500 U.S. 110 (1991), 88-7247, Lankford v. Idaho

Docket Nº:No. 88-7247
Citation:500 U.S. 110, 111 S.Ct. 1723, 114 L.Ed.2d 173, 59 U.S.L.W. 4434
Party Name:Lankford v. Idaho
Case Date:May 20, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 110

500 U.S. 110 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1723, 114 L.Ed.2d 173, 59 U.S.L.W. 4434




No. 88-7247

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 1991

Argued Feb. 19, 1991



At petitioner Lankford's arraignment on two counts of first-degree murder, the Idaho trial judge advised him that the maximum punishment under state law that he could receive if convicted on either charge was life imprisonment or death. A jury found him guilty on both counts, and, prior to his sentencing hearing, the court entered an order requiring the State to provide notice whether it would seek the death penalty. The State filed a negative response, and there was no discussion of the death penalty as a possible sentence at the sentencing hearing, where both defense counsel and the prosecutor argued the merits of concurrent or consecutive, and fixed or indeterminate, sentence terms. At the hearing's conclusion, however, the trial judge indicated that he considered Lankford's testimony unworthy of belief, stated that the crimes' seriousness warranted punishment more severe than that recommended by the State, and mentioned the possibility of death as a sentencing option. Subsequently, he sentenced Lankford to death based, inter alia, on five specific aggravating circumstances. In affirming, the State Supreme Court rejected Lankford's claim that the trial court violated the Constitution by failing to give notice of its intention to consider imposing the death sentence despite the State's notice that it was not seeking that penalty. The court concluded that the express advice given Lankford at his arraignment, together with the terms of the Idaho Code, were sufficient notice to him that the death penalty might be imposed.

Held: The sentencing process in this case violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because, at the time of the sentencing hearing, Lankford and his counsel did not have adequate notice that the judge might sentence him to death. There is nothing in the record after the State's response to the presentencing order and before the judge's remarks at the end of the hearing to indicate that the judge contemplated death as a possible sentence or to alert the parties that the real issue they should have been debating at the hearing was the choice between life and death. Moreover, the presentencing order was comparable to a pretrial order limiting the issues to be tried, such that it was reasonable for the defense to assume that there was no reason to present argument or evidence directed at whether the death penalty was either appropriate or permissible. If defense counsel had had fair notice that the judge was contemplating a death sentence, presumably she would

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have advanced arguments at the sentencing hearing addressing the aggravating circumstances identified by the judge and his reasons for disbelieving Lankford; she did not make these and other arguments, because they were entirely inappropriate in a discussion about the length of Lankford's incarceration. Thus, it is unrealistic to assume that the notice provided by statute and the arraignment survived the State's response to the presentencing order. The trial judge's silence following that response had the practical effect of concealing from the parties the principal issues to be decided at the hearing, and thereby created an impermissible risk that the adversary process may have malfunctioned in this case. Cf. Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 360. Pp. 119-128.

116 Idaho 279, 775 P.2d 593, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 128.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

[111 S.Ct. 1725] JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the sentencing process followed in this capital case satisfied the requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[1] More narrowly, the question is whether, at the time of petitioner's sentencing hearing, he and his counsel had adequate notice that the judge might sentence him to death.

The unique circumstance that gives rise to concern about the adequacy of the notice in this case is the fact that, pursuant to court order, the prosecutor had formally advised the trial judge and the petitioner that the State would not recommend the death penalty. To place this circumstance in

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proper perspective, it is necessary to relate the procedural history of the case.


On or about June 21, 1983, Robert and Cheryl Bravence were killed at their campsite near Santiam Creek, Idaho. On December 1, 1983, the State filed an information charging petitioner with the crime of first-degree murder. The first count alleged that Robert Bravence had been beaten to death and the second count alleged that Cheryl Bravence had been killed in the same way. Identical charges were also filed against petitioner's older brother, Mark. At the arraignment, the trial judge advised petitioner that "the maximum punishment that you may receive if you are convicted on either of the two charges is imprisonment for life or death." App. 14.

After the arraignment, petitioner's appointed counsel entered into plea negotiations with the prosecutor. During these negotiations, petitioner agreed to take two lie-detector tests. Although the results of the tests were not entirely satisfactory, they convinced the prosecutor that petitioner's older brother Mark was primarily responsible for the crimes, and was the actual killer of both victims. Id. at 193. The parties agreed on an indeterminate sentence with a 1-year minimum in exchange for a guilty plea, subject to a commitment from the trial judge that he would impose that sentence. In February, 1984, the judge refused to make that commitment. In March, the case went to trial. The State proved that petitioner and his brother Mark decided to steal their victims' Volkswagen van. Petitioner walked into the Bravences' campsite armed with a shotgun and engaged them in conversation. When Cheryl left and went to a nearby creek, Mark entered the campsite, ordered Robert to kneel down, and struck him on the head with a nightstick. When Cheryl returned, Mark gave her the same order, and killed her in the same manner. See State v. Lankford, 113 Idaho 688, 691, 747 P.2d 710, 713 (1987).

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Petitioner testified in support of a defense theory that he was only an accessory after the fact.[2] The jury was instructed, however, that evidence that petitioner "was [111 S.Ct. 1726] present, and that he aided and abetted in the commission of the crime of robbery" was sufficient to support a conviction for first-degree murder. App. 16.[3] The trial judge refused

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to instruct the jury that a specific intent to kill was required.[4] The jury found petitioner guilty on both counts.

At the prosecutor's request, the sentencing hearing was postponed until after the separate trial of petitioner's brother was concluded. The sentencing was first set for June 28, 1984, and later reset for October, 1984. In the interim, pursuant to petitioner's request, on September 6, 1984, the trial court entered an order requiring the State to notify the court and the petitioner whether it would ask for the death penalty, and if so, to file a statement of the aggravating circumstances on which it intended to rely.[5] A week later, the State filed this negative response:

COMES NOW, Dennis L. Albers, in relation to the Court's Order of September 6, 1984, and makes the following response.

In relation to the above-named defendant, Bryan Stuart Lankford, the State through the Prosecuting Attorney

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will not be recommending the death penalty as to either count of first degree murder for which the defendant was earlier convicted.

Id. at 26 (emphasis in original).

In the following month, there was a flurry of activity. The trial court granted petitioner's pro se request for a new lawyer, denied that lawyer's motion for a new trial based on the alleged incompetence of trial counsel, denied a motion for a continuance of the sentencing hearing, and denied the new lawyer's request for a typewritten copy of the trial transcript.[6] In none of these proceedings was there any mention of the possibility that [111 S.Ct. 1727] petitioner might receive a death sentence.[7] Page 116

At the sentencing hearing on October 12, 1984,[8] there was no discussion of the death penalty as a possible sentence. The prosecutor offered no evidence. He relied on the trial record, explained why he had not recommended the death penalty,[9] and ultimately recommended an indeterminate life sentence with a minimum of "somewhere between ten and 20 years." Id. at 104. The defense put on a number of witnesses who testified that petitioner was a nonviolent person, but that he was subject to domination by his brother Mark, who had violent and dangerous propensities. Id. at 997. In her argument in mitigation, defense counsel stressed these facts, as well as the independent evidence that Mark was the actual killer. She urged the Court to impose concurrent, indeterminate life sentences, which would make petitioner eligible for parole in 10 years, less the time he had already served. She argued against consecutive indeterminate sentences which would have amounted to a 20-year term, or a fixed-life term that would have amounted to a 40-year minimum. She made no reference to a possible death sentence.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge made a rather lengthy statement in which he indicated that he considered petitioner's testimony unworthy of...

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