503 U.S. 222 (1992), 90-6616, Stringer v. Black

Docket Nº:No. 90-6616
Citation:503 U.S. 222, 112 S.Ct. 1130, 117 L.Ed.2d 367, 60 U.S.L.W. 4214
Party Name:Stringer v. Black
Case Date:March 09, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

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503 U.S. 222 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 1130, 117 L.Ed.2d 367, 60 U.S.L.W. 4214




No. 90-6616

United States Supreme Court

March 9, 1992

Argued Dec. 9, 1991




After finding petitioner Stringer guilty of capital murder, a Mississippi jury, in the sentencing phase of the case, found that there were three statutory aggravating factors. These included the factor the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel," which had not been otherwise defined in the trial court's instructions. Stringer was sentenced to death, the sentence was affirmed by the State Supreme Court on direct review, and postconviction relief was denied in the state courts. The Federal District Court then denied him habeas corpus relief, rejecting his contention that the "heinous, atrocious or cruel" aggravating factor was so vague as to render the sentence arbitrary, in violation of the Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed, holding that Stringer was not entitled to rely on Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738, or Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356, in his habeas corpus proceedings because those decisions, which were issued after his sentence became final, announced a "new rule" as defined in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288.

Held: In a federal habeas corpus proceeding, a petitioner whose death sentence became final before Maynard and Clemons were decided is not foreclosed by Teague from relying on those cases. Pp. 227-237.

(a) When a petitioner seeks federal habeas relief based on a principle announced after a final judgment, Teague requires a federal court to determine, first, whether the decision in question announced a new rule, i.e., was not dictated by precedent existing when the judgment became final. If the answer is yes and neither of two exceptions apply, the decision is not available to the petitioner. Second, if the decision did not announce a new rule, it is necessary to inquire whether granting the relief sought would create a new rule because the prior decision is applied in a novel setting, thereby extending the precedent. See Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407, 414-415. Pp. 227-228.

(b) For purposes of Teague, Maynard did not announce a new rule. Its invalidation of Oklahoma's "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance was controlled by Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, in which the Court held that Georgia's aggravating circumstance that the killing was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and

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inhuman" was vague and imprecise, inviting arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 228-229.

(c) This Court rejects the State's contention that, at the time Stringer's conviction became final and before Clemons, it would have been a new rule to apply the Godfrey and Maynard holdings to the Mississippi sentencing system because of differences between the use of aggravating factors in that system and their use in the Georgia system in Godfrey. The principal -- and critical -- difference between the two schemes is that Mississippi, unlike Georgia, is a "weighing" State, in which a jury that has found a defendant guilty of capital murder and found at least one statutory aggravating factor must weigh such factors against the mitigating evidence. Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 890, expressly left open the possibility that, in a weighing State, infection of the process with an invalid aggravating factor might require invalidation of the death sentence. Although Clemons later held that the appellate court in such a case could reweigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or undertake harmless error analysis, this Court has not suggested that the Eighth [112 S.Ct. 1133] Amendment permits a weighing state appellate court to affirm a death sentence without a thorough analysis of the role an invalid aggravating factor played in the sentencing process, but has required such courts to implement the well-established requirement of individualized sentencing determinations in death penalty cases, see, e.g., Zant, supra, 462 U.S. at 879. In a nonweighing State, so long as the sentencing body finds at least one valid aggravating factor, the fact that it also finds an invalid factor does not infect the formal process of deciding whether death is appropriate. But when the sentencing body is told to weigh an invalid factor in its decision, the weighing process itself has been skewed. Thus, the fact that Mississippi is a weighing State only gives emphasis to the requirement that aggravating factors be defined with some degree of precision, and underscores the applicability of Godfrey and Maynard to the Mississippi system. Pp. 229-232.

(d) Moreover, precedent existing at the time Stringer's sentence became final defeats the State's contention that, before Clemons, it was reasonable to believe that there was no constitutional requirement to define aggravating factors with precision in the Mississippi system. Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231, distinguished. It is important that the Mississippi Supreme Court, the final authority on the meaning of Mississippi law, has at all times viewed the State's capital sentencing scheme as subject to Godfrey's dictates. See, e.g., Gilliard v. State, 428 So.2d 576. The correctness of that view as a matter of federal law is so evident that the issue was not even mentioned in Clemons, in which the Court, unchallenged by the State, took for granted the proposition

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that, if a State uses aggravating factors in deciding who shall be eligible for, or receive, the death penalty, it cannot use factors which, as a practical matter, fail to guide the sentencer's discretion. See 494 U.S. at 756, n. 1 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). The fact that two pre-Clemons Fifth Circuit cases ruled Godfrey inapplicable to Mississippi is not dispositive, since those cases ignored the State Supreme Court's own characterization of its law and accorded no significance to the centrality of aggravating factors in the weighing phase of a Mississippi capital sentencing proceeding, and were therefore seriously mistaken under precedents existing even before Maynard and Clemons. Pp. 232-237.

909 F.2d 111 (CA5 1990), reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 238.

KENNEDY, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The death sentence of the petitioner in this case was decreed by a judgment that became final before we decided

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either Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356 (1988), or Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990). The petitioner argues that the State of Mississippi committed the same error in his case as it did in Clemons, and that, under both Maynard and Clemons, his sentence is unconstitutional. The question presented is whether, in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, a petitioner is foreclosed from relying on Maynard and Clemons because either or both announced a new rule as defined in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989).


In June, 1982, Ray McWilliams and his wife, Nell, were shot to death in their Jackson, Mississippi, home as part of an armed robbery. The petitioner James R. Stringer did not fire the fatal shots, but he did plan the robbery and take part in it. The killing was part of his plan from the outset. The crimes, and their gruesome aspects, are described in the opinion of the Mississippi Supreme Court on direct review of the conviction and sentence. Stringer v. State, 454 So.2d 468, 471-473 (1984).

Under Mississippi law the death sentence may be imposed for murders designated by statute as "capital murder." Miss.Code Ann. § 97-3-19(2) (Supp.1991). A killing in the course of a burglary or robbery is included within that category. Following a capital murder conviction, the jury in the Mississippi system proceeds to the sentencing phase of the case. For a defendant who has been convicted of capital murder to receive the death sentence, the jury must find at least one of eight statutory aggravating factors, and then it must determine that the aggravating factor or factors are not outweighed by the mitigating circumstances, if any. § 99-19-101.

The jury found petitioner guilty of capital murder in the course of a robbery. In the sentencing phase, the jury found that there were three statutory aggravating factors. The

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aggravating factors as defined in the jury instructions, and for the most part following the statutory wording, were:

1. The Defendant contemplated that life would be taken and/or the capital murder was intentionally committed and that the Defendant was engaged in an attempt to commit a robbery; and was committed for pecuniary gain.

2. The capital murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing the detection and lawful arrest of James R. Stringer, the Defendant.

3. The capital murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

Brief for Respondent 4. The trial court, in its instructions, did not further define the meaning of the third factor.

On direct review, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. Stringer v. State, supra. With respect to the sentence, the court found it was not "imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor," id. at 478; "the evidence fully support[ed] the jury's finding of statutorily required aggravating circumstances," id. at 479; and the death sentence was not disproportionate to sentences imposed in other cases. Ibid. Petitioner's conviction became final when we denied certiorari on February 19, 1985. Stringer v. Mississippi, 469 U.S....

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