California v. Brown, No. 85-1563

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREHNQUIST
PartiesCALIFORNIA, Petitioner v. Albert Greenwood BROWN, Jr
Docket NumberNo. 85-1563
Decision Date27 January 1987

479 U.S. 538
107 S.Ct. 837
93 L.Ed.2d 934
CALIFORNIA, Petitioner

v.

Albert Greenwood BROWN, Jr.

No. 85-1563.
Argued Dec. 2, 1986.
Decided Jan. 27, 1987.
Syllabus

A jury found respondent guilty of forcible rape and first-degree murder at his California state-court trial. At the penalty phase, the trial court instructed the jury to consider and weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but cautioned that the jury "must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling." On automatic appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed respondent's death sentence, holding that the quoted instruction violated federal constitutional law by denying respondent the right to have "sympathy factors" raised by the evidence considered by the jury when determining the appropriate penalty.

Held: The instruction in question does not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when given during the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. Pp. 541-543.

(a) The instruction does not violate either of the Eighth Amendment's prerequisites to a valid death sentence that sentencers not be given unbridled discretion and that defendants be allowed to introduce any relevant mitigating evidence. P. 541.

(b) The California Supreme Court improperly focused solely on the word "sympathy" in the instruction. A reasonable juror would be unlikely to single out the word "sympathy" from the other nouns accompanying it, and would most likely interpret the admonition to avoid basing a decision on "mere sympathy" as a directive to ignore only the sort of sympathy that was not rooted in the aggravating and mitigating evidence introduced during the penalty phase. Pp. 541-543.

(c) By limiting the jury's sentencing considerations to record evidence, the instruction serves the useful purpose of cautioning the jury against reliance on extraneous emotional factors, and thereby fosters the Eighth Amendment's need for reliability in death sentence determinations and ensures the availability of meaningful judicial review. P. 549.

40 Cal.3d 512, 230 Cal.Rptr. 834, 726 P.2d 516, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 544. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Parts II, III, IV, and V of which STE-

Page 539

VENS, J., joined, post, p. 547. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 561.

Jay M. Bloom, San Diego, Cal., for petitioner.

Monica Knox, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented for review in this case is whether an instruction informing jurors that they "must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling" during the penalty phase of a capital murder trial violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not.

Respondent Albert Brown was found guilty by a jury of forcible rape and first-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Susan J. At the penalty phase, the State presented evidence that respondent had raped another young girl some years prior to his attack on Susan J. Respondent presented the testimony of several family members, who recounted respondent's peaceful nature and expressed disbelief that respondent was capable of such a brutal crime. Respondent also presented the testimony of a psychiatrist, who stated that Brown killed his victim because of his shame and fear over sexual dysfunction. Brown himself testified, stating that he was ashamed of his prior criminal conduct and asking for mercy from the jury.

Page 540

California Penal Code Ann. § 190.3 (West Supp.1987) provides that capital defendants may introduce at the penalty phase any evidence "as to any matter relevant to . . . mitigation . . . including, but not limited to, the nature and circumstances of the present offense, . . . and the defendant's character, background, history, mental condition and physical condition." * The trial court instructed the jury to consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and to weigh them in determining the appropriate penalty. App. 23-24. But the court cautioned the jury that it "must not be swayed by mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling." Id., at 20. Respondent was sentenced to death.

On automatic appeal, the Supreme Court of California reversed the sentence of death. 40 Cal.3d 512, 220 Cal.Rptr. 637, 709 P.2d 440 (1985). Over two dissents on this point, the majority opinion found that the instruction at issue here violates the Federal Constitution: " 'federal constitutional law forbids an instruction which denies a capital defendant the right to have the jury consider any "sympathy factor" raised by the evidence when determining the appropriate penalty. . . .' " Id., at 537, 220 Cal.Rptr., at 649, 709 P.2d, at 453, quoting People v. Lanphear, 36 Cal.3d 163, 165, 203 Cal.Rptr. 122, 680 P.2d 1081, 1082 (1984). Relying on Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 102 S.Ct. 869, 71 L.Ed.2d 1 (1982), Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 98 S.Ct. 2954, 57 L.Ed.2d 973 (1978), and Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976), the court ruled that the instruction "is calculated to divert the jury from its constitutional duty to consider 'any [sympathetic] aspect of the defendant's character or record,' whether or not related to the offense for which he is on trial, in deciding the appropriate penalty." 40 Cal.3d, at 537, 220 Cal.Rptr., at 649, 709 P.2d, at 453. We granted certiorari to resolve whether such an instruction violates the United States Constitution. 476 U.S. 1157, 106 S.Ct. 2274, 90 L.Ed.2d 717 (1986).

Page 541

The Eighth Amendment jurisprudence of this Court establishes two separate prerequisites to a valid death sentence. First, sentencers may not be given unbridled discretion in determining the fates of those charged with capital offenses. The Constitution instead requires that death penalty statutes be structured so as to prevent the penalty from being administered in an arbitrary and unpredictable fashion. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976); Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972). Second, even though the sentencer's discretion must be restricted, the capital defendant generally must be allowed to introduce any relevant mitigating evidence regarding his " 'character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense.' " Eddings, supra, 455 U.S., at 110, 102 S.Ct., at 874, quoting Lockett, supra, 438 U.S., at 604, 98 S.Ct., at 2964. Consideration of such evidence is a "constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death." Woodson v. North Carolina, supra, 428 U.S., at 304, 96 S.Ct., at 2991 (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.). The instruction given by the trial court in this case violates neither of these constitutional principles.

