Caldwell v. Mississippi, No. 83-6607

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPOWELL; O'CONNOR; REHNQUIST
PartiesBobby CALDWELL, Petitioner v. MISSISSIPPI
Docket NumberNo. 83-6607
Decision Date11 June 1985

472 U.S. 320
105 S.Ct. 2633
86 L.Ed.2d 231
Bobby CALDWELL, Petitioner

v.

MISSISSIPPI.

No. 83-6607.
Argued Feb. 25, 1985.
Decided June 11, 1985.
Syllabus

In a bifurcated proceeding conducted pursuant to Mississippi's capital punishment statute, petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Petitioner's lawyers in their closing argument at the sentencing stage, referred to petitioner's youth, family background, and poverty, as well as to general character evidence, and they asked the jury to show mercy, emphasizing that the jury should confront the gravity and responsibility of calling for another's death. In response, the prosecutor urged the jury not to view itself as finally determining whether petitioner would die, because a death sentence would be reviewed for correctness by the Mississippi Supreme Court. That court unanimously affirmed the conviction but affirmed the death sentence by an equally divided court, rejecting, in reliance on California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 103 S.Ct. 3446, 77 L.Ed.2d 1171 the contention that the prosecutor's comments violated the Eighth Amendment.

Held: The death sentence is vacated.

443 So.2d 806 (Miss.1983), reversed in part and remanded.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to all but Part IV-A, concluding that:

1. Where an examination of the decision below as to the issue of the prosecutor's comments does not indicate that it rested on adequate and independent state grounds, namely, petitioner's failure to comply with a Mississippi procedural rule as to raising the issue on appeal, this Court does not lack jurisdiction to decide the issue. Pp. 326-328.

2. It is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe, as the jury was in this case, that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant's death rests elsewhere. Belief in the truth of the assumption that sentencers treat their power to determine the appropriateness of death as an "awesome responsibility" has allowed this Court to view sentencer discretion as consistent with and indispensable to the Eighth Amendment's "need for reliability in the determination that death is appropriate punishment in a specific case." Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 2991, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (plurality opinion). Pp. 328-330.

3. There are several reasons to fear substantial unreliability as well as bias in favor of death sentences when there are state-induced sugges-

Page 321

tions that the sentencing jury may shift its sense of responsibility to an appellate court. Pp. 330-334.

(a) The "delegation" of sentencing responsibility that the prosecutor here encouraged would not simply postpone petitioner's right to a fair determination of the appropriateness of his death; rather, it would deprive him of that right, for an appellate court, unlike the sentencing jury, is ill-suited to evaluate the appropriateness of death in the first instance. Pp. 330-331.

(b) Even when a sentencing jury is unconvinced that death is the appropriate punishment, it might nevertheless wish to "send a message" of extreme disapproval for the defendant's acts. This desire might make the jury very receptive to the prosecutor's assurance that it can err because the error can be corrected on appeal. A defendant might then be executed, although no sentencer had ever determined that death was the appropriate sentence. Pp. 331-332.

(c) If a jury understands that only a death sentence, and not a life sentence, will be reviewed, it will also understand that any decision to "delegate" responsibility for sentencing can only be effectuated by returning a death sentence. This presents the specter of the imposition of death based on an irrelevant factor and would also create the danger of a defendant's being executed without any determination that death was the appropriate punishment. P. 332.

(d) The uncorrected suggestion that the jury's responsibility for any ultimate determination of death will rest with others presents the danger that the jury will choose to minimize the importance of its role, especially where, as here, the jury is told that the alternative decisionmaker is the State's highest court. Pp. 332-333.

4. As to the State's contention that the prosecutor's argument was an "invited" response to defense counsel's argument, and thus was not unreasonable, neither the State nor the court below explains how the prosecutor's argument was less likely to have distorted the jury's deliberations because of anything defense counsel said. Pp. 336-337.

5. Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 94 S.Ct. 1868, 40 L.Ed.2d 431, does not preclude a finding of constitutional error based on the sort of impropriety that the prosecutor's argument contains. Although that case warned against holding every improper and unfair argument of a state prosecutor to be a federal constitutional violation, it did not insulate all prosecutorial comments from federal constitutional objections. Pp. 337-340.

Justice MARSHALL, joined by Justice BRENNAN, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice STEVENS, delivered an opinion with respect to Part IV-A, concluding that California v. Ramos, supra, is not authority for holding that States are free to expose capital sentencing juries to any

Page 322

information and argument concerning postsentencing procedures. In Ramos, the Court, in upholding a state statutory requirement that capital sentencing juries be instructed that the Governor could commute a life sentence without possibility of parole into a lesser sentence, rested on a determination that the instruction was both accurate and relevant to a legitimate state penological interest. In contrast, here the argument was neither accurate nor relevant to such an interest, but was misleading and was not linked to any valid sentencing consideration. Pp. 335-336.

Justice O'CONNOR, being of the view that the prosecutor's remarks were impermissible because they were inaccurate and misleading in a manner that diminished the jury's sense of responsibility, concluded that Ramos, supra, does not sanction a misleading picture of the jury's role nor does it suggest that the Constitution prohibits the giving of accurate and nonmisleading instructions regarding postsentencing procedures. Pp. 341-342.

E. Thomas Boyle, Stony Brook, N.Y., for petitioner.

William S. Boyd, III, Jackson, Miss., for respondent.

Page 323

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part IV-A.

