Brown v. Sanders, No. 04-980.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation126 S. Ct. 884,546 U.S. 212,163 L. Ed. 2d 723
Decision Date11 January 2006
PartiesBROWN, WARDEN <I>v.</I> SANDERS
Docket NumberNo. 04-980.
546 U.S. 212
126 S. Ct. 884
163 L. Ed. 2d 723
BROWN, WARDEN
v.
SANDERS
No. 04-980.
Supreme Court of United States.
Argued October 11, 2005.
Decided January 11, 2006.

In convicting respondent Sanders of, inter alia, first-degree murder, the jury found four "special circumstances," each of which rendered him death eligible under Cal. Penal Code Ann. § 190.2. At the penalty phase, the jury was instructed to consider a list of sentencing factors, including "[t]he circumstances of the crime . . . and the existence of any special circumstances found to be true," § 190.3(a), and sentenced him to death. The State Supreme Court invalidated two of the special circumstances on direct appeal, but nonetheless affirmed the conviction and sentence. The Federal District Court subsequently denied Sanders habeas relief, rejecting his claim that the jury's consideration of invalid special circumstances rendered his death sentence unconstitutional. Reversing, the Ninth Circuit applied the rules for "weighing" States, see Stringer v. Black, 503 U.S. 222, rather than "non-weighing" States, see Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, and found that Sanders had been unconstitutionally deprived of an individualized death sentence.

Held:

1. The requirement that States limit the class of murderers to which the death penalty may be applied, Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (per curiam), is usually met when the trier of fact finds at least one statutory eligibility factor at either the guilt or penalty phase. Once this narrowing requirement has been satisfied, the sentencer must determine whether an eligible defendant should receive the death penalty; many States channel this function by specifying aggravating factors (sometimes identical to the eligibility factors) that are to be weighed against mitigating considerations. In answering the question confronted here—what happens when the sentencer imposes the death penalty after finding a valid eligibility factor, but under a scheme in which another eligibility factor is later held invalid—this Court has set forth different rules for so-called weighing and non-weighing States. In a weighing State, the sentencer could consider as aggravation only specified eligibility factors. Where the sentencer relied on an eligibility factor that was later invalidated, the sentencer was erroneously invited to count the invalid factor as weighing in favor of death, thus "skewing" the weighing process, Stringer, supra, at 232. Such automatic skewing would not necessarily occur in a non-weighing State, however, which

[546 U.S. 213]

permitted the sentencer to consider aggravating factors different from, or in addition to, the eligibility factors. This weighing/non-weighing scheme seems needlessly complex and incapable of providing for the full range of variations. This Court is henceforth guided by the following rule: An invalidated sentencing factor (whether an eligibility factor or not) will render the sentence unconstitutional by reason of its adding an improper element to the aggravation scale in the weighing process unless one of the other sentencing factors enables the sentencer to give aggravating weight to the same facts and circumstances. Pp. 216-221.

2. The jury's consideration of invalid special circumstances in Sanders' case gave rise to no constitutional violation. In California, the "special circumstances" listed in § 190.2 are the eligibility factors designed to satisfy Furman's narrowing requirement. If the jury finds the existence of one of those circumstances, it must "take into account" a separate list of sentencing factors, including § 190.3(a)'s "circumstances of the crime" factor. That factor has the effect of rendering all the specified factors nonexclusive, thus making California (in this Court's prior terminology) a non-weighing State. Setting aside the weighing/ non-weighing dichotomy and applying the more direct analysis set out here, two of the four special circumstances were invalidated, but the remaining two are sufficient to satisfy Furman's narrowing requirement and alone rendered Sanders death eligible. Moreover, all of the facts and circumstances admissible to prove the invalid eligibility factors were also properly adduced as aggravating facts and circumstances under the "circumstances of the crime" sentencing factor. Even if § 190.3(a)'s direction to consider "the existence of any special circumstances found to be true" placed special emphasis upon the facts and circumstances relevant to the invalid factors, that impact "cannot fairly be regarded as a constitutional defect in the sentencing process," Zant, supra, at 889. Pp. 221-225.

373 F.3d 1054, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, J., joined, post, p. 225. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, post, p. 228.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Jane N. Kirkland, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Manuel M. Medeiros, State Solicitor General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Mary Jo Graves, Senior Assistant Attorney

[546 U.S. 214]

General, and Ward A. Campbell, Supervising Deputy Attorney General.

Nina Rivkind, by appointment of the Court, 544 U.S. 1017, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Cliff Gardner and Eric E. Jorstad.*

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.


We consider the circumstances in which an invalidated sentencing factor will render a death sentence unconstitutional by reason of its adding an improper element to the aggravation scale in the jury's weighing process.

I

Respondent Ronald Sanders and a companion invaded the home of Dale Boender, where they bound and blindfolded him and his girlfriend, Janice Allen. Both of the victims were then struck on the head with a heavy, blunt object; Allen died from the blow. Sanders was convicted of first-degree murder, of attempt to murder Boender, and of robbery, burglary, and attempted robbery.

Sanders' jury found four "special circumstances" under California law, each of which independently rendered him eligible for the death penalty. See Cal. Penal Code Ann. § 190.2 (West Supp. 1995). The trial then moved to a penalty phase, at which the jury was instructed to consider a list of sentencing factors relating to Sanders' background and the nature of the crime, one of which was "[t]he circumstances of the crime of which the defendant was convicted in the present proceeding and the existence of any special circumstances found to be true." § 190.3(a) (West 1999). The jury sentenced Sanders to death.

