize the killing as "especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel" represents an improper Due Process
Clause approach to vagueness that fails to recognize the rationale
of this Court's Eighth Amendment cases. Under Furman,
and its progeny, the proper analysis of a vagueness
claim focuses on whether the challenged aggravating circumstance
adequately informs the jury as to what it must find in order to
impose the death penalty, or whether it leaves the jury with
unchanneled discretion to make an arbitrary and capricious
decision. Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.
, which applied that analysis,
Page 486 U. S. 357
controls this case. The language of the Oklahoma provision gave
no more guidance to the jury here than did the "outrageously or
wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman" language that was held
unconstitutional in Godfrey.
Moreover, Oklahoma's addition
of the word "especially" no more limited the overbreadth of the
aggravating factor than did the addition of "outrageously or
wantonly" to the word "vile" in the language considered in
Furthermore, the state appellate court's factual
approach to construction was indistinguishable from the action of
the Georgia court in Godfrey,
which failed to cure the
jury's unfettered discretion and to satisfy the Eighth Amendment.
Pp. 486 U. S.
(b) The State's complaint that the Court of Appeals erroneously
ruled that torture or serious physical abuse is the only
constitutionally acceptable limiting construction of the
aggravating circumstance is unfounded, since, although the court
noted cases in which such a requirement was held to be curative, it
expressly refrained from directing the State to adopt any
particular construction. The contention that the death penalty
should stand because the jury found another, unchallenged
aggravating circumstance sufficient to sustain the sentence is also
unpersuasive, since, when this case was decided, Oklahoma had no
procedure for attempting to save a death penalty when one of
several aggravating circumstances found by the jury was held to be
invalid or unsupported by evidence, but simply vacated the death
sentence and automatically imposed a life imprisonment sentence.
The significance for this case of the state appellate court's
decisions, which were issued after the Court of Appeals' decision
below, to adopt a torture-or-serious-physical-abuse limiting
construction of the aggravating circumstance, and to no longer
automatically set aside a death penalty where one of several
aggravating circumstances is invalid or inapplicable, must be
decided in the first instance by the Oklahoma courts in any further
proceedings for redetermination of the appropriate sentence. Pp.
486 U. S.
822 F.2d 1477, affirmed.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN,
J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined,
p. 486 U. S.
Page 486 U. S. 358
JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
On May 4, 1982, after eating their evening meal in their
Muskogee County, Oklahoma, home, Hugh and Charma Riddle watched
television in their living room. At some point, Mrs. Riddle left
the living room and was proceeding towards the bathroom when she
encountered respondent Cartwright standing in the hall holding a
shotgun. She struggled for the gun, and was shot twice in the legs.
The man, whom she recognized as a disgruntled ex-employee, then
proceeded to the living room, where he shot and killed Hugh Riddle.
Mrs. Riddle dragged herself down the hall to a bedroom, where she
tried to use a telephone. Respondent, however, entered the bedroom,
slit Mrs. Riddle's throat, stabbed her twice with a hunting knife
the Riddles had given him for Christmas, and then left the house.
Mrs. Riddle survived, and called the police. Respondent was
arrested two days later, and charged with first-degree murder.
Respondent was tried and found guilty as charged. The State,
relying on three statutory aggravating circumstances, sought the
death penalty. The jury found two of them to have been established:
first, the defendant "knowingly created
Page 486 U. S. 359
a great risk of death to more than one person"; second, the
murder was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel." Okla.Stat.,
Tit. 21, §§ 701.12(2) and (4) (1981). Finding that the aggravating
circumstances outweighed the mitigating evidence, the jury imposed
the death penalty. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed
on direct appeal, Cartwright v. State, 695
, cert. denied, 473 U.
(1985), and later affirmed a denial of state
collateral relief. Cartwright v. State, 708 P.2d
(1985), cert. denied, 474 U.
