484 U.S. 231 (1988), 86-6867, Lowenfield v. Phelps

Docket Nº:No. 86-6867
Citation:484 U.S. 231, 108 S.Ct. 546, 98 L.Ed.2d 568, 56 U.S.L.W. 4071
Party Name:Lowenfield v. Phelps
Case Date:January 13, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

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484 U.S. 231 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 546, 98 L.Ed.2d 568, 56 U.S.L.W. 4071




No. 86-6867

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1988

Argued October 14, 1987




At petitioner's state court trial on charges of killing five people, the jury returned guilty verdicts on three counts of first-degree murder, an essential statutory element of which, under the circumstances, was a finding of intent "to kill or inflict great bodily harm upon more than one person." At the penalty phase, in response to notes from the jury indicating difficulty in reaching a decision, the court twice polled the jury as to whether further deliberations would be helpful in reaching a verdict, a majority of the jurors answering affirmatively in each instance. After the second poll, the judge reiterated earlier instructions, declaring that he would impose a sentence of life imprisonment without benefit of probation, parole, or suspended sentence if the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous recommendation, and admonishing them to consult and consider each other's views with the objective of reaching a verdict, but not to surrender their own honest beliefs in doing so. Defense counsel did not object to either poll, to the manner in which they were conducted, or to the supplemental instruction. The jury then returned a verdict in 30 minutes, sentencing petitioner to death on all three first-degree murder counts upon finding the statutory aggravating circumstance of "knowingly creat[ing] a risk of death or great bodily harm to more than one person." After the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld petitioner's convictions and sentences, the Federal District Court denied him habeas corpus relief, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. When considered in context and under all the circumstances, the two jury polls and the supplemental charge did not impermissibly coerce the jury to return a death sentence. The supplemental charge is similar to the traditional Allen charge long approved by this Court on the ground that it is an attempt to secure jury unanimity, which reasoning applies with even greater force here, since this charge does not speak specifically to the minority jurors. Although not without constitutional weight, the fact that one of the purposes served by such a charge -- the avoidance of the societal costs of a retrial -- is not present here, because Louisiana law requires the court to impose a life sentence if the jury is hung, does not render the charge impermissible under the Due Process

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Clause and the Eighth Amendment in light of the State's strong interest in having capital sentencing juries express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death. Jenkins v. United States, 380 U.S. 445, and United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, [108 S.Ct. 548] cannot aid petitioner, since the supplemental instruction given in this case did not require the jury to reach a decision. Similarly, Brasfield v. United States, 272 U.S. 448, cannot help petitioner, since the questions asked the jury here did not require it to reveal the nature or extent of its division on the merits. Although coercion is suggested by the fact that the jury returned its verdict soon after receiving the supplemental instruction, defense counsel's failure to object to either the polls or the instruction at the time indicates that the potential for coercion argued now was not then apparent. Pp. 237-241.

2. The death sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment simply because the single statutory "aggravating circumstance" found by the jury duplicates an element of the underlying offense of first-degree murder. To pass constitutional muster, a capital sentencing scheme must

genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty, and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder.

Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877; cf. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153. This narrowing function may constitutionally be provided in either of two ways: the legislature may broadly define capital offenses and provide for narrowing by jury findings of aggravating circumstances at the penalty phase, as most States have done, or the legislature may itself narrow the definition of capital offenses so that the jury finding at the guilt phase responds to this concern, as Louisiana has done here. See Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262. Thus, the duplicative nature of the statutory aggravating circumstance did not render petitioner's sentence infirm, since the constitutionally mandated narrowing function was performed at the guilt phase, and the Constitution did not require an additional aggravating circumstance finding at the penalty phase. Pp. 241-246.

817 F.2d 285, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which, except for the last sentence thereof, STEVENS, J., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, and in Part I of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 246.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court. *

Petitioner, sentenced to death by the Louisiana state courts, makes two federal constitutional attacks on his sentence. He first contends that the trial court impermissibly coerced the jury to return a sentence of death by inquiries it made to the jury and a supplemental charge which it gave to the jury following the receipt of a communication from that body. Petitioner's second contention is that the death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the single "aggravating circumstance" found by the jury and upheld by the Supreme Court of Louisiana merely duplicates an element of the underlying offense of first-degree murder of which he was convicted at the guilt stage. We reject both of these contentions.


Petitioner was charged with killing a woman with whom he had lived, three members of her family, and one of her [108 S.Ct. 549] male friends. The jury found petitioner guilty of two counts of manslaughter and three counts of first-degree murder; an essential element of the latter verdicts was a finding that petitioner intended "to kill or inflict great bodily harm upon more than one person." La.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 14:30A(3) (West 1986).

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The jury commenced its sentencing deliberations on the same day that it returned the verdict of guilt, and the judge's charge to them in this second phase of the trial included the familiar admonition that the jurors should consider the views of others with the objective of reaching a verdict, but that they should not surrender their own honest beliefs in doing so. The court also charged the jury that, if it were unable to reach a unanimous recommendation, the court would impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.

The jury was allowed to retire late in the evening and reconvene the next day. During the afternoon of that day, a note came from the foreman of the jury stating that the jury was unable to reach a decision at that time, and requesting that the court again advise the jury as to its responsibilities. The jury was called back. The court provided a piece of paper to each juror and asked each to write on the paper his or her name and the answer to the question whether "further deliberations would be helpful in obtaining a verdict." The jurors complied, and were asked to retire to the jury room. The papers revealed eight answers in the affirmative -- that more deliberation would be helpful -- and four in the negative. Defense counsel renewed a previously made motion for a mistrial, arguing that the jury was obviously hung. The trial court denied the motion, noting that this was the first sign that the jury was having trouble reaching a verdict in the penalty phase. The court directed that, as previously agreed upon, the jury would return to the courtroom and be instructed again as to its obligations in reaching a verdict.

When the jurors returned to the courtroom, a new note from them was given to the judge. This note stated that some of the jurors had misunderstood the question previously asked. The judge polled the jury again using the same method but changing the question slightly; the judge asked, "Do you feel that any further deliberations will enable you to arrive at a verdict?" App. 55. This time 11 jurors answered

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in the affirmative and 1 in the negative. The court then reinstructed the jury:

Ladies and Gentlemen, as I instructed you earlier, if the jury is unable to unanimously agree on a recommendation, the Court shall impose the sentence of Life Imprisonment without benefit of Probation, Parole, or Suspension of Sentence.

When you enter the jury room, it is your duty to consult with one another to consider each other's views and to discuss the evidence with the objective of reaching a just verdict if you can do so without violence to that individual judgment.

Each of you must decide the case for yourself, but only after discussion and impartial consideration of the case with your fellow jurors. You are not advocates for one side or the other. Do not hesitate to reexamine your own views and to change your opinion if you are convinced you are wrong, but do not surrender your honest belief as to the weight and effect of evidence solely because of the opinion of your fellow jurors, or for the mere purpose of returning a verdict.

Id. at 56.

Defense counsel did not object to either poll, to the manner in which the polls were conducted, or to the supplemental instruction. The jury resumed its deliberations, and in 30 minutes returned...

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