Brown v. Wainwright

Decision Date15 January 1981
Docket NumberNo. 59732,59732
Citation392 So.2d 1327
PartiesJoseph Green BROWN et al., Petitioners, v. Louie L. WAINWRIGHT, Respondent.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Samuel S. Jacobson and Albert J. Datz of Datz, Jacobson & Lembcke, Jacksonville, Marvin E. Frankel, New York City, Richard L. Jorandby, Public Defender and Craig S. Barnard, Chief Asst. Public Defender, West Palm Beach, for petitioners.

Jim Smith, Atty. Gen., and George R. Georgieff, Carolyn M. Snurkowski and Raymond L. Marky, Asst. Attys. Gen., Tallahassee, for respondent.


Joseph Green Brown petitions the Court for a writ of habeas corpus to obtain relief from an allegedly unconstitutional sentence of death. Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, following which his conviction and sentence were affirmed by this Court. Brown v. State, 381 So.2d 690 (Fla. 1980). An application for certiorari is now pending in the United States Supreme Court. Brown v. Florida, No. 80-5708 (U.S. Nov. 17, 1980).

Alleging common issues of law and fact, Brown has joined with one hundred and twenty-two other persons who seek relief from allegedly unconstitutional sentences of death. The dominant theme in the multiple requests for relief is the alleged impropriety of this Court's having considered, in the course of reviewing sentences of death, documents which were not made available to the defendants' counsel. For most of the petitioners, the alleged impropriety was the Court's consideration of undisclosed documents not related to the proceedings in which their sentences were imposed or upheld, but seen in the course of reviewing death sentences approved or considered for other criminal defendants.

Before reaching the merits of the petitions, we first consider the procedural basis on which the Court has been asked to entertain habeas corpus petitions on a consolidated basis.


The writ of habeas corpus the common law remedy used primarily to deliver from imprisonment those who are illegally confined 1 has long been recognized as an essential vehicle by which fundamental individual liberties are shielded from illegal governmental action. 2 Traditionally, habeas corpus has been characterized by its utility in cutting through the "procedural morass" of institutional red tape so as to secure the release of persons unlawfully detained. 3 It has been recognized, however, that no prisoner has an interest in the illegal restraint of another, since a sentence of imprisonment operates on each individually. 4 A joinder of habeas corpus petitions, therefore, being unique, requires close scrutiny and a compelling justification.

The joinder of criminal defendants in trial proceedings is commonplace. The reasons which support joinder in those situations considerations of judicial economy flowing from the presentation of common issues of law and fact, weighed against the potential prejudice to the defendants sought to be joined 5 provide a useful perspective from which to examine the desirability of deciding jointly the claims presented here.

In multiple habeas corpus petitions, such as those before us, prejudice to the petitioners is obviously of no concern. For one thing, these proceedings do not involve adjudications of guilt, but only the legality of petitioners' confinement as related to this Court's sentence review. 6 For another, petitioners themselves, rather than the prosecuting authority, have sought consolidated consideration.

Considerations of judicial economy, then, are alone relevant here. As to these, economies become attenuated, and the potential benefits less attractive, as the disparity between legal and factual issues increases. 7 Multiple party joinder is a function of the facts and circumstances of each case, with the determination in each necessarily resting within the sound discretion of the court. 8 In the final analysis, a balancing test is employed to take into account the relative advantages and disadvantages attendant to joint consideration of the common and any noncommon claims presented.

Brown and the other petitioners in this proceeding the one hundred and twenty-three inmates on "death row" premise their joint filing for habeas corpus relief on alleged judicial economies which will flow from our considering in one proceeding allegedly common issues of law and fact. Those economies are not readily apparent in considering the several petitions, as the facts relevant to each vary significantly. Petitioners' appendices, and their request for a special master to develop facts further, bear this out. Petitioners' cases are even in different stages of the appellate process. Joined together are persons whose appeals from sentences of death are pending in this Court and persons whose sentences have already been affirmed by this Court some more than once. The first category of petitioners have filed requests which are obviously premature.

