Hopper v. Evans, Iii

Citation102 S.Ct. 2049,456 U.S. 605,72 L.Ed.2d 367
Decision Date24 May 1982
Docket NumberNo. 80-1714,80-1714
PartiesJoseph S. HOPPER, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections and James D. White, Warden, Petitioners v. John Louis EVANS, III
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Respondent was convicted in an Alabama state court of the capital offense of an intentional killing during a robbery, and was sentenced to death. At the time of respondent's trial, an Alabama statute precluded jury instructions on lesser included offenses in capital cases. The conviction and sentence were affirmed on automatic appeal. Subsequently, habeas corpus proceedings were brought in Federal District Court seeking to have the conviction set aside on the ground, inter alia, that respondent had been convicted and sentenced under a statute that unconstitutionally precluded consideration of lesser included offenses. The District Court denied relief. Pending an appeal, the Alabama statute precluding lesser included offense instructions in capital cases was invalidated in Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392. The Court of Appeals then reversed the District Court, concluding that Beck v. Alabama meant that the Alabama preclusion clause so "infected" respondent's trial that he must be retried so that he might have the opportunity to introduce evidence of some lesser included offense.

Held : The Alabama preclusion clause did not prejudice respondent in any way, and he is not entitled to a new trial, where his own evidence negates the possibility that a lesser included offense instruction might have been warranted. The Court of Appeals misread Beck v. Alabama, which held that due process requires that a lesser included offense instruction be given only when the evidence warrants such an instruction. Here, the evidence not only supported the claim that respondent intended to kill the victim but affirmatively negated any claim that he did not intend to kill the victim. Accordingly, an instruction on the offense of unintentional killing was not warranted. Pp. 2052-2054.

628 F.2d 400 and 639 F.2d 221, reversed.

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

John L. Carroll, Montgomery, Ala., for respondent.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to determine whether, after invalidation of a state law which precluded instructions on lesser included offenses in capital cases, a new trial is required in a capital case in which the defendant's own evidence negates the possibility that such an instruction might have been warranted.


Shortly after respondent was released on parole from an Indiana prison in 1976, he and Wayne Ritter, who had been a fellow inmate, embarked on what respondent himself described as a cross-country crime "spree." App. 9. According to respondent's testimony, they committed about 30 armed robberies, 9 kidnapings, and 2 extortion schemes in seven different States during a 2-month period. Respondent testified that on January 5, 1977, he and Ritter entered a pawnshop in Mobile, Ala., intending to rob it. Ritter asked the pawnshop owner, Edward Nassar, to show him a gun. When Nassar handed the gun to Ritter, respondent pulled his own gun and announced that he intended to rob him. Nassar dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward his office. Respondent then shot him in the back, killing him. Nassar's two daughters, aged seven and nine, were in the pawnshop at the time of the murder.

Respondent and Ritter were captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Little Rock, Ark., on March 7, 1977. A gun, which was identified by ballistics tests as the weapon used to kill Nassar, was found in their motel room and the gun Nassar showed Ritter at the pawnshop was found in their car. After being fully advised of his constitutional rights, respondent signed a detailed written confession on March 8, 1977, admitting that he shot Nassar in the back. He repeated and elaborated on his confession before a grand jury in Mobile on April 4, 1977. He told the grand jury that Nassar was not the only person he had ever killed, that he felt no remorse because of that murder, that he would kill again in similar circumstances, and that he intended to return to a life of crime if he was ever freed. Since he doubted that he ever would be freed, he told the grand jury that he wanted to be executed as soon as possible. The grand jury indicted him under Ala.Code § 13-11-2(a)(2) (1975), which makes "[r]obbery or attempts thereof when the victim is intentionally killed by the defendant" a capital offense.


Under Alabama law, capital punishment may be imposed only after conviction by a jury. Prothro v. State, 370 So.2d 740, 746-747 (Ala.Crim.App.1979). The prosecution, therefore, declined to accept respondent's guilty plea. A psychiatrist, appointed by the court, concluded that respondent was competent to stand trial. Respondent and Ritter were tried together. The evidence against respondent included his confession to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, two eyewitnesses who identified him, and ballistic evidence matching the bullet that killed Nassar with respondent's gun.

