483 U.S. 66 (1987), 86-246, Sumner v. Nevada Department of Prisons

Docket Nº:No. 86-246
Citation:483 U.S. 66, 107 S.Ct. 2716, 97 L.Ed.2d 56, 55 U.S.L.W. 4931
Party Name:Sumner v. Nevada Department of Prisons
Case Date:June 22, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 66

483 U.S. 66 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 2716, 97 L.Ed.2d 56, 55 U.S.L.W. 4931

Sumner

v.

Nevada Department of Prisons

No. 86-246

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1987

Argued April 20, 1987

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

While serving a life sentence without possibility of parole upon a first-degree murder conviction, respondent was convicted of the capital murder of a fellow prisoner, and sentenced to death under a Nevada statute mandating the death penalty in these circumstances. The State Supreme Court affirmed respondent's conviction and death sentence. The Federal District Court, in a habeas corpus proceeding, vacated the death sentence, holding that the mandatory capital punishment statute violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. Under the individualized capital sentencing doctrine, it is constitutionally required that the sentencing authority consider, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of the defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the particular offense. Pp. 70-76.

2. A statute that mandates the death penalty for a prison inmate who is convicted of murder while serving a life sentence without possibility of parole violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 77-85.

791 F.2d 788, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post p. 86.

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BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a statute that mandates the death penalty for a prison inmate who is convicted of murder while serving a life sentence without possibility of parole comports with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

I

In 1958, respondent Raymond Wallace Shuman was convicted in a Nevada state court of first-degree murder for the shooting death of a truckdriver during a roadside robbery. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole under § 200.030 of Nev.Rev.Stat., which at that time provided the jury with sentencing [107 S.Ct. 2718] options of the death penalty or of life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole. See 1957 Nev.Stats., ch. 238. In 1975, while serving his life sentence, Shuman was convicted of capital murder for the killing of a fellow inmate. Pursuant to the revised version of § 200.030 then in effect, Shuman's conviction mandated that he be sentenced to death.1 The Nevada Supreme

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Court affirmed Shuman's conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. It specifically rejected respondent's claims of error, including his objection that the mandatory imposition of the death sentence violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Shuman v. State, 94 Nev. 265, 578 P.2d 1183 (1978).

Shuman unsuccessfully pursued his challenge to the mandatory capital punishment statute in a state habeas petition. After exhausting state remedies, Shuman filed a petition in Federal District Court seeking habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The District Court rejected all his claims except his challenge to the constitutionality of the mandatorily imposed death sentence. Shuman v. Wolff, 571 F.Supp. 213 (Nev.1983).

The District Court acknowledged that, in several cases, this Court had reserved judgment on the question whether a mandatory death penalty may be justified in the case of an inmate serving a life sentence who is convicted of murder. Id. at 216. The District Court reasoned, however, that, under the rule set forth in Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), that capital sentencing authorities be permitted to consider any relevant mitigating circumstance in their decision, Shuman's death sentence was invalid. 571 F.Supp. at 216-218. It found that the availability of a nonmandatory death penalty was a sufficient deterrent to life-term inmates, and that making a death sentence mandatory "only serves to give the imposition of the death sentence the air of arbitrariness and caprice." Id. at 217. It held that § 200.030.1(b) in effect at the time Shuman was sentenced to death therefore violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and it ordered that Shuman's death sentence be vacated. The District

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Court noted, however, that the State was not foreclosed from initiating and completing "lawful resentencing proceedings." 571 F.Supp. at 218.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment. Shuman v. Wolff, 791 F.2d 788 (1986). That court also noted that we had left open the question of the constitutionality of the type of mandatory statute at issue in this case, see id. at 792, but it discounted what it perceived to be the two possible rationales justifying a statute of that kind. It first rejected the argument that the mandatory statute provided adequate individualized consideration. It reasoned that the fact that Shuman was serving a life sentence without possibility of [107 S.Ct. 2719] parole did not render it unnecessary for a sentencing authority to be permitted to consider relevant mitigating circumstances in deciding whether to sentence him to death. The court identified possibly relevant circumstances, such as the conduct that led to the imposition of the life sentence and the

age and the mental or emotional state of the defendant, the provocation for the killing, the pressure from other inmates, and the record of the defendant in prison since the first offense.

Id. at 795.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the argument that the mandatory statute was necessary as a deterrent for life-term inmates. Ibid. It found that any deterrent effect of capital punishment exists under statutes that provide individualized capital sentencing determinations. In closing, it voiced its agreement with the Court of Appeals of New York that a

"mandatory death statute simply cannot be reconciled with the scrupulous care the legal system demands to insure that the death penalty fits the individual and the crime."

Id. at 796, quoting People v. Smith, 63 N.Y.2d 41, 78, 468 N.E.2d 879, 897 (1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1227 (1985).

We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 948 (1986), to resolve this question of the constitutionality of a death sentence imposed,

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pursuant to a mandatory capital sentencing statutory procedure, on an inmate serving a life sentence.

II

A

The Nevada statute under which Shuman was sentenced to death was in force for four years. It was enacted shortly after this Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) (per curiam), and was repealed soon after the decisions in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), and Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976). Prior to Furman, the Nevada capital sentencing statute simply provided that, after a person was convicted of first-degree murder, the jury was to fix the penalty at death or life imprisonment, with or without possibility of parole, except that, in cases of persons already serving a sentence of life imprisonment, the penalty was to be death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole. See 1967 Nev.Stats., ch. 523, § 438, p. 1470. The statute provided no guidance to the jury about how to make the sentencing decision, or what, if any, individual factors it was to consider.

In Furman, this Court, in effect, invalidated all such capital punishment statutes because of its conclusion that statutes permitting juries absolute discretion in making the capital sentencing determination resulted in the death penalty's being arbitrarily and capriciously imposed, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. On May 3, 1973, less than a year after Furman, the Nevada Legislature replaced its unguided-discretion statute with one that created a category of "capital murder." The new statute provided a list of situations, which, if found to exist in conjunction with the murder, would render the killing a "capital murder." The statute mandated that the death penalty was to be imposed on all persons convicted of those offenses. See n. 1,

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supra. The legislature specifically explained in the statute's preamble that the mandatory statute was intended to prevent the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty. See 1973 Nev.Stats., ch. 798, p. 1801. This was the statute under which respondent was sentenced to death.

Nevada's adoption of a mandatory sentencing scheme represented one of the two responses of various States to the Furman decision. Although every State had abandoned mandatory capital sentencing procedures prior to Furman because they had proved unsatisfactory, see Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. at 291-292 (plurality opinion), some States, including Nevada, enacted mandatory statutes [107 S.Ct. 2720] after Furman. Those States read the several opinions supporting the judgment in Furman as a signal that mandatory sentencing procedures would avoid the arbitrary and capricious pitfalls of unguided discretionary procedures. See Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. at 298-299 (plurality opinion); Roberts (Stanislaus) v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 328-329, 331 (1976) (plurality opinion). See also Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. at 413 (dissenting opinion, where this alternative was forecast). Other States, however, maintained individualized sentencing, but narrowed the category of offenses to which the penalty could be applied, bifurcated the trial to provide a separate sentencing proceeding, and provided guidance to the sentencing authority about how to determine the appropriateness of the death penalty in a particular case. See, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. at 162-168 (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.). The Court on prior occasions has recognized these...

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