Walton v. Arizona
Annotate this Case
497 U.S. 639 (1990)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990)
Walton v. Arizona
Argued January 17, 1990
Decided June 27, 1990
497 U.S. 639
Petitioner Walton was found guilty in an Arizona court of first-degree murder and was sentenced in a separate sentencing hearing before the judge, as required by state law. Under that law, the judge, inter alia, determines the existence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and "shall impose" a death sentence if he finds one or more of several enumerated aggravating circumstances and that there are no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency. The burden is on the prosecution to establish the existence of aggravating circumstances and on the defendant to establish mitigating ones. The judge sentenced Walton to death, after finding the presence of two aggravating circumstances -- that the murder was committed "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner," and that it was committed for pecuniary gain -- and that, considering all of the mitigating factors urged by Walton, the mitigating circumstances did not call for leniency. The State Supreme Court upheld the sentence. In an independent review, the court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to prove the existence of both aggravating factors. As to the first factor, the court noted that it had previously defined "especially cruel" to mean that the victim had suffered mental anguish before his death and had defined "especially depraved" to mean that the perpetrator had relished the murder, evidencing debasement or perversion. The court also agreed that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to call for leniency and determined that the sentence was proportional to sentences imposed in similar cases.
Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and V, concluding:
1. Arizona's capital sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment. The Constitution does not require that every finding of fact underlying a sentencing decision be made by a jury rather than by a judge. See Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738, 494 U. S. 745; Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U. S. 638. Since Arizona's aggravating factors are standards to guide the making of the choice between verdicts of death and life imprisonment rather than "elements of the offense," the judge's finding of any particular aggravating
circumstance does not require the death penalty, and the failure to find any particular aggravating circumstance does not preclude that penalty. Poland v. Arizona, 476 U. S. 147. Moreover, if the Constitution does not require that the finding of Enmund v. Florida, 458 U. S. 782 -- that the defendant killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill -- be proved as an element of the offense of capital murder and be made by a jury, it cannot be concluded that a State is required to denominate aggravating circumstances "elements" of the offense or permit only a jury to determine such circumstances' existence. Pp. 497 U. S. 647-649.
2. The especially heinous, cruel or depraved aggravating circumstance, as construed by the State Supreme Court, furnishes sufficient guidance to the sentencer to satisfy the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The court's definition of "especially cruel" is virtually identical to the construction approved in Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U. S. 356, 486 U. S. 364-365. Similarly, its definition of "depraved" cannot be faulted. Although juries must be instructed in more than bare terms about an aggravating circumstance that is unconstitutionally vague on its face, trial judges are presumed to know the law and to apply narrower definitions in their decisions. Maynard v. Cartwright, supra, at 486 U. S. 358-359, 486 U. S. 363-364; Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, 446 U. S. 426, distinguished. Walton's challenge to the State Supreme Court's proportionality review -- that it should be overturned because it did not distinguish his case from others in which the death sentence was not imposed -- is rejected. Such review is not constitutionally required where, as here, the challenged factor has been construed in a manner to give the sentencer sufficient guidance. Furthermore, the Constitution does not require this Court to look behind the state court's conclusion where it plainly undertook its review in good faith. Pp. 497 U. S. 652-656.
Justice WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice O'CONNOR and Justice KENNEDY, concluded in Parts III and IV:
1. Walton's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights have not been violated by placing on him the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the existence of mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, since Arizona's method of allocating the burdens of proof does not lessen the State's burden to prove the existence of aggravating circumstances. Cf., e.g., Martin v. Ohio, 480 U. S. 228; Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586; Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U. S. 684; Mills v. Maryland, 486 U. S. 367, distinguished. Pp. 497 U. S. 649-651.
2. Blystone v. Pennsylvania, 494 U. S. 299, and Boyde v. California, 494 U. S. 370, foreclose Walton's argument that the state statute creates an unconstitutional presumption under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments that death is the proper sentence by requiring that the court "shall impose" the death penalty under the specified circumstances. The statute neither precludes the court from considering any
type of mitigating evidence nor automatically imposes a death sentence for certain types of murder. States are free to structure and shape consideration of mitigating evidence in an attempt to achieve a more rational and equitable administration of the death penalty. Pp. 497 U. S. 649-652.
Justice SCALIA concluded that he will no longer seek to apply, and will not, here or in the future, vote to uphold a claim based upon, the principle of Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, and Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586, that the sentencer in a capital case may not be precluded from considering any mitigating factor. This principle is rationally irreconcilable with the principle of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238 -- that a sentencer's discretion to return a death sentence must be constrained by specific standards, so that the death penalty is not inflicted in a random and capricious fashion. Furman requires constraints on the sentencer's discretion to "impose" the death penalty, while Woodson-Lockett forbids constraints on the sentencer's discretion to "decline to impose" it -- which are one and the same. Although the Eighth Amendment's text arguably supports the view in Furman that unfettered discretion makes death sentences so random and infrequent as to make their imposition cruel and unusual, the Woodson-Lockett principle bears no relation to the Amendment's text. Nor does the doctrine of stare decisis require adherence to Woodson-Lockett, since the objectives of the doctrine, certainty and predictability, have been demonstrably undermined rather than furthered by the attempt to rest a jurisprudence upon two incompatible principles. Thus, even if correct, Walton's assertion that in two respects the state procedure deprived the sentencer of discretion to consider all mitigating circumstances cannot state an Eighth Amendment violation. Pp. 497 U. S. 656-674.
WHITE, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and V, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts III and IV, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 497 U. S. 656. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 674. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 677. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 497 U. S. 708.