(1986). Respondent then sought federal habeas
corpus on several grounds. The District Court rejected each of
them, including the claim that the death sentence was invalid
because it rested wholly or in part on an unconstitutional
aggravating circumstance, namely, the unconstitutionally vague and
overbroad aggravating circumstance that the murder was "especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel." A panel of the Court of Appeals for
the Tenth Circuit affirmed, 802 F.2d 1203 (1986), but rehearing en
banc was granted limited to the claim concerning the challenged
The en banc court recognized that the jury had found two
aggravating circumstances, one of them being unchallenged. But it
noted that, in cases where a death sentence rested in part on an
invalid aggravating circumstance, the Oklahoma courts did not
reweigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in an effort
to save the death penalty; rather, the death sentence was vacated
and a life imprisonment sentence automatically imposed. Oklahoma
had "no provision for curing on appeal a sentencer's consideration
of an invalid aggravating circumstance." 822 F.2d 1477, 1482
(1987). It was therefore necessary to consider the vagueness
challenge to one of the aggravating circumstances. The court
proceeded to do so, and unanimously sustained the challenge. It
stated that the words "heinous," "atrocious," and "cruel" did not,
on their face, offer sufficient guidance to the jury to escape the
strictures of our judgment in Furman v.
Page 486 U. S. 360
408 U. S. 238
(1972). Nor, in the court's view, had the Oklahoma courts adopted a
limiting construction that cured the infirmity and that was relied
upon to affirm the death sentence in this case. It concluded that
the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals' construction of the
aggravating circumstance was "unconstitutionally vague" under the
Eighth Amendment. 822 F.2d at 1483, 1492. The death sentence,
accordingly, was held to be invalid, and its execution enjoined,
but "without prejudice to further proceedings by the state for
redetermination of the sentence on the conviction." Id.
Petitioner sought review here of the Tenth Circuit's holding
that the aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague.
Because of the conflict between the Court of Appeals for the Tenth
Circuit and the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma and because
of the importance of this constitutional issue to the orderly and
proper administration of state death penalty statutes, we granted
certiorari, limited to that issue. 484 U.S. 1003 (1988). We affirm
the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals, with some care, reviewed the evolution in
the interpretation of the "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel"
aggravating circumstance by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals
up to and including its decision in this case. Its reading of the
cases was that, while the Oklahoma court had considered the
attitude of the killer, the manner of the killing, and the
suffering of the victim to be relevant and sufficient to support
the aggravating circumstance, that court had "refused to hold that
any one of those factors must
be present for a murder to
satisfy this aggravating circumstance." 822 F.2d at 1491. Rather,
the Oklahoma court simply had reviewed all of the circumstances of
the murder and decided whether the facts made out the aggravating
We normally defer to Courts of Appeals
in their interpretation of state law, and we see no reason not to
accept the Court of Appeals' statements about
Page 486 U. S. 361
state law in this case, especially since the State does not
challenge this reading of the Oklahoma cases.
The State, however, takes issue with the Court of Appeals'
conclusion that this approach, which was also employed in this
case, to interpreting and applying the challenged aggravating
circumstance is unconstitutional. It insists that, in some cases,
there are factual circumstances that so plainly characterize the
killing as "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" that
affirmance of the death penalty is proper. As we understand the
argument, it is that a statutory provision governing a criminal
case is unconstitutionally vague only if there are no circumstances
that could be said with reasonable certainty to fall within reach
of the language at issue. Or, to put it another way, that if there
are circumstances that any reasonable person would recognize as
covered by the statute, it is not unconstitutionally vague even if
the language would fail to give adequate notice that it covered
other circumstances as well.
The difficulty with the State's argument is that it presents a
Due Process Clause approach to vagueness, and fails to recognize
the rationale of our cases construing and applying the Eighth
Amendment. Objections to vagueness under the Due Process Clause
rest on the lack of notice, and hence may be overcome in any
specific case where reasonable persons would know that their
conduct is at risk. Vagueness challenges to statutes not
threatening First Amendment interests are examined in light of the
facts of the case at hand; the statute is judged on an as-applied
basis. United States v. Powell, 423 U. S.
