462 U.S. 862 (1983), 81-89, Zant v. Stephens

Docket NºNo. 81-89.
Citation462 U.S. 862, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235
Party NameWalter ZANT, Warden, Petitioner v. Alpha Otis O'Daniel STEPHENS.
Case DateJune 22, 1983
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

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462 U.S. 862 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235

Walter ZANT, Warden, Petitioner


Alpha Otis O'Daniel STEPHENS.

No. 81-89.

United States Supreme Court.

June 22, 1983

Argued Feb. 24, 1982.

Question Certified May 3, 1982.

Georgia prisoner, sentenced to death for murder, sought federal habeas corpus. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Wilbur D. Owens, Jr., Chief Judge, denied relief. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded, 631 F.2d 397. Following modification, 648 F.2d 446, certiorari was granted. The Supreme Court, Justice Stevens, held that: (1) limited function served by jury finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, i.e., segregating those cases for which capital penalty might be considered, does not render the statutory scheme invalid; (2) although after imposition of death penalty the Georgia Supreme Court invalidated statutory aggravating circumstance of substantial history of serious assault of criminal convictions, death penalty was not required to be vacated under Stromberg or its progeny as jury expressly found existence of two other valid statutory aggravating circumstances; and (3) death sentence was not infirm on ground that the jury instruction with regard to the invalid circumstance may have unduly affected jury deliberations as underlying evidence of history of serious assaultive in criminal convictions was otherwise admissible under state law.

Judgment of Court of Appeals reversed.

Justice White filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Justice Rehnquist filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Marshall filed dissenting opinion, in which Justice Brennan joined.

[103 S.Ct. 2735] Syllabus[*]


In a bifurcated trial in a Georgia state court, a jury found respondent guilty of murder and imposed the death penalty. At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that it was authorized to consider all of the evidence received during the guilt phase of the trial as well as all facts and circumstances presented in mitigation or aggravation during the sentencing proceeding, and that it must find and designate in writing the existence of one or more specified statutory aggravating circumstances in order to impose the death penalty. The jury stated in writing that it found the statutory aggravating circumstances that respondent had a prior conviction of a capital felony, that he had "a substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions," and that the murder was committed by an escapee. While respondent's appeal was pending, the Georgia Supreme Court held in another case that one of the aggravating circumstances--"substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions"--was unconstitutionally vague. In respondent's case, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the two other aggravating circumstances adequately supported the sentence. After the Federal District Court denied respondent's petition for habeas corpus, the Court of Appeals held that respondent's death penalty was invalid. In response to this Court's certified question, 456 U.S. 410, 102 S.Ct. 1856, 72 L.Ed.2d 222, the Georgia Supreme Court explained the state-law premises for its view that the failure of one aggravating circumstance does not invalidate a death sentence that is otherwise adequately supported by other aggravating circumstances. Under Georgia law the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance serves a limited purpose--it identifies those members of the class of persons convicted of murder who are eligible for the death penalty, without furnishing any further guidance to the jury in the exercise of its discretion in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed.


1. The limited function served by the jury's finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance does not render Georgia's statutory scheme invalid under the holding in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346. Under Georgia's scheme, the jury is required to find and identify in writing at least one valid statutory aggravating circumstance, an individualized

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determination must be made on the basis of the defendant's character and the circumstances of the crime, and the State Supreme Court reviews the record of every death penalty proceeding to determine whether the sentence was arbitrary or disproportionate. The narrowing function of statutory aggravating circumstances was properly achieved in this case by the two valid aggravating circumstances upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, because these two findings adequately differentiate this case in an objective, evenhanded, and substantively rational way from the many Georgia murder cases in which the death penalty may not be imposed. Moreover, the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed respondent's death sentence to determine whether it was arbitrary, excessive, or disproportionate. Thus the Georgia capital sentencing statute is not invalid as applied here. Pp. 2741 - 2744.

2. Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 51 S.Ct. 532, 75 L.Ed. 1117 does not require that respondent's death sentence be vacated. Stromberg requires that a general guilty verdict be set aside if the jury was instructed that it could rely on any of two or more independent grounds, and one of those grounds is insufficient, because the verdict may have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground. In this case, however, the jury did not merely return a general [103 S.Ct. 2736] verdict stating that it had found at least one aggravating circumstance, but instead expressly found two aggravating circumstances that were valid and legally sufficient to support the death penalty. Nor is a second rule derived from Stromberg --requiring that a general guilty verdict on a single-count indictment or information be set aside where it rests on both a constitutional and an unconstitutional ground--applicable here. There is no suggestion that any of the aggravating circumstances involved any conduct protected by the Constitution. Pp. 2744 - 2746.

3. Respondent's death sentence was not impaired on the asserted ground that the jury instruction with regard to the invalid statutory aggravating circumstance may have unduly affected the jury's deliberations. Although the aggravating circumstance was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court because it failed to provide an adequate basis for distinguishing a murder case in which the death penalty may be imposed from those cases in which such a penalty may not be imposed, the underlying evidence as to respondent's history of serious assaultive criminal convictions was fully admissible under Georgia law at the sentencing phase of the trial. Pp. 2746 - 2750.

631 F.2d 397 (5th Cir.1980) and 648 F.2d 446 (5th Cir.1981), reversed.


After the Georgia Supreme Court's response to the certified question, supplemental briefs were filed by Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia, William B. Hill, Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General, Robert S. Stubbs II, Executive Assistant Attorney General, and Marion O. Gordon, First Assistant Attorney General, for petitioner, and by James C. Bonner, Jr., Jack Greenberg, James M. Nabrit III, Joel Berger, John Charles Boger, Deborah Fins, and Anthony G. Amsterdam for respondent.

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Daryl A. Robinson, Atlanta, Ga., for petitioner.

John Charles Boger, New York City, for respondent.


Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether respondent's death penalty must be vacated because one of the three statutory aggravating circumstances found by the jury was subsequently held to be invalid by the Supreme Court of Georgia, although the other two aggravating circumstances were specifically upheld. The answer depends on the function of the jury's finding of an aggravating circumstance under Georgia's capital sentencing statute, and on the reasons that the aggravating circumstance at issue in this particular case was found to be invalid.

In January 1975 a jury in Bleckley County, Georgia, convicted respondent of the murder of Roy Asbell and sentenced him to death. The evidence received at the guilt phase of his trial, which included his confessions and the testimony of a number of witnesses, described these events: On August 19, 1974, while respondent was serving sentences for several burglary convictions and was also awaiting trial for escape, he again escaped from the Houston County jail. In the next two days he committed three auto thefts, an armed robbery, and several burglaries. On August 21st, Roy Asbell interrupted respondent and an accomplice in the course of burglarizing the home of Asbell's son in Twiggs County. Respondent

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beat Asbell, robbed him, and, with the aid of the accomplice, drove him in his own vehicle a short distance into Bleckley County. There they killed Asbell by shooting him twice through the ear at point blank range.

At the sentencing phase of the trial the State relied on the evidence adduced at the guilt phase and also established that respondent's prior criminal record included convictions on two counts of armed robbery, five counts of burglary, and one count of murder. Respondent testified that he was "sorry" and knew he deserved to be punished, that his accomplice actually shot Asbell, and that they had both been "pretty high" on drugs. The State requested the jury to impose the death penalty and argued that the evidence established the aggravating circumstances identified in subparagraphs (b)(1), (b)(7), and (b)(9) of the Georgia capital sentencing statute. 1

[103 S.Ct. 2737] The trial judge instructed the jury that under the law of Georgia "every person found guilty of Murder shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life, the sentence to be fixed by the jury trying the case." He explained that the jury was authorized...

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