Beck v. Alabama, No. 78-6621

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEVENS
Citation100 S.Ct. 2382,65 L.Ed.2d 392,447 U.S. 625
PartiesGilbert Franklin BECK, Petitioner, v. State of ALABAMA
Decision Date20 June 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-6621

447 U.S. 625
100 S.Ct. 2382
65 L.Ed.2d 392
Gilbert Franklin BECK, Petitioner,

v.

State of ALABAMA.

No. 78-6621.
Argued Feb. 20, 1980.
Decided June 20, 1980.
Syllabus

Under Alabama law felony murder is a lesser included offense of the capital crime of robbery-intentional killing. Under the Alabama death penalty statute the trial judge is prohibited from giving the jury the option of convicting the defendant of the lesser included offense; instead, the jury must either convict the defendant of the capital crime, in which case it must impose the death penalty, or acquit him. If the defendant is convicted, the trial judge must hold a hearing to consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and may then refuse to impose the death sentence and instead sentence the defendant to life imprisonment. Petitioner was convicted of robbery-intentional killing, and the jury accordingly imposed the death sentence, which the Alabama trial court refused to overturn. At petitioner's trial, his own testimony established his participation in the robbery, but he denied killing, or any intent to kill, the victim. Because of the statutory prohibition, the trial court did not instruct the jury as to the lesser included offense of felony murder. The Alabama appellate courts upheld the conviction and death sentence, rejecting petitioner's constitutional attack on the statutory prohibition on lesser included offense instructions.

Held : The death sentence may not constitutionally be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense where the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included offense. Pp. 633-646.

(a) Providing the jury with the "third option" of convicting on a lesser included offense ensures that the jury will accord the defendant the full benefit of the reasonable-doubt standard. This procedural safeguard is especially important in cases such as this one. For when the evidence establishes that the defendant is guilty of a serious, violent offense but leaves some doubt as to an element justifying conviction of a capital offense, the failure to give the jury such a "third option" inevitably enhances the risk of an unwarranted conviction. Such a risk cannot be tolerated in a case in which the defendant's life is at stake. Pp. 633-638.

(b) Alabama's argument that, in the context of an apparently mandatory death penalty statute, the preclusion of lesser included offense instructions heightens, rather than diminishes, the reliability of the guilt determination, must be rejected. The unavailability of lesser included

Page 626

offense instructions and the apparently mandatory nature of the death penalty both interject irrelevant considerations into the factfinding process, diverting the jury's attention from the central issue of whether the State has satisfied its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a capital crime. Thus, on the one hand, the unavailability of the "third option" may encourage the jury to convict for an impermissible reason—its belief that the defendant is guilty of some serious crime and should be punished. On the other hand, the apparently mandatory nature of the death penalty may encourage the jury to acquit for an equally impermissible reason—that, whatever his crime, the defendant does not deserve death. While in any particular case these two extraneous factors may favor the defendant or the prosecution or may cancel each other out, in every case they introduce a level of uncertainty and unreliability into the factfinding process that cannot be tolerated in a capital case. Pp. 638-643.

(c) The jury's "option" of refusing to return any verdict at all, thus causing a mistrial, is not an adequate substitute for proper instructions on lesser included offenses. Nor does the fact that the trial judge has the ultimate sentencing power compensate for the risk that the jury may return an improper verdict because of the unavailability of the "third option." If the jury finds the defendant guilty only of a lesser included offense, the judge would not have the opportunity to impose the death sentence. Moreover, the jury's verdict must have a tendency to motivate the judge to impose the same sentence that the jury did. Under these circumstances, it cannot be presumed that a post-trial hearing will always correct whatever mistakes occurred in the performance of the jury's factfinding function. Pp. 643-646.

365 So.2d 1006, reversed.

David Klingsberg, New York City, for petitioner.

Edward E. Carnes, Montgomery, Ala., for respondent.

Page 627

Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide the following question:

"May a sentence of death constitutionally be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense, when the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included non-capital offense, and when the evidence would have supported such a verdict?" 444 U.S. 897, 100 S.Ct. 204, 62 L.Ed.2d 132.

We now hold that the death penalty may not be imposed under these circumstances.

Petitioner was tried for the capital offense of "[r]obbery or attempts thereof when the victim is intentionally killed by the defendant." 1 Under the Alabama death penalty statute

Page 628

the requisite intent to kill may not be supplied by the felony-murder doctrine.2 Felony murder is thus a lesser included offense of the capital crime of robbery-intentional killing. However, under the statute the judge is specifically prohibited from giving the jury the option of convicting the defendant of a lesser included offense.3 Instead, the jury is given the

Page 629

choice of either convicting the defendant of the capital crime, in which case it is required to impose the death penalty, or acquitting him, thus allowing him to escape all penalties for his alleged participation in the crime. If the defendant is convicted and the death penalty imposed, the trial judge must then hold a hearing with respect to aggravating and mitigating circumstances; after hearing the evidence, the judge may refuse to impose the death penalty, sentencing the defendant to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.4

In this case petitioner's own testimony established his participation in the robbery of an 80-year-old man named Roy Malone. Petitioner consistently denied, however, that he killed the man or that he intended his death. Under petitioner's version of the events, he and an accomplice entered

Page 630

their victim's home in the afternoon, and, after petitioner had seized the man intending to bind him with a rope, his accomplice unexpectedly struck and killed him. As the State has conceded, absent the statutory prohibition on such instructions, this testimony would have entitled petitioner to a lesser included offense instruction on felony murder as a matter of state law.5

Because of the statutory prohibition, the court did not instruct the jury as to the lesser included offense of felony murder. Instead, the jury was told that if petitioner was acquitted of the capital crime of intentional killing in the course of a robbery, he "must be discharged" and "he can never be tried for anything that he ever did to Roy Malone." Record 743. The jury subsequently convicted petitioner and imposed the death penalty; after holding a hearing with respect to aggravating and mitigating factors, the trial court refused to overturn that penalty.

