Mills v. Maryland

Decision Date06 June 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-5367,87-5367
Citation486 U.S. 367,108 S.Ct. 1860,100 L.Ed.2d 384
PartiesRalph MILLS, Petitioner, v. MARYLAND
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner, a Maryland prison inmate, was tried by a state-court jury and convicted of the first-degree murder of his cellmate. In the trial's sentencing phase, the same jury found that the State had established the statutory aggravating factor that petitioner committed the murder while he was confined in a correctional institution, and marked "no" beside each mitigating circumstance referenced on the verdict form, thereby requiring the imposition of the death penalty under Maryland's capital sentencing scheme. Petitioner challenged the sentence on the ground that the Maryland capital-punishment statute, as applied to him, was unconstitutionally mandatory. He asserted that the statute, as explained to the jury by the court's instructions and as implemented by the verdict form, required imposition of the death sentence if the jury unanimously found an aggravating circumstance, but could not agree unanimously as to the existence of any particular mitigating circumstance; thus, even if some or all of the jurors were to believe that some mitigating circumstance or circumstances were present, unless they could unanimously agree on the existence of the same mitigating factor, the sentence necessarily would be death. The Maryland Court of Appeals concluded that the death sentence was constitutionally sound, interpreting the statute's unanimity requirement as applying to jury determinations of all critical issues, including the acceptance or rejection of mitigating circumstances. The court observed that the verdict form was to be regarded as requiring the jury to agree unanimously in order to mark "no" with respect to the existence of each mitigating circumstance, and that the trial judge's instructions stressed the need for unanimity on all issues presented. The court concluded that, when a jury could not agree unanimously to accept or reject a particular mitigating circumstance, the answer to that circumstance on the verdict form should be left blank and the jury should proceed to the balancing phase, where each juror should weigh the mitigating circumstances he or she found to be established and balance them against the aggravating circumstances unanimously found.

Held:

1. In a capital case, the sentencer may not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any relevant circumstance, including any aspect of the defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sen- tence less than death. Under Maryland's statute, if the sentencer finds that any mitigating circumstances have been proved to exist, it then proceeds to decide whether those circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances. But if petitioner is correct, a jury that does not unanimously agree on the existence of any single mitigating circumstance may not give mitigating evidence any effect whatsoever, and must impose the death sentence. If that interpretation is correct, the case must be remanded for resentencing. Pp. 373-375.

2. There is a substantial probability that reasonable jurors, upon receiving the judge's instructions in this case, and in attempting to complete the verdict form as instructed, well may have thought they were precluded from considering any mitigating evidence unless all 12 jurors agreed on the existence of a particular mitigating circumstance. Because the jury could have understood that it should mark "no" on the verdict form when it failed to agree unanimously that a mitigating circumstance existed, some jurors might have been prevented from considering factors which might call for a less severe penalty, and petitioner's death sentence cannot stand. Pp. 375-384.

(a) With respect to findings of guilt, a jury's verdict must be set aside if it can be supported on one ground but not on another, and the reviewing court is uncertain which of the two grounds was relied upon by the jury in reaching the verdict. Review of death sentences demands even greater certainty that the jury's conclusions rested on proper grounds. Pp. 375-377.

(b) While the Court of Appeals' construction of the jury instructions and verdict form is plausible, it cannot be concluded, with any degree of certainty, that the jury did not adopt petitioner's interpretation instead. Nothing in the verdict form or the judge's instructions even arguably is construable as suggesting that the jury could leave an answer blank and proceed to the next step in its deliberations. A jury following the instructions set out in the verdict form could be precluded from considering mitigating evidence if only a single juror adhered to the view that such evidence should not be so considered. Pp. 377-380.

(c) There is no extrinsic evidence of what the jury in this case actually thought, but the portions of the record relating to the verdict form and the judge's instructions indicate that there is at least a substantial risk that the jury was misinformed. Moreover, since the time when this case was decided below, the Court of Appeals has promulgated a new verdict form expressly covering the situation where there is a lack of unanimity as to the existence or nonexistence of a particular mitigating factor, and providing for the consideration of all mitigating evidence in determining the sentence. This shows at least some concern on that court's part that juries could misunderstand the previous instructions as to unanimity and the consideration of mitigating evidence by individual jurors. Pp. 380-384.

310 Md. 33, 527 A.2d 3 (1987), vacated and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. ___, and WHITE, J., post, p. ___, filed concurring opinions. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. ___.

George E. Burns, Jr., Baltimore, Md., for petitioner.

Charles O. Monk, II, Baltimore, Md., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner seeks review of a decision of Maryland's highest court which construes that State's capital sentencing scheme in a manner that preserves its constitutionality but which may not have been evident at all to the jury charged with the sentencing function in this case. Because we have no reason to believe that the jury also arrived at this "saving" construction, we must vacate the sentence of death and remand the case for resentencing.

I

Petitioner Ralph Mills was tried by a state-court jury and convicted of the first-degree murder of his cellmate in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. The jury found that petitioner repeatedly had stabbed his victim with a "shank" or homemade knife. In the sentencing phase of the trial, the same jury found that the State had established the one statutory aggravating circumstance it propounded, namely, that petitioner "committed the murder at a time when he was confined in a correctional institution." App. 99. Defense counsel sought to persuade the jury of the presence of certain mitigating circumstances, in particular, petitioner's relative youth, his mental infirmity, his lack of future dangerousness, and the State's failure to make any meaningful attempt to rehabilitate petitioner while he was incarcerated. Id., at 89-93.1 On the verdict form provided by the trial court pursuant to the then-existing, but since rescinded, Maryland Rule of Procedure 772A, the jury marked "no" beside each referenced mitigating circumstance and returned a sentence of death.2 Petitioner challenged his conviction and sentence on various grounds, including an argument that the Maryland capital-punishment statute, Md.Ann. Code, Art. 27, § 413 (1987), as applied to him, was unconstitutionally mandatory.3 Petitioner construed the statute, as explained to the jury by the court's instructions and as implemented by the verdict form, to require the imposition of the death sentence if the jury unanimously found an aggravating circumstance, but could not agree unanimously as to the existence of any particular mitigating circumstance. According to petitioner's view, even if some or all of the jurors were to believe some mitigating circumstance or circumstances were present, unless they could unanimously agree on the existence of the same mitigating factor, the sentence necessarily would be death.

The Maryland Court of Appeals concluded that the imposition of petitioner's death sentence was constitutionally sound. 310 Md. 33, 527 A.2d 3 (1987). The court did not dispute that if the statute and form were read as petitioner suggested, jurors would be improperly prevented from giving due consideration to mitigating evidence. The court, however, interpreted the statute differently and held that the requirement of unanimity applied to jury determinations of all critical issues including the acceptance or rejection of mitigating circumstances, observing that the verdict form was to be regarded as requiring the jury to agree unanimously in order to mark "no" with respect to the existence of each mitigating circumstance, and that the trial judge's instructions stressed the need for unanimity on all issues presented. In the absence of unanimity on the ultimate question of what sentence should be imposed, the statute required the imposition of life imprisonment. See § 413(k)(2).4 Thus, in the court's view, "[a]s long as one juror believes that there exists a mitigating factor, and that this factor is not outweighed by the aggravating circumstances, and if such juror continues to adhere to his or her position, the sentence will not be death under the statutory scheme." 310 Md., at 54, 527 A.2d, at 13.

The Court of Appeals recognized, however, that the statute did not fully provide what was to transpire when unanimity was...

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