430 U.S. 349 (1977), 74-6593, Gardner v. Florida

Docket Nº:No. 74-6593
Citation:430 U.S. 349, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 51 L.Ed.2d 393
Party Name:Gardner v. Florida
Case Date:March 22, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 349

430 U.S. 349 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1197, 51 L.Ed.2d 393




No. 74-6593

United States Supreme Court

March 22, 1977

Argued November 30, 1976



Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder in a Florida court. After the required separate sentencing hearing, the jury advised the court to impose a life sentence on the ground that the statutory mitigating circumstances required to be taken into account in imposing a sentence outweighed the aggravating circumstances. But the trial judge, relying in part on a presentence investigation report that he had ordered and portions of which were not disclosed to or requested by counsel for the parties, imposed the death sentence on the ground that a certain aggravating circumstance justified it and that there was no mitigating circumstance. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence without expressly discussing petitioner's contention that the sentencing court had erred in considering the presentence report, including the confidential portion, in deciding to impose the death penalty, and without reviewing such confidential portion.

Held: The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded. Pp. 355-364.

313 So.2d 675, vacated and remanded.


1. Petitioner was denied due process of law when the death sentence was imposed, at least in part, on the basis of information that he had no opportunity to deny or explain. Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, distinguished. Pp. 355-362.

(a) In light of the constitutional developments whereby it is now recognized that death is a different kind of punishment from any other and that the sentencing process, as well as the trial itself, must satisfy due process, the capital sentencing procedure followed here is not warranted by any of the following justifications offered by the State: (i) an assurance of confidentiality is necessary to enable investigators to obtain relevant but sensitive disclosures about a defendant's background or character; (ii) full disclosure of a presentence report will unnecessarily delay the proceeding; (iii) such full disclosure, which often include psychiatric and psychological evaluations, will occasionally disrupt the rehabilitation process; and (iv) trial judges can be trusted to exercise

Page 350

their sentencing discretion in a responsible manner, even though their decisions may be based on secret information. Pp. 357-360.

(b) Even if it were permissible upon finding good cause to withhold a portion of a presentence report from the defendant, and even from defense counsel, nevertheless the full report must be made a part of the record to be reviewed on appeal. Since the State must administer its capital sentencing procedures with an even hand, that record must disclose to the reviewing court the considerations motivating the death sentence in every case in which it is imposed, since otherwise the capital sentencing procedure would be subject to the defects that resulted [97 S.Ct. 1201] in the holding of unconstitutionality in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238. Pp. 360-361.

(c) Here defense counsel's failure to request access to the full presentence report cannot justify the submission of a less complete record to the reviewing court than the record on which the trial judge based his decision to sentence petitioner to death, nor does such omission by counsel constitute an effective waiver of the constitutional error. Pp. 361-362.

2. The proper disposition of the case is to vacate the death sentence and remand the case to the Florida Supreme Court with directions to order further proceedings at the trial court level not inconsistent with this opinion, rather than, as the State urges, merely remanding the case to the Florida Supreme Court with directions to have the entire presentence report made a part of the record to enable that court to complete its reviewing function, since this latter procedure could not fully correct the error. P. 362.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE concluded, on the basis of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments, that a procedure for selecting defendants for the death penalty that permits consideration of secret information in a presentence report relevant to the defendant's character and record fails to meet the "need for reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment," Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305. Pp. 362-364.

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurred in the judgment on the basis of the judgments in Woodson v. North Carolina, supra, and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325. P. 364.

STEVENS, J., announced the Court's judgment and filed an opinion, in which STEWART and POWELL JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. WHITE, J., post, p. 362, and BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 364, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. BRENNAN, J., filed a separate

Page 351

opinion, post, p. 364. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 365, and REHNQUIST, J, post, p. 371, filed dissenting opinions.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE POWELL joined.

Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. When the trial judge imposed the death sentence, he stated that he was relying in part on information in a presentence investigation report. Portions of the report were not disclosed to counsel for the parties. Without reviewing the confidential portion of the presentence report, the Supreme Court of Florida, over the dissent of two justices, affirmed the death sentence. 313 So.2d 675 (1975). We conclude that this procedure does not satisfy the constitutional command that no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law.


On June 30, 1973, the petitioner assaulted his wife with a blunt instrument, causing her death. On January 10, 1974, after a trial in the Circuit Court of Citrus County, Fla., a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.

The separate sentencing hearing required by Florida law in capital cases1 was held later on the same day. The State merely introduced two photographs of the decedent, otherwise

Page 352

relying on the trial testimony. That testimony, if credited, was sufficient to support a finding of one of the statutory aggravating circumstances, that the felony committed by petitioner "was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel."2

In mitigation petitioner testified that he had consumed a vast quantity of alcohol during a day-long drinking spree which preceded the crime, and professed to have almost no recollection of the assault itself. His testimony, if credited, was sufficient to [97 S.Ct. 1202] support a finding of at least one of the statutory mitigating circumstances.3

After hearing this evidence the jury was instructed to determine by a majority vote (1) whether the State had proved one of the aggravating circumstances defined by statute, (2) whether mitigating circumstances outweighed any such aggravating circumstance, and (3) based on that determination, whether the defendant should be sentenced to life or death.

After the jury retired to deliberate, the judge announced that he was going to order a presentence investigation of petitioner.4 Twenty-five minutes later, the jury returned its advisory verdict. It expressly found that the mitigating circumstances

Page 353

outweighed the aggravating circumstances and advised the court to impose a life sentence. App 131.

The presentence investigation report was completed by the Florida Parole and Probation Commission on January 28, 1974. On January 30, 1974, the trial judge entered findings of fact and a judgment sentencing petitioner to death. His ultimate finding was that the felony "was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel; and that such aggravating circumstances outweighs the mitigating circumstance, to-wit: none." Id. at 138. As a preface to that ultimate finding, he recited that his conclusion was based on the evidence presented at both stages of the bifurcated proceeding, the arguments of counsel, and his review of "the factual information contained in said presentence investigation." Ibid.

There is no dispute about the fact that the presentence investigation report contained a confidential portion which was not disclosed to defense counsel. Although the judge noted in his findings of fact that the State and petitioner's counsel had been given "a copy of that portion [of the report] to which they are entitled," ibid., counsel made no request to examine the full report or to be apprised of the contents of the confidential portion. The trial judge did not comment on the contents of the confidential portion. His findings do not indicate that there was anything of special importance in the undisclosed portion, or that there was any reason other than customary practice for not disclosing the entire report to the parties.

On appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, petitioner argued that the sentencing court had erred in considering the presentence investigation report, including the confidential portion, in making the decision to impose the death penalty. The per curiam opinion of the Supreme Court did not specifically discuss this contention, but merely recited the trial judge' finding, stated that the record had been carefully reviewed, and concluded that the conviction and sentence should be

Page 354

affirmed. The record on appeal, however, did not include the confidential portion of the presentence report.

Justice Erving and Justice Boyd dissented on several grounds. They regarded the evidence as sufficient to establish a mitigating circumstance as a matter of law, and also concluded that it was fundamental error for the trial judge to rely on confidential matter not provided to the parties. They stated,...

To continue reading