The economies petitioners assert only become manifest if we rule precisely in the manner petitioners have urged a presumptuous view of the merits of the cause. The fact of the matter is that to consider Brown's claim along with each of the others would plainly prove more unwieldly than economical. 9 Unlike In re Baker, 267 So.2d 331 (Fla. 1972), 10 this case does not involve the routine application of a previously adjudicated constitutional issue to numerous persons who are, in reality, similarly situated. The claims for relief in these petitions present for our analysis new and unresolved constitutional issues, some applicable to one group of petitioners and some applicable to others. 11

The joinder here is manifestly designed, at best, to curtail all executions in Florida on legal grounds not yet adjudicated or, at least, to suspend the imposition of any lawful sentence until new legal issues are resolved. The latter objective, of course, has already been achieved. To allow a joinder under these circumstances in future cases would distort habeas corpus beyond recognition and create a pernicious precedent in capital cases. We decline to approve this precedent. There is no justification for joinder in situations such as this.

To avoid absurd technicalities, however, we decline to treat each petition as if it were separately filed and enter a separate order or opinion on each. Rather, our disposition of Brown's petition effectively disposes of all claims for relief of those petitioners who have joined with Brown. In the future, attempts to create a class action habeas corpus proceeding in situations such as this will be rejected summarily.


Turning to the legal issues presented, we perceive that petitioners' several constitutional claims all emanate from their assertion that we have "engaged in the continuing practice of requesting and receiving information concerning capital appellants which was not presented at trial and not a part of the trial record or record on appeal." This information allegedly includes pre-sentence investigations, psychiatric evaluations or contact notes made in the corrections system after conviction, and psychological screening reports made after conviction by corrections personnel. 12 The receipt of this information, petitioners assert generally, has led to a rash of constitutional violations ranging from a denial of due process in individual cases where information was received, on the one hand, to a pervasive violation of Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S 349, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 51 L.Ed.2d 393 (1977), in all capital cases reviewed and affirmed by the Court, on the other hand. In short, petitioners contend that our alleged misconduct requires our invalidation of all death sentences imposed or approved in Florida, and by necessary implication, that we declare Florida's death penalty statute invalid and unconstitutional in its operation.

Despite strident characterizations of our receipt of these materials, 13 and notwithstanding the vigor and pith of the hypotheses on which petitioners depend, the doctrines of constitutional law here argued are singularly unpersuasive. Even if petitioners' most serious charges were accepted as true, as a matter of law our view of the non-record information petitioners have identified is totally irrelevant either to our appellate function in capital cases as it bears on the operation of the statute, or to the validity of any individual death sentence.

Florida's death penalty statute, section 921.141, Florida Statutes (1979), directs that a jury and judge, not this Court, must weigh the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances delineated in the statute to determine whether death is an appropriate sentence. The jury performs that function only to recommend a sentence to the trial judge. It then becomes the responsibility of the trial judge to weigh evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in order to arrive at a reasoned judgment as to the appropriate sentence to impose. 14

This Court's role after a death sentence has been imposed is "review," a process qualitatively different from sentence "imposition." It consists of two discrete functions. First, we determine if the jury and judge acted with procedural rectitude in applying section 921.141 and our case law. This type of review is illustrated in Elledge v. State, 346 So.2d 998 (Fla. 1977), where we remanded for resentencing because the procedure was flawed in that case a nonstatutory aggravating circumstance was considered. See also Brown v. State, 381 So.2d 690 (Fla. 1980); Kampff v. State, 371 So.2d 1007 (Fla. 1979).

The second aspect of our review process is to ensure relative proportionality among death sentences which have been approved statewide. After we have concluded that the judge and jury have acted with procedural regularity, we compare the case under review with all past capital cases to determine whether or not the punishment is too great. Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913 (1976); State v. Dixon, 283 So.2d...

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