Prejean v. Blackburn

Decision Date15 October 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-4548,83-4548
Citation743 F.2d 1091
PartiesDalton PREJEAN, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Frank BLACKBURN, Warden, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Thomas E. Guilbeau, Lafayette, La., Steven L. Winter, John Charles Boger, Debevoise & Plimpton, Mitchell A. Karlan, Martha Olson, John H. Hall, New York City, for petitioner-appellant.

J. Nathan Stansbury, Dist. Atty., Lafayette, La., for respondent-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

Before CLARK, Chief Judge, POLITZ and JOHNSON, Circuit Judges.

CLARK, Chief Judge:

Dalton Prejean, a Louisiana prisoner sentenced to die for the 1977 slaying of a Louisiana State Trooper, appeals from the federal district court's denial of his application of habeas corpus relief. Finding that Prejean has not established a violation of his constitutional rights, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In the early morning hours of July 2, 1977, Dalton Prejean, a seventeen year old black youth, left a local night club after a full night of drinking and socializing in neighborhood taverns. Prejean, accompanied by his brother Joseph and two companions, had driven only a short distance in his car when he was pulled over by a Louisiana State Trooper for a traffic violation. The tropper, Donald Cleveland, first asked the four young men to exit the vehicle; he then ordered all but Joseph Prejean to return to their seats. The three complied, but when Trooper Cleveland pushed Joseph Prejean up against the car and began to search him, Dalton Prejean withdrew a .38 caliber revolver from under the car seat and got out of the car. Approaching Cleveland with the gun concealed, Dalton Prejean fired two shots at close range, striking Cleveland. Trooper Cleveland died from the gunshot wounds to his neck and chest. The four young men fled the scene but were apprehended several hours later.

Dalton Prejean was indicted by a Louisiana grand jury on the charge of first degree murder. Defense counsel urged a pretrial motion to suppress "any and all" of Prejean's prior adjudications of juvenile delinquency. The trial court ruled that evidence of Prejean's juvenile record was inadmissible, and ordered the evidence suppressed "insofar as this instant proceeding is concerned, but no further." 1 The State immediately sought a writ of certiorari. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied the writ application, stating that the trial court's evidentiary ruling was correct under state law.

The trial was transferred from Lafayette Parish to Ouachita Parish because of the intense pretrial publicity that the case had generated. In a three-day bifurcated trial, an all-white jury of twelve found Prejean guilty and recommended a sentence of death. The trial judge, bound by Louisiana law to accept the jury's recommendation, sentenced Prejean to death. Thereafter the judge compiled a Uniform Capital Sentence Report, obtained a confidential "sentence investigation report" from the State Department of Corrections, and submitted both to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

On direct appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and the capital sentence. State v. Prejean, 379 So.2d 240 (La.1979), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 891, 101 S.Ct. 253, 66 L.Ed.2d 119 (1980). Prejean next submitted an application for post-conviction relief in the state trial court, urging several new constitutional claims. The court denied all requested relief. Prejean thereafter applied to the Louisiana Supreme Court for Supervisory Writs and a stay of execution. The applications were denied. State ex rel. Prejean v. Blackburn, 397 So.2d 517 (La.1981).

Prejean immediately submitted an application for federal habeas corpus relief and sought a stay of the impending execution. The federal district court granted a temporary stay, enabling Prejean to present to the Louisiana Supreme Court a previously unexhausted claim. See State ex rel. Prejean v. Blackburn, 407 So.2d 1189 (La.1981). Prejean's fully exhausted petition thus raised for consideration by the federal district court eleven discrete claims of constitutional deprivation. Without holding an evidentiary hearing, the district court examined each claim, found that each lacked merit, and dismissed the application. Prejean v. Blackburn, 570 F.Supp. 985 (W.D.La.1983). On appeal, Prejean now raises five claims of constitutional dimension: first, that the death sentence imposed in this instance violates due process because it was affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court on the basis of nonrecord prejudicial information; second, that the execution of Prejean for a crime committed at age seventeen would violate an eighth amendment right protecting minors from execution; third, that the Louisiana Supreme Court's inadequate proportionality review of Prejean's sentence violated the eighth amendment; fourth, that Prejean, a black youth convicted of killing a white police officer, was condemned to die as a result of intentional racial discrimination; and fifth, that the district court erred in refusing to grant an evidentiary hearing on Prejean's claim that the prosecutor used peremptory challenges deliberately and systematically to exclude blacks from the petit jury. We granted a stay of execution in order to enable our plenary consideration of this appeal.