, 423 U. S. 92
(1975); United States v. Mazurie, 419 U.
, 419 U. S. 550
(1975); Palmer v. City of Euclid, Ohio, 402 U.
(1971) (per curiam); United States v.
National Dairy Corp., 372 U. S. 29
372 U. S. 32
372 U. S. 36
(1963). Claims of vagueness directed at aggravating circumstances
defined in capital punishment statutes are analyzed under the
Eighth Amendment, and characteristically assert that the challenged
provision fails adequately to inform juries what they must
Page 486 U. S. 362
find to impose the death penalty and as a result leaves them and
appellate courts with the kind of open-ended discretion which was
held invalid in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.
held that Georgia's then-standardless capital
punishment statute was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious
manner; there was no principled means provided to distinguish those
that received the penalty from those that did not. E.g.,
at 408 U. S. 310
(Stewart, J., concurring); id.
at 408 U. S. 311
(WHITE, J., concurring). Since Furman,
our cases have
insisted that the channeling and limiting of the sentencer's
discretion in imposing the death penalty is a fundamental
constitutional requirement for sufficiently minimizing the risk of
wholly arbitrary and capricious action. Gregg v. Georgia,
428 U. S. 153
428 U. S. 189
428 U. S.
-207 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, Powell, and STEVENS,
at 428 U. S.
-222 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment);
Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447
468 U. S. 462
(1984); Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.
, 484 U. S. 244
Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420
(1980), which is very relevant here, applied this central tenet of
Eighth Amendment law. The aggravating circumstance at issue there
permitted a person to be sentenced to death if the offense "was
outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it
involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to
the victim." Id.
at 446 U. S. 422
The jury had been instructed in the words of the statute, but its
verdict recited only that the murder was "outrageously or wantonly
vile, horrible or inhuman." The Supreme Court of Georgia, in
affirming the death sentence, held only that the language used by
the jury was "not objectionable" and that the evidence supported
the finding of the presence of the aggravating circumstance, thus
failing to rule whether, on the facts, the offense involved torture
or an aggravated battery to the victim. Id.
446 U. S.
-427. Although the Georgia Supreme Court in other
cases had spoken in terms of the presence or absence of these
factors, it did not do so in the decision under review,
Page 486 U. S. 363
and this Court held that such an application of the aggravating
circumstance was unconstitutional, saying:
"In the case before us, the Georgia Supreme Court has affirmed a
sentence of death based upon no more than a finding that the
offense was 'outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman.'
There is nothing in these few words, standing alone, that implies
any inherent restraint on the arbitrary and capricious infliction
of the death sentence. A person of ordinary sensibility could
fairly characterize almost every murder as 'outrageously or
wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman.' Such a view may, in fact,
have been one to which the members of the jury in this case
subscribed. If so, their preconceptions were not dispelled by the
trial judge's sentencing instructions. These gave the jury no
guidance concerning the meaning of any of [the aggravating
circumstance's] terms. In fact, the jury's interpretation of [that
circumstance] can only be the subject of sheer speculation."
at 426 U. S.
-429 (footnote omitted).
The affirmance of the death sentence by the Georgia Supreme
Court was held to be insufficient to cure the jury's unchanneled
discretion, because that court failed to apply its previously
recognized limiting construction of the aggravating circumstance.
at 426 U. S. 429
426 U. S. 432
This Court concluded that, as a result of the vague construction
applied, there was "no principled way to distinguish this case, in
which the death penalty was imposed, from the many cases in which
it was not." Id.
at 426 U. S. 433
Compare Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.
, 428 U. S.
-256 (1976). It plainly rejected the submission that
a particular set of facts surrounding a murder, however shocking
they might be, were enough in themselves, and without some
narrowing principle to apply to those facts, to warrant the
imposition of the death penalty.
