Sawyer v. Smith, No. 89-5809

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtKENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined as to Parts I, II, III, and
Citation110 S.Ct. 2822,497 U.S. 227,111 L.Ed.2d 193
Decision Date21 June 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-5809
PartiesRobert SAWYER, Petitioner, v. Larry SMITH, Interim Warden

497 U.S. 227
110 S.Ct. 2822
111 L.Ed.2d 193
Robert SAWYER, Petitioner,

v.

Larry SMITH, Interim Warden.

No. 89-5809.
Argued April 25, 1990.
Decided June 21, 1990.
Rehearing Denied Aug. 30, 1990.

See 497 U.S. 1051, 111 S.Ct. 17.

Syllabus

Petitioner Sawyer's conviction and death sentence for a brutal murder became final in 1984. The Federal District Court denied his habeas corpus petition, which was based in relevant part on the argument that the prosecutor's closing argument during the penalty phase of his trial diminished the jury's sense of responsibility for the capital sentencing decision, in violation of this Court's 1985 decision in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231. While his appeal of the denial of habeas relief was pending, this Court decided Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334, under which a new rule of constitutional law established after a petitioner's conviction has become final may not be used to attack the conviction on federal habeas corpus unless the rule (1) places an entire category of primary conduct beyond the reach of criminal law, id., at 311, 109 S.Ct., at 1075, or prohibits imposition of a certain type of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense, see Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 330, 109 S.Ct. 2934, 2953, 106 L.Ed.2d 256, or (2) applies a new watershed rule of criminal procedure that enhances accuracy and is necessary to the fundamental fairness of the criminal proceeding, 489 U.S., at 312-313, 109 S.Ct., at 1076. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of relief, holding that Caldwell announced a new rule within the meaning of Teague and did not fall within Teague's second exception.

Held: Petitioner is not entitled to federal habeas relief, because Caldwell announced a new rule, as defined by Teague, that does not come within either of the Teague exceptions. Pp. 233-245.

(a) Caldwell's result was not dictated by Eighth Amendment precedent existing at the time petitioner's conviction became final. No case prior to Caldwell invalidated a prosecutorial argument as impermissible under the Eighth Amendment. The discussion of improper prosecutorial comment in Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 94 S.Ct. 1868, 40 L.Ed.2d 431, a noncapital murder case, was based on the Due Process Clause's guarantees of fundamental fairness, not the Eighth Amendment's more particular guarantees of sentencing reliability. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 102 S.Ct. 869, 71 L.Ed.2d 1; Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 98 S.Ct. 2954, 57 L.Ed.2d 973; Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 51 L.Ed.2d 393; and Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944, earlier Eighth Amendment cases, spoke to the general issue of sentencing reliability but not to the issue decided in Caldwell, and Teague would be meaningless if applied at such a level of generality. In 1984, from a state court's point of view,

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there were indications that Caldwell was not an Eighth Amendment requirement, see California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 103 S.Ct. 3446, 77 L.Ed.2d 1171; Maggio v. Williams, 464 U.S. 46, 104 S.Ct. 311, 78 L.Ed.2d 43, and there was some doubt as to this Court's view concerning a major premise of Caldwell, that misleading prosecutorial comment might cause a bias in favor of death sentences, see Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282, 294, and n. 7, 97 S.Ct. 2290, 2298-2299, and n. 7, 53 L.Ed.2d 344. It cannot be said that state cases were anticipating the Caldwell rule when they prohibited similar prosecutorial statements, because their decisions were based on state law and did not purport to construe the Eighth Amendment. Reliance on these cases misapprehends the function of federal habeas relief, which serves to ensure that state convictions comport with established federal law at the time a petitioner's conviction becomes final. To the extent that post-Caldwell Louisiana cases reflect state-court recognition that general Eighth Amendment principles pointed toward adoption of a Caldwell rule, or that Caldwell is congruent with pre-existing state law, they cannot serve to show that Caldwell was dictated by this Court's Eighth Amendment precedents, since courts can be expected to apply principles announced in prior Eighth Amendment decisions that are susceptible to debate among reasonable minds. Petitioner's argument that state courts would not have provided protection against misleading prosecutorial comment unless they had been compelled to do so by federal precedent and the threat of federal habeas review is premised on a skepticism of state courts that this Court declines to endorse. Pp. 233-241.