II. CAPITAL SENTENCING IN LOUISIANA

A. Louisiana law

Under Louisiana law, a death sentence may be imposed only after the penalty jury considers "any mitigating circumstances" and finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was attended by at least one statutorily defined "aggravating circumstance." La.Code Crim.Pro.Ann. arts. 905.3--5 (West Supp.1982); State v. Culberth, 390 So.2d 847, 850 (La.1980). In the instant case, the aggravating circumstance found by the jury was that Prejean's murder victim was a "peace officer engaged in his lawful duties." See id. art. 905.4(b). The verdict must be unanimous. La.Code Crim.Pro.Ann. art. 905.6 (Supp.1982). When, as here, the jury unanimously agrees on a sentence of death, its recommendation is binding on the trial judge. Id. art. 905.8. The trial judge therefore had no choice but to sentence Prejean to death in accordance with the jury's recommendation. See State v. Prejean, 379 So.2d 240, 247 (La.1979).

Pursuant to Louisiana's statutory capital sentencing scheme, the Louisiana Supreme Court performs an automatic and mandatory review of each case in which a death sentence has been assigned. La.Code Crim.Pro.Ann. art. 905.9 (Supp.1982). The Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases extends only to questions of law; the court cannot enter findings of fact. La. Const. Art. V, Sec. 5(c) (1979). The court has adopted the following procedures "to satisfy constitutional criteria for review:"

Review Guidelines. Every sentence of death shall be reviewed by this court to determine if it is excessive. In determining whether the sentence is excessive the court shall determine:

(a) whether the sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factors, and

(b) whether the evidence supports the jury's finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, and

(c) whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant.

La.S.Ct.Rule 28 Sec. 1; see La.Code Crim.Pro.Ann. art. 905.9 (Supp.1982). As an aspect of its "proportionality review," the court performs at a minimum a district-wide comparison of the capital sentences imposed in "similar" cases. La.S.Ct.Rule 28 Sec. 4; see, e.g., State v. (Elmo Patrick) Sonnier, 379 So.2d 1336, 1362 (La.1979).

III. THE DUE PROCESS CLAIM

In conducting its appellate review of Prejean's sentence, the Louisiana Supreme Court received, considered, and used two postsentence reports that had been submitted to it by the trial judge. Neither the confidential sentence investigation report, compiled by an employee of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, nor the Uniform Capital Sentence Report, compiled by the trial judge himself, was admitted at trial. Prejean contends that, in affirming the death sentence in partial dependence on two inherently unreliable postsentence reports, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied him due process of law. Prejean's objection rests on two separate yet related grounds: first, that the court's consideration of both reports enabled it to conduct its appellate review of the arbitrariness, proportionality, and overall excessiveness of the jury's verdict based upon information about which the jury had not known; and second, that in considering the confidential sentence investigation report the court relied on information that was never tested in the forum of the adversarial process. 2

A. Two Postsentence Reports

After the jury had sentenced Prejean to death and an appeal had been taken, the trial judge submitted to the Louisiana Supreme Court two sentencing reports. The procedure by which the Supreme Court received and considered the two reports--the Uniform Capital Sentence Report and the confidential sentence investigation report--is governed by Louisiana Supreme Court Rule 28. Section three of the Rule provides, in pertinent part:

Section 3. Uniform Capital Sentence Report; Sentence Investigation Report.

(a) Whenever the death penalty is imposed, the trial judge shall expeditiously complete and file in the record a Uniform Capital Sentence Report (see Appendix "B"). The trial court may call upon the district attorney, defense counsel and the department of probation and parole of the Department of Corrections to provide any information needed to complete the report.

(b) The trial judge shall cause a sentence investigation to be conducted and the report to be attached to the uniform capital sentence report. The investigation shall inquire into the defendant's prior...

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