We think the Court of Appeals was quite right in holding that
controls this case. First, the language of the
Oklahoma aggravating circumstance at issue -- "especially
Page 486 U. S. 364
heinous, atrocious, or cruel" -- gave no more guidance than the
"outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman" language that
the jury returned in its verdict in Godfrey.
contention that the addition of the word "especially" somehow
guides the jury's discretion, even if the term "heinous" does not,
is untenable. To say that something is "especially heinous" merely
suggests that the individual jurors should determine that the
murder is more than just "heinous," whatever that means, and an
ordinary person could honestly believe that every unjustified,
intentional taking of human life is "especially heinous."
at 446 U. S.
-429. Likewise, in Godfrey,
the addition of
"outrageously or wantonly" to the term "vile" did not limit the
overbreadth of the aggravating factor.
Second, the conclusion of the Oklahoma court that the events
recited by it "adequately supported the jury's finding" was
indistinguishable from the action of the Georgia court in
which failed to cure the unfettered discretion of
the jury and to satisfy the commands of the Eighth Amendment. The
Oklahoma court relied on the facts that Cartwright had a motive of
getting even with the victims, that he lay in wait for them, that
the murder victim heard the blast that wounded his wife, that he
again brutally attacked the surviving wife, that he attempted to
conceal his deeds, and that he attempted to steal the victims'
belongings. 695 P.2d at 554. Its conclusion that, on these facts,
the jury's verdict that the murder was especially heinous,
atrocious, or cruel was supportable did not cure the constitutional
infirmity of the aggravating
Page 486 U. S. 365
The State complains, however, that the Court of Appeals ruled
that to be valid the "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel"
aggravating circumstance must be construed to require torture or
serious physical abuse, and that this was error. We do not,
however, agree that the Court of Appeals imposed this requirement.
It noted cases in which such a requirement sufficed to validate an
otherwise vague aggravating circumstance, but it expressly
refrained from directing the State to adopt any specific curative
construction of the aggravating circumstance at issue here. 822
F.2d at 1491-1492. We also do not hold that some kind of torture or
serious physical abuse is the only limiting construction of the
heinous, atrocious, or cruel aggravating circumstance that would be
The State also insists that the death penalty should stand
because the jury found two aggravating circumstances, one of which
was unchallenged and is sufficient to sustain the sentence. When
this case was decided, however, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal
Appeals would not attempt to save the death penalty when one of
several aggravating circumstances found by the jury was found
invalid or unsupported by the evidence. As the Tenth Circuit said,
there was "no provision for curing on appeal a sentencer's
consideration of an invalid aggravating circumstance." Id.
at 1482. If this was the case at that time, and the State does not
dispute it, the Court of Appeals cannot be faulted for not itself
undertaking what the state courts themselves refused to do.
It is true that, since the decision of the Court of Appeals, the
Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has restricted the "heinous,
atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance to those murders in
which torture or serious physical abuse is present. Stouffer v.
State, 742 P.2d
(1987). At the same time, that court decided that it would
not necessarily set aside a death penalty where, on appeal, one of
several aggravating circumstances has been found invalid or
unsupported by the evidence. Id.
at 564. See also
Castro v. State, 745 P.2d
, 408-409 (1987), cert. denied,
485 U.S. 971
What significance these decisions of the Court of Criminal
Appeals have for the present case is a matter for the state courts
to decide in the first instance. Like that of the Court of Appeals,
our judgment is without prejudice to further proceedings
Page 486 U. S. 366
in the state courts for redetermination of the appropriate
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins,
I join the Court's opinion except insofar as the judgment, which
is without prejudice to further sentencing proceedings, does not
expressly preclude the reimposition of the death penalty. 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.
, 428 U. S. 227
428 U. S. 231
(1976), I would direct that the resentencing proceedings be
circumscribed such that the State may not reimpose the death