455 U.S. 104 (1982), 80-5727, Eddings v. Oklahoma

Docket Nº:No. 80-5727
Citation:455 U.S. 104, 102 S.Ct. 869, 71 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:Eddings v. Oklahoma
Case Date:January 19, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court

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455 U.S. 104 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 869, 71 L.Ed.2d 1




No. 80-5727

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 19, 1982

Argued November 2, 1981



Petitioner was convicted in an Oklahoma trial court of first-degree murder for killing a police officer and was sentenced to death. At the time of the offense, petitioner was 16 years old, but he was tried as an adult. The Oklahoma death penalty statute provides that, in a sentencing proceeding, evidence may be presented as to "any mitigating circumstances" or as to any of certain enumerated aggravating circumstances. At the sentencing hearing, the State alleged certain of the enumerated aggravating circumstances, and petitioner, in mitigation, presented substantial evidence of a turbulent family history, of beatings by a harsh father, and of serious emotional disturbance. In imposing the death sentence, the trial judge found that the State had proved each of the alleged aggravating circumstances. But he refused, as a matter of law, to consider in mitigation the circumstances of petitioner's unhappy upbringing and emotional disturbance, and found that the only mitigating circumstance was petitioner's youth, which circumstance was held to be insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstances. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

Held: The death sentence must be vacated, as it was imposed without "the type of individualized consideration of mitigating factors . . . required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in capital cases," Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 606. Pp. 110-116.

(a) "[T]he Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer . . . not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death." Lockett v. Ohio, supra at 604. This rule follows from the requirement that capital punishment be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, and recognizes that a consistency produced by ignoring individual differences is a false consistency. Pp. 110-112.

(b) The limitation placed by the courts below upon the mitigating evidence they would consider violated the above rule. Just as the State may not by statute preclude the sentencer from considering any mitigating factor, neither may the sentencer refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence. The sentencer and the reviewing

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court may determine the weight to be given relevant mitigating evidence, but may not give it no weight by excluding it from their consideration. Here, the evidence of a difficult family history and of emotional disturbance petitioner offered at the sentencing hearing should have been duly considered in sentencing. Pp. 112-116.

616 P.2d 1159, reversed in part and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 117, and O'CONNOR, J., post, p. 117, filed concurring opinions. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 120.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Monty Lee Eddings was convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to death. Because this sentence was imposed without "the type of individualized consideration of mitigating factors . . . required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in capital cases," Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 606 (1978) (opinion of BURGER, C.J.), we reverse.


On April 4, 1977, Eddings, a 16-year-old youth, and several younger companions ran away from their Missouri homes. They traveled in a car owned by Eddings' brother, and drove

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without destination or purpose in a southwesterly direction, eventually reaching the Oklahoma Turnpike. Eddings had in the car a shotgun and several rifles he had taken from his father. After he momentarily lost control of the car, he was signalled to pull over by Officer Crabtree of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Eddings did so, and when the officer approached the car, Eddings stuck a loaded shotgun out of the window and fired, killing the officer.

Because Eddings was a juvenile, the State moved to have him certified to stand trial as an adult. Finding that there was prosecutive merit to the complaint and that Eddings was not amenable to rehabilitation within the juvenile system, the trial court granted the motion. The ruling was affirmed on appeal. In re M. E., 584 P.2d 1340 (Okla.Crim.App.), cert. denied sub nom. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 436 U.S. 921 (1978). Eddings was then charged with murder in the first degree, and the District Court of Creek County found him guilty upon his plea of nolo contendere.

The Oklahoma death penalty statute provides in pertinent part:

Upon conviction . . . of guilt of a defendant of murder in the first degree, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing proceeding to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. . . . In the sentencing proceeding, evidence may be presented as to any mitigating circumstances or as to any of the aggravating circumstances enumerated in this act.

Okla.Stat., Tit. 21, § 701.10 (1980) (emphasis added). Section 701.12 lists seven separate aggravating circumstances; the statute nowhere defines what is meant by "any mitigating circumstances."

At the sentencing hearing, the State alleged three of the aggravating circumstances enumerated in the statute: that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, that the crime was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing

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a lawful arrest, and that there was a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society. §§ 701.12(4), (5), and (7).

In mitigation, Eddings presented substantial evidence at the hearing of his troubled youth. The testimony of his supervising Juvenile Officer indicated that Eddings had been raised without proper guidance. His parents were divorced when he was 5 years old, and until he was 14, Eddings lived with his mother without rules or supervision. App. 109. There is the suggestion that Eddings' mother was an alcoholic, and possibly a prostitute. Id. at 110-111. By the time Eddings was 14, he no longer could be controlled, and his mother sent [102 S.Ct. 873] him to live with his father. But neither could the father control the boy. Attempts to reason and talk gave way to physical punishment. The Juvenile Officer testified that Eddings was frightened and bitter, that his father overreacted and used excessive physical punishment:

Mr. Eddings found the only thing that he thought was effectful with the boy was actual punishment, or physical violence -- hitting with a strap or something like this.1

Id. at 121.

Testimony from other witnesses indicated that Eddings was emotionally disturbed in general and at the time of the crime, and that his mental and emotional development were at a level several years below his age. Id. at 134, 149, and 173. A state psychologist stated that Eddings had a sociopathic or antisocial personality and that approximately 30% of youths suffering from such a disorder grew out of it as they aged. Id. at 137 and 139. A sociologist specializing in juvenile offenders testified that Eddings was treatable. Id. at 149. A psychiatrist testified that Eddings could be rehabilitated by intensive therapy over a 15- to 20-year period.

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Id. at 181. He testified further that Eddings "did pull the trigger, he did kill someone, but I don't even think he knew that he was doing it."2 The psychiatrist suggested that, if treated, Eddings would no longer pose a serious threat to society. Id. at 180-181.

At the conclusion of all the evidence, the trial judge weighed the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. He found that the State had proved each of the three alleged aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.3 Turning to the evidence of mitigating circumstances, the judge found that Eddings' youth was a mitigating factor of great weight:

I have given very serious consideration to the youth of the Defendant when this particular

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crime was committed. Should I fail to do this, I think I would not be carrying out my duty.

Id. a 188-189. But he would not consider in mitigation the circumstances of Eddings' unhappy upbringing and emotional disturbance:

[T]he Court cannot be persuaded entirely by the . . . fact that the youth was sixteen years old when this heinous crime was committed. Nor can the Court, in following the law, in my opinion, consider the fact of this young man's violent background.

Id. at 189 (emphasis added). Finding that the only mitigating circumstance was Eddings' youth, and finding further that this circumstance [102 S.Ct. 874] could not outweigh the aggravating circumstances present, the judge sentenced Eddings to death.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence of death. 616 P.2d 1159 (1980). It found that each of the aggravating circumstances alleged by the State had been present.4 It recited the mitigating evidence presented by Eddings in some detail, but, in the end, it agreed with the trial court that only the fact of Eddings' youth was properly considered as a mitigating circumstance:

[Eddings] also argues his mental state at the time of the murder. He stresses his family history in saying he was suffering from severe psychological and emotional disorders, and that the killing was, in actuality, an inevitable product of the way...

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