Arave v. Creech

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation123 L.Ed.2d 188,113 S.Ct. 1534,507 U.S. 463
Docket NumberNo. 91-1160,91-1160
PartiesA.J. ARAVE, Warden, Petitioner v. Thomas E. CREECH
Decision Date30 March 1993
Syllabus *

After respondent Creech pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for the brutal slaying of a fellow Idaho prison inmate, the state trial judge sentenced him to death based, in part, on the statutory aggravating circumstance that "[b]y the murder, or circumstances surrounding its commission, the defendant exhibited utter disregard for human life." In affirming, the Idaho Supreme Court, among other things, rejected Creech's argument that this aggravating circumstance is unconstitutionally vague and reaffirmed the limiting construction it had placed on the statutory language in State v. Osborn, 102 Idaho 405, 418-419, 631 P.2d 187, 200-201, whereby, inter alia, " 'the phrase "utter disregard" . . . is meant to be reflective of . . . the cold-blooded, pitiless slayer.' " Although the Federal District Court denied habeas corpus relief, the Court of Appeals found the "utter disregard" circumstance facially invalid, holding, among other things, that the circumstance is unconstitutionally vague and that the Osborn narrowing construction is inadequate to cure the defect under this Court's precedents.


1. In light of the consistent narrowing definition given the "utter disregard" circumstance by the Idaho Supreme Court, the circumstance, on its face, meets constitutional standards. Pp. ____.

(a) To satisfy the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, a capital sentencing scheme must channel the sentencer's discretion by " 'clear and objective standards' " that provide specific and detailed guidance and make rationally reviewable the death sentencing process. See, e.g., Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 774, 110 S.Ct. 3092, 3099, 111 L.Ed.2d 606. In order to decide whether a particular aggravating circumstance meets these requirements, a federal court must determine whether the statutory language defining the circumstance is itself too vague to guide the sentencer; if so, whether the state courts have further defined the vague terms; and, if so, whether those definitions are constitutionally sufficient, i.e., whether they provide some guidance. Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 654, 110 S.Ct. 3047, 3057, 111 L.Ed.2d 511. However, it is not necessary to decide here whether the statutory phrase "utter disregard for human life" itself passes constitutional muster. The Idaho Supreme Court has adopted a limiting construction, and that construction meets constitutional requirements. Pp. ____.

(b) The Osborn construction is sufficiently "clear and objective." In ordinary usage, the phrase "cold-blooded, pitiless slayer" refers to a killer who kills without feeling or sympathy. Thus, the phrase describes the defendant's state of mind: not his mens rea, but his attitude toward his conduct and his victim. The law has long recognized that such state of mind is not a "subjective" matter, but a fact to be inferred from the surrounding circumstances. Although determining whether a capital defendant killed without feeling or sympathy may be difficult, that does not mean that a State cannot, consistent with the Constitution, authorize sentencing judges to make the inquiry and to take their findings into account when deciding whether capital punishment is warranted. Cf. Walton, supra, at 655, 110 S.Ct., at 3058. Pp. ____.

(c) Although the question is close, the Osborn construction satisfies the requirement that a State's capital sentencing scheme "genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty." Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 2742, 77 L.Ed.2d 235. The class of persons so eligible under Idaho law is defined broadly to include all first-degree murderers, a category which is itself broad because it includes a sizable number of second-degree murderers under specified circumstances. Even within these broad definitions, the word "pitiless," standing alone, might not narrow the class of death eligible defendants, since a sentencing judge might conclude that every first-degree murderer is "pitiless." Given the statutory scheme, however, a sentencing judge reasonably could find that not all Idaho capital defendants are "cold-blooded," since some within the broad class of first-degree murderers do exhibit feeling, for example, anger, jealousy, or revenge. Pp. ____.