(b) Caldwell does not come within either of the Teague exceptions. The first exception has no applicability here. Petitioner's argument that the second exception should be read to include new rules of capital sentencing that preserve the accuracy and fairness of judgments looks only to the first half of the exception's definition. To qualify under Teague, a rule must not only improve the accuracy of trial; it must also be essential to the fairness of the proceeding. There would be no limit to the second exception if it were to be recast as suggested by petitioner, since almost all Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerning capital sentencing is directed toward the enhancement of reliability or accuracy in some sense. Caldwell is a systemic rule designed as an enhancement of the accuracy of capital sentencing. However, this measure of protection against error in the context of capital sentencing was added to the already existing due process guarantee of fundamental fairness afforded by Donnelly, supra. "[T]he only defendants who need to rely on Caldwell rather than Donnelly are those who must concede that the prosecutorial argument in their case was not so harmful as to render their sentencing trial 'fundamentally unfair.' " 881 F.2d 1273, 1293. Thus, it cannot be said that Caldwell is the type of absolute prerequisite to

Page 229

fundamental fairness that may come within Teague's second exception. Cf., e.g., Dugger v. Adams, 489 U.S. 401, 109 S.Ct. 1211, 103 L.Ed.2d 435. Pp. 241-245.

881 F.2d 1273, (CA5 1989) affirmed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined as to Parts I, II, III, and IV, and in which STEVENS, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III, post, p. 245.

Catherine Hancock, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

Dorothy A. Pendergast, Gretna, La., for respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide in this case whether a prisoner whose murder conviction became final before our decision in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L.Ed.2d 231 (1985), is entitled to use that decision to challenge his capital sentence in a federal habeas corpus action. We hold that he cannot, for Caldwell announced a new rule as defined by Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989), and the new rule does not come within Teague's exception for watershed rules fundamental to the integrity of the criminal proceeding.

I

Over 10 years ago, petitioner Robert Sawyer murdered Frances Arwood, a visitor in the New Orleans, Louisiana, residence petitioner shared with his girlfriend, Cynthia

Page 230

Shano. On September 29, 1979, petitioner and his accomplice Charles Lane arrived at the residence after a night of drinking. They argued with Arwood and accused her of giving drugs to Shano's children. For reasons that are not clear, petitioner and Lane struck Arwood repeatedly with their fists and dragged her by the hair into the bathroom. There they stripped the victim naked, literally kicked her into the bathtub, and subjected her to scalding, dunkings, and additional beatings. Petitioner left Lane to guard the victim, and apparently to rape her, while petitioner went to the kitchen to boil water to scald her. Petitioner kicked Arwood in the chest, causing her head to strike the tub or a windowsill and rendering her unconscious. The pair then dragged Arwood into the living room, where they continued to beat and kick her. Petitioner poured lighter fluid on the unconscious victim, particularly her torso and genital area, and set the lighter fluid afire. He told Lane that he had done this to show "just how cruel he could be." There were further brutalities we do not recount. Arwood later died of her injuries.

Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime by a Louisiana jury in September 1980. At issue in this case are remarks made by the prosecutor in his closing argument during the sentencing phase of the trial. The prosecutor first stated, after discussing the proof of aggravating circumstances under Louisiana law:

"The law provides that if you find one of those circumstances then what you are doing as a juror, you yourself will not be sentencing Robert Sawyer to the electric chair. What you are saying to this Court, to the people of this Parish, to any appellate court, the Supreme Court of this State, the Supreme Court possibly of the United States, that you the people as a fact finding body from all the facts and evidence you have heard in relationship to this man's conduct are of the opinion that there are aggravating circumstances as defined by the statute, by

Page 231

the State Legislature that this is a type of crime that deserves that penalty. It is merely a recommendation so try as he may, if Mr. Weidner tells you that each and every one of you I hope can live with your conscience and try and play upon your emotions, you cannot deny, it is a difficult decision. No one likes to make those type of decisions but you have to realize if but for this man's actions, but for the type of life that he has...

