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Supreme Court rules against mitigating factor jury instruction in death penalty cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday ruled in Kansas v. Carr [opinion, PDF] that a jury in a death penalty case does not need to be advised that mitigating factors [Cornell LII backgrounder], which can lessen the severity of a criminal act, do not need to proven beyond a reasonable doubt like aggravating factors. The defendants argued that without this instruction the jury would have understood that the mitigating factors had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be considered in their decision. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for 8-1 majority, stating that it may not even be possible to place a burden of proof requirement on mitigating factors because they are not factual determinations, rather they are judgement calls or questions of mercy and "what one juror might consider mitigating another might not." He also wrote that the possibility of juror confusion in this scenario does not rise to the "reasonable likelihood" of confusion required for the instruction to be considered a constitutional error. On a separate issue, the court also held that a joint trial for the two defendants who committed crimes together was not unconstitutional. Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting justice, writing that the Court should not have heard the case at all because she does not believe it involves a federal question. The cases have been remanded to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The court consolidated cases from three different defendants. Two brothers, Reginald and Johnathan Carr, committed [NYT report] a series of rapes, killings, and robberies in 2000 known as the Wichita Massacre. Sydney Gleason, the third defendant, conspired to kill an elderly man in order to steal cigarettes and later killed his co-conspirator and her boyfriend. The Kansas Supreme Court vacated their convictions because the jury was not instructed that mitigating factors only need to be proven to the satisfaction of each individual juror and that the joint proceedings of the defendants deprived them of the right "to an individualized capital sentencing determination." The Kansas court found both to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

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