486 U.S. 356 (1988), 87-519, Maynard v. Cartwright

Docket Nº:No. 87-519
Citation:486 U.S. 356, 108 S.Ct. 1853, 100 L.Ed.2d 372, 56 U.S.L.W. 4501
Party Name:Maynard v. Cartwright
Case Date:June 06, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 356

486 U.S. 356 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1853, 100 L.Ed.2d 372, 56 U.S.L.W. 4501




No. 87-519

United States Supreme Court

June 6, 1988

Argued April 19, 1988




Respondent, a disgruntled ex-employee of a married couple, entered the couple's home, shot the wife twice with a shotgun, shot and killed the husband, and then slit the wife's throat and stabbed her twice. Respondent was tried in an Oklahoma court and found guilty of the first-degree murder of the husband. The jury imposed the death penalty upon finding that two statutory aggravating circumstances, including the circumstance that the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel," had been established, and that these circumstances outweighed the mitigating evidence. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on direct appeal, and later affirmed a denial of state collateral relief. The Federal District Court then denied respondent's habeas corpus petition, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statutory words "heinous," "atrocious," and "cruel" do not on their face offer sufficient guidance to the jury to escape the strictures of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238. The court also ruled that the Oklahoma courts had not adopted a limiting construction that cured the infirmity, concluding that the construction utilized by the state appellate court, which simply declared that the facts of the case were so plainly "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" that the death penalty was warranted, was itself unconstitutionally vague under the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The court therefore enjoined the execution of the death sentence, but without prejudice to further state proceedings for redetermination of the sentence.

Held: As applied in this case, the statutory aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague. Pp. 360-366.

(a) The State's contention that factual circumstances may, in themselves, plainly characterize the killing as "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" represents an improper Due Process Clause approach to vagueness that fails to recognize the rationale of this Court's Eighth Amendment cases. Under Furman, supra, and its progeny, the proper analysis of a vagueness claim focuses on whether the challenged aggravating circumstance adequately informs the jury as to what it must find in order to impose the death penalty, or whether it leaves the jury with unchanneled discretion to make an arbitrary and capricious decision. Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, which applied that analysis,

Page 357

controls this case. The language of the Oklahoma provision gave no more guidance to the jury here than did the "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman" language that was held unconstitutional in Godfrey. Moreover, Oklahoma's addition of the word "especially" no more limited the overbreadth of the aggravating factor than did the addition of "outrageously or wantonly" to the word "vile" in the language considered in Godfrey. Furthermore, the state appellate court's factual approach to construction was indistinguishable from the action of the Georgia court in Godfrey, which failed to cure the jury's unfettered discretion and to satisfy the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 360-364.

(b) The State's complaint that the Court of Appeals erroneously ruled that torture or serious physical abuse is the only constitutionally acceptable limiting construction of the aggravating circumstance is unfounded, since, although the court noted cases in which such a requirement was held to be curative, it expressly refrained from directing the State to adopt any particular construction. The contention that the death penalty should stand because the jury found another, unchallenged aggravating circumstance sufficient to sustain the sentence is also unpersuasive, since, when this case was decided, Oklahoma had no procedure for attempting [108 S.Ct. 1856] to save a death penalty when one of several aggravating circumstances found by the jury was held to be invalid or unsupported by evidence, but simply vacated the death sentence and automatically imposed a life imprisonment sentence. The significance for this case of the state appellate court's decisions, which were issued after the Court of Appeals' decision below, to adopt a torture-or-serious-physical-abuse limiting construction of the aggravating circumstance, and to no longer automatically set aside a death penalty where one of several aggravating circumstances is invalid or inapplicable, must be decided in the first instance by the Oklahoma courts in any further proceedings for redetermination of the appropriate sentence. Pp. 364-366.

822 F.2d 1477, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 366.

Page 358

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

On May 4, 1982, after eating their evening meal in their Muskogee County, Oklahoma, home, Hugh and...

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