Jacobs v. Wainwright, 84-5389

Decision Date26 November 1984
Docket NumberNo. 84-5389,84-5389
PartiesEligaah Ardalle JACOBS v. Louie L. WAINWRIGHT, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Florida.

The petition for writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

This Court has unequivocally stated that a sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to consider, as evidence of mitigation, any aspect of a defendant's character or record, and any circumstances of the offense, that the defendant offers as a basis for a sentence less than death. Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 604, 98 S.Ct. 2954, 2964, 57 L.Ed.2d 973 (1978). The issue squarely presented is whether, when a trial judge has prevented the jury from hearing indisputably relevant mitigating evidence, that error creates such an unacceptable risk that the death penalty was inappropriately imposed as to require a reviewing court to remand for resentencing, even if the error was not properly preserved in the trial court. To hold that the fundamental error may be ignored is to penalize a defendant, possibly with his life, for the shortcomings of his attorney. I do not believe such a result comports with the most elemental principles underlying the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. I therefore dissent.


The relevant facts of this case are quite straightforward. The defendant took the stand at the sentencing phase of his trial and testified about certain statutory mitigating factors. Trial counsel then asked: "Do you know anything else that you wish to tell this jury in mitigation of this offense of which you have been convicted?" The prosecutor objected to this question, arguing that it was too broad because "it must follow the statute." Trial counsel tried to phrase the question differently, and again the objection was sustained. The trial court accepted the prosecution argument that the Florida death penalty statute permitted only evidence of statutory mitigating factors. Since, under this view, all evidence of nonstatutory mitigating factors was inadmissible, the trial judge did not permit the defendant to describe to the jury the mitigating circumstances of his background, and of the offense.

There is no dispute that the trial judge violated the mandate of Lockett v. Ohio when he ruled that evidence of nonstatutory mitigating factors was not admissible. However, defendant's trial counsel, who continued as appellate counsel, did not raise this issue either on direct appeal in the state courts, or in the first petition for certiorari filed with this Court.

Thereafter the defendant obtained new counsel, who filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Florida Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction to address claims of ineffective assistance of counsel before that court. In a terse paragraph, the court dismissed the argument that appellate counsel was ineffective. The court ruled that appellate counsel could not be considered incompetent for failure to raise the claim on appeal because he was procedurally precluded from raising it. Under Florida law, the court explained, counsel was required to make a proffer of the attempted testimony after the trial judge excluded it. Thus, the court effectively ruled, there could have been no prejudice from the failure to raise the issue on appeal, since the court would not have addressed it anyway. Two justices dissented on the grounds that the nature of the excluded evidence was apparent, that the court should have addressed the claim, and that appellate counsel was ineffective in his failure to raise the issue. The defendant then filed this petition for certiorari, challenging the State Supreme Court's ruling that the reviewing court would have had no obligation to address the Lockett claim on the merits.


Because of the basic difference between the death penalty and all other punishments, this Court often has recognized that there is a corresponding difference in the need for reliability in determining whether the death sentence is appropriately imposed in a particular case. Thus, we have recognized that "[w]hat is essential is that the jury have before it all possible relevant information about the individual defendant whose fate it must determine," Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 276, 96 S.Ct. 2950, 2958, 49 L.Ed.2d 929 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.), and we have steadfastly insisted that the sentencer in capital cases must be permitted to consider any relevant mitigating factor. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 112, 102 S.Ct. 869, 875, 71 L.Ed.2d 1 (1982).

The premise of this unfolding doctrine is that a sentence imposed without evidence of facts and circumstances offered in mitigation creates a risk that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors that call for a different penalty. As THE CHIEF JUSTICE has written: "When the choice is between life and death, that risk is unacceptable and incompatible with the commands of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." Lockett v. Ohio, supra, 438 U.S., at 605, 98 S.Ct., at 2965. Yet, when a court closes its eyes to clear Lockett error, as the state court did in this case, and instead rests on technical procedural rules, it accepts the risk to which THE CHIEF JUSTICE refers and comes down on the side of death.

Nor does THE CHIEF JUSTICE stand alone in his recognition that a sentencing body's failure to consider all mitigating evidence seriously and unacceptably raises the possibility that a person will die in error. Infusing many opinions from this Court...

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