Against his attorneys' advice, respondent testified in his own behalf. He told the jury he had shot Nassar, and informed it that he had "no intention whatsoever of ever reforming in any way" and would return to a life of crime if released. App. 38. Release from prison in the near future appeared unlikely since he was wanted for a number of crimes in different States as a result of the armed robbery spree. Respondent told the jury: "I would rather die by electrocution than spend the rest of my life in the penitentiary. So, I'm asking very sincerely that you come back with a positive verdict for the State." Ibid.

The judge instructed the jury that it could not convict respondent merely on the basis of his confession, but must consider all the evidence, and could find him guilty only if the State had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Prior to this Court's judgment in Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980), a jury hearing a capital case in Alabama was precluded by statute from considering lesser included offenses. Alabama required a jury to convict the defendant of the capital offense charged or return a verdict of not guilty. The jurors were instructed to impose the death sentence if they concluded that the defendant was guilty, and they were not told that the trial judge could reduce the sentence to a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Id., at 639, n. 15, 100 S.Ct., at 2390, n. 15. The jury in this case returned its verdict of guilty in less than 15 minutes.

The trial judge sentenced respondent to death and entered written findings that the aggravating circumstances in his case far outweighed any mitigating circumstances. The conviction and sentence were subject to automatic appeal and were affirmed on review. Evans v. State, 361 So.2d 654 (Ala.Crim.App.1977), aff'd, 361 So.2d 666 (Ala.1978), cert. denied, 440 U.S. 930, 99 S.Ct. 1267, 59 L.Ed.2d 486 (1979).


Respondent's mother initiated habeas corpus proceedings under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent then changed his previous attitude of desiring execution. His habeas corpus petition to the District Court for the Southern District of Alabama challenged his conviction on a number of grounds, including an allegation that he had been convicted and sentenced under a statute which unconstitutionally precluded consideration of lesser included offenses. He did not allege that he had been prejudiced by the Alabama death penalty statute's preclusion clause, but instead argued that the statute was unconstitutional on its face and that his conviction therefore must be set aside. The District Court held a hearing, and subsequently rejected respondent's arguments, noting that respondent had confessed at least four times to shooting Nassar. Evans v. Britton, 472 F.Supp. 707, 711-712 (1979).

Subsequently, in Beck v. Alabama, supra, we held that the sentence of death could not 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 noncapital offense, provided that the evidence would have supported such a verdict. The petitioner in Beck was also involved in a robbery in the course of which a murder occurred. He contended, however, that he did not kill the victim or intend his death. Instead he claimed that while he was attempting to tie up the victim, an 80-year-old man, his accomplice unexpectedly struck and killed the man. The State conceded that, on the evidence in that case, Beck would have been entitled to an instruction on the lesser included, noncapital offense of felony murder except for the preclusion clause. Id., at 629-630, 100 S.Ct., at 2385-2386.

Our opinion in Beck stressed that the jury was faced with a situation in which its choices were only to convict the defendant and sentence him to death or find him not guilty. The jury could not take a third option of finding that although the defendant had committed a grave crime, it was not so grave as to warrant capital punishment. We concluded that a jury might have convicted Beck but also might have rejected capital punishment if it believed Beck's testimony. On the facts shown in Beck, we held that the defendant was entitled to a lesser included offense instruction as a matter of due process. Id., at 637, 100 S.Ct., at 2389.

In the instant case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, purporting to rely on Beck, reversed the District Court's denial of relief. Evans v. Britton, 628 F.2d 400 (1980), modified, 639 F.2d 221 (1981). We granted certiorari, 452 U.S. 960, 101 S.Ct. 3107, 69 L.Ed.2d 970 (1981), and we now reverse.


The Court of Appeals misread our opinion in Beck. The Beck opinion considered the alternatives open to a jury which is constrained by a preclusion...

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