We think that the California Supreme Court improperly focused solely on the word "sympathy" to determine that the instruction interferes with the jury's consideration of mitigating evidence. "The question, however, is not what the State Supreme Court declares the meaning of the charge to be, but rather what a reasonable juror could have understood the charge as meaning." Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307, 315-316, 105 S.Ct. 1965, 1972, 85 L.Ed.2d 344 (1985); see Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 516-517, 99 S.Ct. 2450, 2455, 61 L.Ed.2d 39 (1979). To determine how a reasonable juror could interpret an instruction, we "must focus initially on the specific language challenged." Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S., at 315, 105 S.Ct., at 1971. If the specific instruction fails constitutional muster, we then review the instructions as a whole to see if the entire charge delivered a correct interpretation of the law. Ibid. In this case, we need not reach the second step of analysis because we hold that a reasonable juror would not interpret

Page 542

the challenged instruction in a manner that would render it unconstitutional.

The jury was told not to be swayed by "mere sentiment, conjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling." Respondent does not contend, and the Supreme Court of California did not hold, that conjecture, passion, prejudice, public opinion, or public feeling should properly play any role in the jury's sentencing determination, even if such factors might weigh in the defendant's favor. Rather, respondent reads the instruction as if it solely cautioned the jury not to be swayed by "sympathy." Even if we were to agree that a rational juror could parse the instruction in such a hypertechnical manner, we would disagree with both respondent's interpretation of the instruction and his conclusion that the instruction is unconstitutional.

By concentrating on the noun "sympathy," respondent ignores the crucial fact that the jury was instructed to avoid basing its decision on mere sympathy. Even a juror who insisted on focusing on this one phrase in the instruction would likely interpret the phrase as an admonition to ignore emotional responses that are not rooted in the aggravating and mitigating evidence introduced during the penalty phase. While strained in the abstract, respondent's interpretation is simply untenable when viewed in light of the surrounding circumstances. This instruction was given at the end of the penalty phase, only after respondent had produced 13 witnesses in his favor. Yet respondent's interpretation would have these two words transform three days of favorable testimony into a virtual charade. We think a reasonable juror would reject that...

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  • Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633.
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    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 1, 2005
    ...sentencing that "reflect[s] a reasoned moral response to the defendant's background, character, and crime." California v. Brown, 479 U. S. 538, 545 (1987) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). Accordingly, the sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect to all constitutionally r......
  • Gavin v. State
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    ...of that evidence is a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death. California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d 934 (1987); Ex parte Henderson, 616 So.2d 348 (Ala.1992); Haney v. State, 603 So.2d 368 (Ala.Cr.App.1991), aff'd, 603 So.......
  • Caudill v. Conover, No. 14-5418
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    ...who have no such excuse." Penry v. Lynaugh , 492 U.S. 302, 319, 109 S.Ct. 2934, 106 L.Ed.2d 256 (1989) (quoting California v. Brown , 479 U.S. 538, 545, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d 934 (1987) (O'Connor, J., concurring) ). If capital punishment is to "be limited to those offenders who commit ‘......
  • People v. Bonin, Nos. 22530
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • January 9, 1989
    ...v. Brown (1985) 40 Cal.3d 512, 538-544, 230 Cal.Rptr. 834, 726 P.2d 516, reversed on other grounds sub nomine California v. Brown (1987) 479 U.S. 538, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d In Brown we held that section 190.3, as construed therein, was not unconstitutional. (40 Cal.3d at pp. 538-544, 23......
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889 cases
  • Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 1, 2005
    ...sentencing that "reflect[s] a reasoned moral response to the defendant's background, character, and crime." California v. Brown, 479 U. S. 538, 545 (1987) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). Accordingly, the sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect to all constitutionally r......
  • Gavin v. State
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • September 26, 2003
    ...of that evidence is a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death. California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d 934 (1987); Ex parte Henderson, 616 So.2d 348 (Ala.1992); Haney v. State, 603 So.2d 368 (Ala.Cr.App.1991), aff'd, 603 So.......
  • Caudill v. Conover, No. 14-5418
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    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • February 2, 2018
    ...who have no such excuse." Penry v. Lynaugh , 492 U.S. 302, 319, 109 S.Ct. 2934, 106 L.Ed.2d 256 (1989) (quoting California v. Brown , 479 U.S. 538, 545, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d 934 (1987) (O'Connor, J., concurring) ). If capital punishment is to "be limited to those offenders who commit ‘......
  • People v. Bonin, Nos. 22530
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • January 9, 1989
    ...v. Brown (1985) 40 Cal.3d 512, 538-544, 230 Cal.Rptr. 834, 726 P.2d 516, reversed on other grounds sub nomine California v. Brown (1987) 479 U.S. 538, 107 S.Ct. 837, 93 L.Ed.2d In Brown we held that section 190.3, as construed therein, was not unconstitutional. (40 Cal.3d at pp. 538-544, 23......
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    ...because it violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution). (67) Franklin, 487 U.S. at 184 (quoting California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 545 (1987) (O'Connor, J., (68) Id. (O'Connor, J., concurring). (69) Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 825 (1982) (O'Connor, J., dissenting). (70) See......

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