Simmons v. South Carolina

Decision Date17 June 1994
Docket Number929059
Citation512 U.S. 154,129 L.Ed.2d 133,114 S.Ct. 1287
PartiesJonathan Dale SIMMONS, Petitioner v. SOUTH CAROLINA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

During the penalty phase of petitioner's South Carolina trial, the State argued that his future dangerousness was a factor for the jury to consider when deciding whether to sentence him to death or life imprisonment for the murder of an elderly woman. In rebuttal, petitioner presented evidence that his future dangerousness was limited to elderly women and thus there was no reason to expect violent acts from him in prison. However, the court refused to give the jury his proposed instruction that under state law he was ineligible for parole. When asked by the jury whether life imprisonment carried with it the possibility of parole, the court instructed the jury not to consider parole in reaching its verdict and that the terms life imprisonment and death sentence were to be understood to have their plain and ordinary meaning. The jury returned a death sentence. On appeal, the State Supreme Court concluded that regardless of whether a trial court's refusal to inform a sentencing jury about a defendant's parole ineligibility might ever be error, the instruction given to petitioner's jury satisfied in substance his request for a charge on such ineligibility.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. --- S.C. ----, 427 S.E.2d 175 (1993), reversed and remanded.

Justice BLACKMUN, joined by Justice STEVENS, Justice SOUTER, and Justice GINSBURG, concluded:

1. Where a defendant's future dangerousness is at issue, and state law prohibits his release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible. An individual cannot be executed on the basis of information which he had no opportunity to deny or explain. Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 362, 97 S.Ct. 1197, 1206-1207, 51 L.Ed.2d 393. Petitioner's jury reasonably may have believed that he could be released on parole if he were not executed. To the extent that this misunderstanding pervaded its deliberations, it had the effect of creating a false choice between sentencing him to death and sentencing him to a limited period of incarceration. The trial court's refusal to apprise the jury of information so crucial to its determination, particularly when the State alluded to the defendant's future dangerousness in its argument, cannot be reconciled with this Court's well-established precedents interpreting the Due Process Clause. See, e.g., Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1, 106 S.Ct. 1669, 90 L.Ed.2d 1. Pp. ____.

2. The trial court's instruction that life imprisonment was to be understood in its plain and ordinary meaning did not satisfy petitioner's request for a parole ineligibility charge, since it did nothing to dispel the misunderstanding reasonable jurors may have about the way in which any particular State defines "life imprisonment." Pp. ____.

Justice O'CONNOR, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice KENNEDY, concluded that where the State puts a defendant's future dangerousness in issue, and the only available alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, due process entitles the defendant to inform the sentencing jury—either by argument or instruction—that he is parole ineligible. If the prosecution does not argue future dangerousness, a State may appropriately decide that parole is not a proper issue for the jury's consideration even if the only alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Here, the trial court's instruction did not satisfy petitioner's request for a parole ineligibility charge, since the rejection of parole is a recent development displacing the longstanding practice of parole availability, and since common sense dictates that many jurors might not know whether a life sentence carries with it the possibility of parole. Pp. 2200-2201.

BLACKMUN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a concurring opinion. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

David I. Bruck, Columbia, SC, for petitioner.

Richard A. Harpootlian, Columbia, SC, for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Justice STEVENS, Justice SOUTER, and Justice GINSBURG join.

This case presents the question whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by the refusal of a state trial court to instruct the jury in the penalty phase of a capital trial that under state law the defendant was ineligible for parole. We hold that where the defendant's future dangerousness is at issue, and state law prohibits the defendant's release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible.

I

A.

In July 1990, petitioner beat to death an elderly woman, Josie Lamb, in her home in Columbia, South Carolina. The week before petitioner's capital murder trial was scheduled to begin, he pleaded guilty to first degree burglary and two counts of criminal sexual conduct in connection with two prior assaults on elderly women. Petitioner's guilty pleas resulted in convictions for violent offenses, and those convictions rendered petitioner ineligible for parole if convicted for any subsequent violent-crime offense. S.C.Code Ann. § 24-21-640 (Supp.1993).

Prior to jury selection, the prosecution advised the trial judge that the State "[o]bviously [was] going to ask you to exclude any mention of parole throughout this trial." App. 2. Over defense counsel's objection, the trial court granted the prosecution's motion for an order barring the defense from asking any question during voir dire regarding parole. Under the court's order, defense counsel was forbidden even to mention the subject of parole, and expressly was prohibited from questioning prospective jurors as to whether they understood the meaning of a "life" sentence under South Carolina law.1 After a 3-day trial, petitioner was convicted of the murder of Ms. Lamb.

During the penalty phase, the defense brought forward mitigating evidence tending to show that petitioner's violent behavior reflected serious mental disorders that stemmed from years of neglect and extreme sexual and physical abuse petitioner endured as an adolescent. While there was some disagreement among witnesses regarding the extent to which petitioner's mental condition properly could be deemed a "disorder," witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution agreed that petitioner posed a continuing danger to elderly women.

In its closing argument the prosecution argued that petitioner's future dangerousness was a factor for the jury to consider when fixing the appropriate punishment. The question for the jury, said the prosecution, was "what to do with [petitioner] now that he is in our midst." Id., at 110. The prosecution further urged that a verdict for death would be "a response of society to someone who is a threat. Your verdict will be an act of self-defense." Ibid.

Petitioner sought to rebut the prosecution's generalized argument of future dangerousness by presenting evidence that, due to his unique psychological problems, his dangerousness was limited to elderly women, and that there was no reason to expect further acts of violence once he was isolated in a prison setting. In support of his argument, petitioner introduced testimony from a female medical assistant and from two supervising officers at the Richland County jail where petitioner had been held prior to trial. All three testified that petitioner had adapted well to prison life during his pretrial confinement and had not behaved in a violent manner toward any of the other inmates or staff. Petitioner also offered expert opinion testimony from Richard L. Boyle, a clinical social worker and former correctional employee, who had reviewed and observed petitioner's institutional adjustment. Mr. Boyle expressed the view that, based on petitioner's background and his current functioning, petitioner would successfully adapt to prison if he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Concerned that the jury might not understand that "life imprisonment" did not carry with it the possibility of parole in petitioner's case, defense counsel asked the trial judge to clarify this point by defining the term "life imprisonment" for the jury in accordance with S.C.Code § 24-21-640 (Supp.1993).2 To buttress his request, petitioner proffered, outside the presence of the jury, evidence conclusively establishing his parole ineligibility. On petitioner's behalf, attorneys for the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardons testified that any offender in petitioner's position was in fact ineligible for parole under South Carolina law. The prosecution did not challenge or question petitioner's parole ineligibility. Instead, it sought to elicit admissions from the witnesses that, notwithstanding petitioner's parole ineligibility, petitioner might receive holiday furloughs or other forms of early release. Even this effort was unsuccessful, however, as the cross-examination revealed that Department of Corrections regulations prohibit petitioner's release under early release programs such as work-release or supervised furloughs, and that no convicted murderer serving life without parole ever had been furloughed or otherwise released for any reason.

Petitioner then offered into evidence, without objection, the results of a statewide public-opinion survey conducted by the University of South Carolina's...

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