In the courts below petitioner attacked the prohibition on lesser included offense instructions in capital cases, arguing that the Alabama statute was constitutionally indistinguishable from the mandatory death penalty statutes struck down in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944, and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 96 S.Ct. 3001, 49 L.Ed.2d 974.6 The Alabama Court of Criminal

Page 631

Appeals rejected this argument on the ground that the jury's only function under the Alabama statute is to determine guilt or innocence and that the death sentence it is required

Page 632

to impose after a finding of guilt is merely advisory.7 In a brief opinion denying review, the Alabama Supreme Court also rejected petitioner's arguments, citing Jacobs v. State, 361 So.2d 640 (Ala.1978), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1122, 99 S.Ct. 1034, 59 L.Ed.2d 83, in which it had upheld the constitutionality of the Alabama death penalty statute against a similar challenge. 365 So.2d 1006, 1007 (1978).

In this Court petitioner contends that the prohibition on giving lesser included offense instructions in capital cases violates both the Eighth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by substantially increasing the risk of error in the factfinding process. Petitioner argues that, in a case in which the evidence clearly establishes the defendant's guilt of a serious noncapital crime such as felony murder, forcing the jury to choose between conviction on the capital offense and acquittal creates a danger that it will resolve any doubts in favor of conviction.8

Page 633

In response, Alabama argues that the preclusion of lesser included offense instructions does not impair the reliability of the factfinding process or prejudice the defendant in any way. Rather, it argues that the apparently mandatory death penalty will make the jury more prone to acquit in a doubtful case and that the jury's ability to force a mistrial by refusing to return a verdict acts as a viable third option in a case in which the jury has doubts but is nevertheless unwilling to acquit. The State also contends that prohibiting lesser included offense instructions is a reasonable way of assuring that the death penalty is not imposed arbitrarily and capriciously as a result of compromise verdicts. Finally, it argues that any error in the imposition of the death penalty by the jury can...

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1991 practice notes
  • Fransaw v. Lynaugh, No. 85-2635
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • February 23, 1987
    ...with the constitutional requirement that defendant be put on notice of the charges against him. E.g., Berra; Keeble; Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980); Sansone v. United States, 380 U.S. 343, 85 S.Ct. 1004, 13 L.Ed.2d 882 (1965); Stevenson v. United States......
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • April 24, 2012
    ...innocence, "Keenan does not challenge identity of the perpetrator; i.e. himself," in this claim. (ECF No. 218, 8.) In Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 627 (1980), the Supreme Court held that an Alabama statute that prohibited lesser included offense instructions in capital cases was unconstit......
  • McWhorter v. Dunn, Case No. 4:13-CV-02150-RDP
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Alabama
    • January 22, 2019
    ...to choose between finding the defendant guilty of a capital offense and declaring him innocent of any wrongdoing. 447 U.S., at 637, 100 S.Ct. 2382 (emphasis added); Id., at 638, 100 S.Ct. 2382; see also Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447, 455, 104 S.Ct. 3154, 82 L.Ed.2d 340 (1984) (explainin......
  • Reed v. Quarterman, No. 05-70046.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • October 9, 2007
    ...requested jury instruction on first-degree, non-capital murder as a lesser included offense. Reed founds this claim on Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980), where the Supreme Court struck down as a violation of due process an Alabama law barring trial judges ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1979 cases
  • Fransaw v. Lynaugh, No. 85-2635
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • February 23, 1987
    ...with the constitutional requirement that defendant be put on notice of the charges against him. E.g., Berra; Keeble; Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980); Sansone v. United States, 380 U.S. 343, 85 S.Ct. 1004, 13 L.Ed.2d 882 (1965); Stevenson v. United States......
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • April 24, 2012
    ...innocence, "Keenan does not challenge identity of the perpetrator; i.e. himself," in this claim. (ECF No. 218, 8.) In Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 627 (1980), the Supreme Court held that an Alabama statute that prohibited lesser included offense instructions in capital cases was unconstit......
  • McWhorter v. Dunn, Case No. 4:13-CV-02150-RDP
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Alabama
    • January 22, 2019
    ...to choose between finding the defendant guilty of a capital offense and declaring him innocent of any wrongdoing. 447 U.S., at 637, 100 S.Ct. 2382 (emphasis added); Id., at 638, 100 S.Ct. 2382; see also Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447, 455, 104 S.Ct. 3154, 82 L.Ed.2d 340 (1984) (explainin......
  • Reed v. Quarterman, No. 05-70046.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • October 9, 2007
    ...requested jury instruction on first-degree, non-capital murder as a lesser included offense. Reed founds this claim on Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980), where the Supreme Court struck down as a violation of due process an Alabama law barring trial judges ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...U.S. 880 (1983)Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008)Beard v. Banks, 542 U.S. 406 (2004)Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. ___ (2009)Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980)Beecher v. Alabama, 408 U.S. 234 (1972)Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447 (2005)Bell v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 637 (1978)Bell v. Thompson, 545 U.S. 794 ......

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