On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court declared invalid two of the four special circumstances found by the

546 U.S. 215

jury. It nonetheless affirmed Sanders' death sentence, relying on our decision in Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983), which, it said, "upheld a death penalty judgment despite invalidation of one of several aggravating factors." People v. Sanders, 51 Cal. 3d 471, 520, 797 P. 2d 561, 589-590 (1990) (in bank). It affirmed the conviction and sentence in all other respects. We denied certiorari. Sanders v. California, 500 U.S. 948 (1991).

Sanders then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, arguing, as relevant here, that the jury's consideration of invalid special circumstances rendered his death sentence unconstitutional.1 After Sanders exhausted various state remedies, the District Court denied relief.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. Sanders v. Woodford, 373 F.3d 1054 (2004). It concluded that "the California court erroneously believed that it could apply the rule of Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983)— which is applicable only to nonweighing states—and uphold the verdict despite the invalidation of two special circumstances because it was upholding other special circumstances." Id., at 1064 (citations omitted). Finding California to be a weighing State, and applying the rules we have announced for such States, see Stringer v. Black, 503 U.S. 222, 232 (1992), the Ninth Circuit concluded that California courts could uphold Sanders' death sentence only by finding the jury's use of the invalid special circumstances to have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt or by independently reweighing the sentencing factors under § 190.3. Since, it continued, the state courts had done neither, Sanders had been unconstitutionally deprived of an "individualized

546 U.S. 216

death sentence." 373 F.3d, at 1064. We granted certiorari. 544 U.S. 947 (2005).

II

Since Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) (per curiam), we have required States to limit the class of murderers to which the death penalty may be applied. This narrowing requirement is usually met when the trier of fact finds at least one statutorily defined eligibility factor at either the guilt or penalty phase. See Tuilaepa v. California, 512 U.S. 967, 971-972 (1994).2 Once the narrowing requirement has been satisfied, the sentencer is called upon to determine whether a defendant thus found eligible for the death penalty should in fact receive it. Most States channel this function by specifying the aggravating factors (sometimes identical to the eligibility factors) that are to be weighed against mitigating considerations. The issue in the line of cases we confront here is what happens when the sentencer imposes the death penalty after at least one valid eligibility factor has been found, but under a scheme in which an eligibility factor or a specified aggravating factor is later held to be invalid.

To answer that question, our jurisprudence has distinguished between...

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197 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Bolden, No. 06-3264.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • 4 Noviembre 2008
    ..."other criminal conduct," any error in submitting this statutory factor was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212, 220, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 7. We note the government requested bifurcation in Jordan, 357 F.Supp.2d at 903, to ensure the jury would c......
  • State v. Hundley, No. 2018-0901
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • 22 Julio 2020
    ...aggravating factors permitted to be considered by the [capital] sentencer [are] the specified eligibility factors." Brown v. Sanders , 546 U.S. 212, 217, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 (2006). By contrast, a nonweighing state permits the jury to consider aggravating factors different from, ......
  • People v. Carrasco, No. S077009.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 4 Agosto 2014
    ...underlying facts available for the jury to consider when it returned a death verdict at the penalty phase. (See Brown v. Sanders (2006) 546 U.S. 212, 220, 223–224, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723;People v. Bonilla (2007) 41 Cal.4th 313, 334, 60 Cal.Rptr.3d 209, 160 P.3d 84 [second special ci......
  • People v. Ledesma, No. S014394.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 17 Agosto 2006
    ...circumstance." (Kelly, supra, 1 Cal.4th at p. Page 714 551, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 677, 822 P.2d 385; see Brown v. Sanders (2006) 546 U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 [invalidation of two special circumstances did not render death sentence unconstitutional when other, valid special circumsta......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
197 cases
  • U.S. v. Bolden, No. 06-3264.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • 4 Noviembre 2008
    ...criminal conduct," any error in submitting this statutory factor was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212, 220, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 7. We note the government requested bifurcation in Jordan, 357 F.Supp.2d at 903, to ensure the jury would con......
  • State v. Hundley, No. 2018-0901
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • 22 Julio 2020
    ...factors permitted to be considered by the [capital] sentencer [are] the specified eligibility factors." Brown v. Sanders , 546 U.S. 212, 217, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 (2006). By contrast, a nonweighing state permits the jury to consider aggravating factors different from, or in a......
  • People v. Carrasco, No. S077009.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 4 Agosto 2014
    ...underlying facts available for the jury to consider when it returned a death verdict at the penalty phase. (See Brown v. Sanders (2006) 546 U.S. 212, 220, 223–224, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723;People v. Bonilla (2007) 41 Cal.4th 313, 334, 60 Cal.Rptr.3d 209, 160 P.3d 84 [second special ci......
  • People v. Ledesma, No. S014394.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 17 Agosto 2006
    ...(Kelly, supra, 1 Cal.4th at p. Page 714 551, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 677, 822 P.2d 385; see Brown v. Sanders (2006) 546 U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 [invalidation of two special circumstances did not render death sentence unconstitutional when other, valid special circumstances rendered t......
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2 books & journal articles
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    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • 1 Diciembre 2014
    ...v. Stumpf, 545 U.S. 175 (2005)Brewer v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 286 (2007)Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133 (2005)Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212 (2006)Buchanan v. Angelone, 522 U.S. 269 (1998)Buchanan v. Kentucky, 483 U.S. 402 (1987)Bullington v. Missouri, 451 U.S. 430 (1981)Burden v. Zant, 498 U.......
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    • Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 31-4, December 2006
    • 1 Diciembre 2006
    ...126 S.Ct. 2572 (2006).Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004).Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 126 S.Ct. 1943 (2006).Brown v. Sanders, 126 S.Ct. 884 (2006).Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214 (2002).Clark v. Arizona, 126 S.Ct. 2709 (2006).Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971).Davis v. W......

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