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584 practice notes
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • 24 d2 Abril d2 2012
    ...(Id. at 1580-81.) 33. Keenan cites to two cases that address improper prosecutor comments, but neither is applicable: Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 235 (1990), in which the prosecutor led the jury to a false belief that responsibility for determining the appropriateness of a defendant's ca......
  • Rienhardt v. Shinn, CV-03-0290-TUC-DCB
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • 8 d1 Novembro d1 2021
    ...however, to demonstrate that rehabilitation was possible.”), on reh'g, 881 F.2d 1273 (5th Cir. 1989), aff'd sub nom. Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990); see Stamper v. Muncie, 944 F.2d 170, 177 (4th Cir. 1991) (“Questions of the rigor of trial counsel's voir dire aside, Stamper fails utte......
  • U.S. v. Hernandez, No. 3:94CR779.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio
    • 30 d5 Março d5 2001
    ...but also `alter our understanding of the bedrock procedural elements' essential to the fairness of a proceeding." Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 242, 110 S.Ct. 2822, 111 L.Ed.2d 193 (1990) (citations omitted). The Courts that have addressed the applicability of this exception to Apprendi ha......
  • Lowery v. Anderson, No. IP 96-71-C-H/G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • 6 d2 Julho d2 1999
    ...so he is entitled to rely on the principles announced there, at least to the extent they may apply here. See generally Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 241-45, 110 S.Ct. 2822, 111 L.Ed.2d 193 (1990); Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 6. The court also disagrees wit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
582 cases
  • Keenan v. Bagley, CASE NO. 1:01 CV 2139
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
    • 24 d2 Abril d2 2012
    ...(Id. at 1580-81.) 33. Keenan cites to two cases that address improper prosecutor comments, but neither is applicable: Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 235 (1990), in which the prosecutor led the jury to a false belief that responsibility for determining the appropriateness of a defendant's ca......
  • Rienhardt v. Shinn, CV-03-0290-TUC-DCB
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • 8 d1 Novembro d1 2021
    ...however, to demonstrate that rehabilitation was possible.”), on reh'g, 881 F.2d 1273 (5th Cir. 1989), aff'd sub nom. Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990); see Stamper v. Muncie, 944 F.2d 170, 177 (4th Cir. 1991) (“Questions of the rigor of trial counsel's voir dire aside, Stamper fails utte......
  • U.S. v. Hernandez, No. 3:94CR779.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio
    • 30 d5 Março d5 2001
    ...but also `alter our understanding of the bedrock procedural elements' essential to the fairness of a proceeding." Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 242, 110 S.Ct. 2822, 111 L.Ed.2d 193 (1990) (citations omitted). The Courts that have addressed the applicability of this exception to Apprendi ha......
  • Lowery v. Anderson, No. IP 96-71-C-H/G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • 6 d2 Julho d2 1999
    ...so he is entitled to rely on the principles announced there, at least to the extent they may apply here. See generally Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 241-45, 110 S.Ct. 2822, 111 L.Ed.2d 193 (1990); Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 6. The court also disagrees wit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • 1 d1 Dezembro d1 2014
    ...v. Parks, 494 U.S. 484 (1990)Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 537 U.S. 101 (2003)Satterwhite v. Texas, 486 U.S. 249 (1988)Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990)Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333 (1992)Schad v. Arizona, 501 U.S. 624 (1991)Schiro v. Farley, 510 U.S. 222 (1994)Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 29......
  • Who Has the Body? The Paths to Habeas Corpus Reform
    • United States
    • Prison Journal, The Nbr. 84-3, September 2004
    • 1 d3 Setembro d3 2004
    ...(2001). When the state kills: Capital punishment and the American condition. Prince- ton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973). Sessions, P. (1996/1997). Swift justice? Imposing a statute of limitations on the federal h......

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