(d) This Court rejects the suggestion of the parties and the dissent that the facial constitutionality of the "utter disregard" circumstance, as construed in Osborn, should be determined by examining for consistency the applications of the circumstance by the state courts in other cases. Although the Court's facial challenge precedents authorize a federal court to consider state court formulations of a limiting construction to ensure that they are consistent, see, e.g., Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 255, n. 12, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 2968, n. 12, 49 L.Ed.2d 913, those precedents have not authorized review of state court cases to determine whether a limiting construction has been applied consistently. A comparative analysis of state court cases, moreover, would be particularly inappropriate here. None of the cases on which Creech or the dissent relies influenced either his trial judge or the Idaho Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence before it had applied Osborn to any other set of facts, and thereafter has repeatedly reaffirmed its Osborn interpretation. Pp. ____.

2. The Court decides only the foregoing question. The Court of Appeals had no occasion to reach the Jeffers issue—whether the state courts' application of the "utter disregard" circumstance to the facts of this case violated the Constitution. See 497 U.S., at 783, 110 S.Ct., at 3104. Because Creech is already entitled to resentencing in state court on the basis of another of the Court of Appeals' rulings, the posture of the case makes it unnecessary for this Court to reach his remaining arguments. Pp. ____.

947 F.2d 873 (CA 9 1991), reversed in part and remanded.

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

Lynn E. Thomas, Boise, ID, for petitioner.

Clifford Gardner, San Francisco, CA, appointed by this Court, for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1981 Thomas Eugene Creech beat and kicked to death a fellow inmate at the Idaho State Penitentiary. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. The sentence was based in part on the statutory aggravating circumstance that "[b]y the murder, or circumstances surrounding its commission, the defendant exhibited utter disregard for human life." Idaho Code § 19-2515(g)(6) (1987). The sole question we must decide is whether the "utter disregard" circumstance, as interpreted by the Idaho Supreme Court, adequately channels sentencing discretion as required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


The facts underlying this case could not be more chilling. Thomas Creech has admitted to killing or participating in the killing of at least 26 people. The bodies of 11 of his victims who were shot, stabbed, beaten, or strangled to death—have been recovered in seven States. Creech has said repeatedly that, unless he is completely isolated from humanity, he likely will continue killing. And he has identified by name three people outside prison walls he intends to kill if given the opportunity.

Creech's most recent victim was David Dale Jensen, a fellow inmate in the maximum security unit of the Idaho State Penitentiary. When he killed Jensen, Creech was already serving life sentences for other first-degree murders. Jensen, about seven years Creech's junior, was a nonviolent car thief. He was also physically handicapped. Part of Jensen's brain had been removed prior to his incarceration, and he had a plastic plate in his skull.

The circumstances surrounding Jensen's death remain unclear, primarily because Creech has given conflicting accounts of them. In one version, Creech killed Jensen in self defense. In another the version that Creech gave at his sentencing hearing—other inmates offered to pay Creech or help him escape if he killed Jensen. Creech, through an intermediary, provided Jensen with makeshift weapons and then arranged for Jensen to attack him, in order to create an excuse for the killing. Whichever of these accounts (if either) is true, the Idaho Supreme Court found that the record supported the following facts:

"Jensen approached Creech and swung a weapon at him which consisted of a sock containing batteries. Creech took the weapon away from Jensen, who returned to his cell but emerged with a toothbrush to which had been taped a razor blade. When the two men again met, Jensen made some movement toward Creech, who then struck Jensen between the eyes with the battery laden sock, knocking Jensen to the floor. The fight continued, according to Creech's version, with Jensen swinging the razor blade at Creech and Creech hitting Jensen with the battery filled sock. The plate imbedded in Jensen's skull shattered, and blood from Jensen's skull was splashed on the floor and walls. Finally, the sock broke and the batteries fell out, and by that time Jensen was helpless. Creech then commenced kicking Jensen about the throat and head. Sometime later a guard noticed blood, and Jensen was taken to the hospital, where he died the same day." State v. Creech, 105 Idaho 362, 364, 670 P.2d 463, 465 (1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1051, 104 S.Ct. 1327, 79 L.Ed.2d 722 (1984).

Creech pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The trial judge held a sentencing hearing in accordance with Idaho Code § 19-2515(d) (1987). After the hearing, the judge issued written findings in the format prescribed by Rule 33.1 of the Idaho Criminal Rules. Under the heading "Facts and...

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