Harris v. Alabama
Annotate this Case
513 U.S. 504 (1995)
OCTOBER TERM, 1994
HARRIS v. ALABAMA
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA No. 93-7659. Argued December 5, 1994-Decided February 22,1995
Alabama law vests capital sentencing authority in the trial judge, but requires the judge to "consider" an advisory jury verdict. Mter convicting petitioner Harris of capital murder, the jury recommended that she be imprisoned for life without parole, but the trial judge sentenced her to death upon concluding that the statutory aggravating circumstance found and considered outweighed all of the mitigating circumstances. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence, rejecting Harris' argument that the capital sentencing statute is unconstitutional because it does not specify the weight the judge must give to the jury's recommendation and thus permits the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed.
Held: The Eighth Amendment does not require the State to define the weight the sentencing judge must give to an advisory jury verdict. Pp. 508-515.
(a) Because the Constitution permits the trial judge, acting alone, to impose a capital sentence, see, e. g., Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 465, it is not offended when a State further requires the judge to consider a jury recommendation and trusts the judge to give it the proper weight. Alabama's capital sentencing scheme is much like Florida's, except that a Florida sentencing judge is required to give the jury's recommendations "great weight," see Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d 908, 910 (Fla.), while an Alabama judge is not. Although this Court has spoken favorably of the so-called Tedder standard, see, e. g., Spaziano, supra, at 465, it has also made clear that the hallmark of the analysis is not the particular weight a State chooses to place upon the jury's advice, but whether the scheme adequately channels the sentencer's discretion so as to prevent arbitrary results, see, e. g., 468 U. S., at 465. To impose the Tedder standard here would offend established principles governing the criteria to be considered by the sentencer, see, e. g., Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U. S. 164, 179, and would place within constitutional ambit micromanagement tasks that properly rest within the State's discretion to administer its criminal justice system. Pp. 508-511.
(b) Harris' arguments for requiring that "great weight" be given to the jury's advice are unpersuasive. First, Alabama cases reversing death sentences for prejudicial errors committed before the advisory jury do not demonstrate that the jury's role is in fact determinative, but
simply that a sentence imposed by the judge is invalid if the recommendation on which it partially rests was rendered erroneously. Second, although statistics demonstrate that there have been only 5 cases in which an Alabama judge rejected an advisory verdict of death, compared to 47 instances where the judge imposed a death sentence over a jury recommendation of life, these numbers do not tell the whole story because they do not indicate, for example, how many cases in which a jury recommendation of life was adopted would have ended differently had the judge not been required to consider the jury's advice. Moreover, the statistics say little about whether the Alabama scheme is constitutional, a question which turns not solely on numerical tabulations of sentences, but rather on whether the penalties imposed are the product of properly guided discretion and not of arbitrary whim. Finally, apparent disparities in the weight given to jury verdicts in specific Alabama cases do not indicate that the judges have divergent understandings of the statutory requirement that such verdicts be considered; they simply reflect the fact that, in the subjective weighing process, the emphasis given to each decisional criterion must of necessity vary to account for the particular circumstances in each case. In any event, Harris does not show how these disparities affect her case. Pp. 511-515.
632 So. 2d 543, affirmed.
O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 515.
Ruth E. Friedman argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the brief was Bryan A. Stevenson.
P. David Bjurberg, Assistant Attorney General of Alabama, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was James H. Evans, Attorney General.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. Alabama law vests capital sentencing authority in the trial judge, but requires the judge to consider an advisory jury verdict. We granted certiorari to consider petitioner's argument that Alabama's capital sentencing statute is unconstitutional because it does not specify the weight the judge must give to the jury's recommendation and thus permits arbitrary imposition of the death penalty.