This case presents the issue whether a capital sentence is valid when the sentencing jury is led to believe that responsibility for determining the appropriateness of a death sentence rests not with the jury but with the appellate court which later reviews the case. In this case, a prosecutor urged the jury not to view itself as determining whether the defendant would die, because a death sentence would be reviewed for correctness by the State Supreme Court. We granted certiorari, 469 U.S. 879, 105 S.Ct. 243, 83 L.Ed.2d 182 (1984), to consider petitioner's contention that the prosecutor's argument rendered the capital sentencing proceeding inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment's heightened "need for reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case." Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 2991, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976) (plurality opinion). Agreeing with the contention, we vacate the sentence.1

Page 324

I

Petitioner shot and killed the owner of a small grocery store in the course of robbing it. In a bifurcated proceeding conducted pursuant to Mississippi's capital punishment statute, petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

In their case for mitigation, petitioner's lawyers put on evidence of petitioner's youth, family background, and poverty, as well as general character evidence. In their closing arguments they referred to this evidence and then asked the jury to show mercy. The arguments were in large part pleas that the jury confront both the gravity and the responsibility of calling for another's death, even in the context of a capital sentencing proceeding.

"[E]very life is precious and as long as there's life in the soul of a person, there is hope. There is hope, but life is one thing and death is final. So I implore you to think deeply about this matter. It is his life or death—the decision you're going to have to make, and I implore you to exercise your prerogative to spare the life of Bobby Caldwell. . . . I'm sure [the prosecutor is] going to say to you that Bobby Caldwell is not a merciful person, but I say unto you he is a human being. That he has a life that rests in your hands. You can give him life or you can give him death. It's going to be your decision. I don't know what else I can say to you but we live in a society where we are taught that an eye for an eye is not the solution. . . . You are the judges and you will have to decide his fate. It is an awesome responsibility, I know—an awesome responsibility." App. 18-19.

Page 325

In response, the prosecutor sought to minimize the jury's sense of the importance of its role. Indeed, the prosecutor forcefully argued that the defense had done something wholly illegitimate in trying to force the jury to feel a sense of responsibility for its decision. The prosecutor's argument, defense counsel's objection, and the trial court's ruling were as follows:

"ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Ladies and gentlemen, I intend to be brief. I'm in complete disagreement with the approach the defense has taken. I don't think it's fair. I think it's unfair. I think the lawyers know better. Now, they would have you believe that you're going to kill this man and they know—they know that your decision is not the final decision. My God, how unfair can you be? Your job is reviewable. They...

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2350 practice notes
  • Williams v. Anderson, No. 04-3515.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 28, 2006
    ...codified at Ohio Revised Code § 2929.03(D)(2), and thus is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's decision in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985). Second, Petitioner objects to the trial court's instruction prohibiting the jury from considering a......
  • Bell v. Lynbaugh, No. B-87-401-CA.
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    ...v. Maggio, 740 F.2d 308, 320 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 472 U.S. 1032, 105 S.Ct. 3514, 87 L.Ed.2d 643 (1985). Cf: Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 2639, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985). Furthermore, the Court immediately sustained the defense's objection and instructed the jury t......
  • Williams v. Chrans, No. 87 C 02084.
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    • July 5, 1990
    ...hear under a discretionary procedural rule. Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 109 S.Ct. 1038, 103 L.Ed.2d 308 (1989); Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 326-28, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985); Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 74-75, 105 S.Ct. 1087, 1091-92, 84 L.Ed.2d 53 (1985); County ......
  • Jones v. Mcneil, Case No: 07-22890-CIV-ZLOCH
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    ...comment on petitioner's right to remain silent; and (7) the invalidity of the jury instructions under Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 Jones, 855 So.2d at 619. 5.In Florida, issues which could be but are not raised on direct appeal may not be the subject......
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2350 cases
  • Williams v. Anderson, No. 04-3515.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 28, 2006
    ...codified at Ohio Revised Code § 2929.03(D)(2), and thus is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's decision in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985). Second, Petitioner objects to the trial court's instruction prohibiting the jury from considering a......
  • Bell v. Lynbaugh, No. B-87-401-CA.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District Texas
    • June 3, 1987
    ...v. Maggio, 740 F.2d 308, 320 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 472 U.S. 1032, 105 S.Ct. 3514, 87 L.Ed.2d 643 (1985). Cf: Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 2639, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985). Furthermore, the Court immediately sustained the defense's objection and instructed the jury t......
  • Williams v. Chrans, No. 87 C 02084.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • July 5, 1990
    ...hear under a discretionary procedural rule. Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 109 S.Ct. 1038, 103 L.Ed.2d 308 (1989); Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 326-28, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985); Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 74-75, 105 S.Ct. 1087, 1091-92, 84 L.Ed.2d 53 (1985); County ......
  • Jones v. Mcneil, Case No: 07-22890-CIV-ZLOCH
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida
    • March 7, 2011
    ...comment on petitioner's right to remain silent; and (7) the invalidity of the jury instructions under Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 Jones, 855 So.2d at 619. 5.In Florida, issues which could be but are not raised on direct appeal may not be the subject......
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2 books & journal articles
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    ...v. Ashmus, 523 U.S. 740 (1998)Calderon v. Coleman, 520 U.S. 141 (1998)Calderon v. Thompson, 118 S. Ct. 1489 (1998)Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320 (1985)California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538 (1987)California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992 (1983)Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990)Coker v. G......
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