Sochor v. Florida, No. 91-5843

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSOUTER
Citation112 S.Ct. 2114,119 L.Ed.2d 326,504 U.S. 527
Decision Date08 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-5843
PartiesDennis SOCHOR, Petitioner v. FLORIDA

112 S.Ct. 2114
504 U.S. 527
119 L.Ed.2d 326
Dennis SOCHOR, Petitioner

v.

FLORIDA.

No. 91-5843.
Argued March 2, 1992.
Decided June 8, 1992.
Syllabus

After a Florida jury found petitioner Sochor guilty of capital murder, the jury was instructed at the penalty hearing on the possibility of finding four aggravating factors, including the State's "heinousness" and "coldness" factors. The jury was also charged with weighing any mitigating circumstances it might find against the aggravating ones in reaching an advisory verdict as to whether Sochor's sentence should be life imprisonment or death. The jury's recommendation of death was adopted by the trial court, which found all four aggravating circumstances defined in the jury instructions and no mitigating circumstances. The State Supreme Court held, among other things, that the question whether the jury instruction on the heinousness factor was unconstitutionally vague had been waived for failure to object. The court also held that the evidence failed to support the trial judge's finding of the coldness factor, but nevertheless affirmed the death sentence.

Held:

1. The application of the heinousness factor to Sochor did not result in reversible error. Pp. 532-537.

(a) In a weighing State like Florida, Eighth Amendment error occurs when the sentencer weighs an "invalid" aggravating factor in reaching the decision to impose a death sentence. See Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738, 752, 110 S.Ct. 1441, 1450, 108 L.Ed.2d 725. While federal law does not require the state appellate court reviewing such error to remand for resentencing, the court must, short of remand, either itself reweigh without the invalid aggravating factor or determine that weighing the invalid factor was harmless error. See, e.g., Parker v. Dugger, 498 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 731, ----, 112 L.Ed.2d 812. P. 532.

(b) This Court lacks jurisdiction to address Sochor's claim that the jury instruction on the heinousness factor was unconstitutionally vague. The State Supreme Court indicated with requisite clarity that its rejection of the claim was based on an alternative state ground, see, e.g., Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1041, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 3476, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201, and Sochor has said nothing to persuade the Court that this state ground is either not adequate or not independent, see Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125-126, 65 S.Ct. 459, 462-463, 89 L.Ed. 789. Pp. 533-534.

(c) No Eighth Amendment violation occurred when the trial judge weighed the heinousness factor. Although the State Supreme Court's recent decisions may have evinced inconsistent and overbroad constructions of the heinousness factor that leave trial judges without sufficient

Page 528

guidance in other factual situations, that court has consistently held that heinousness is properly found where, as here, the defendant strangled a conscious victim. Under Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, ----, 110 S.Ct. 3047, ----, 111 L.Ed.2d 511, it must be presumed that the trial judge in the case at hand was familiar with this body of case law, which, at a minimum, gave the judge "some guidance," ibid. This is all that the Eighth Amendment requires. Pp. 535-537.

2. The application of the coldness factor to Sochor constituted Eighth Amendment error that went uncorrected in the State Supreme Court. Pp. 538-541.

(a) Sochor's claim that an Eighth Amendment violation occurred when the jury "weighed" the coldness factor is rejected. Because, under Florida law, the jury does not reveal the aggravating factors on which it relies, it cannot be known whether the jury actually relied on the coldness factor here. This Court will not presume that a general verdict rests on a ground that the evidence does not support. Griffin v. United States, 502 U.S. ----, ----, 112 S.Ct. 466, ----, 116 L.Ed.2d 371. P. 538.

(b) However, Eighth Amendment error occurred when the trial judge weighed the coldness factor. In Florida, the judge is at least a constituent part of the "sentencer" for Clemons purposes, and there is no doubt that the judge "weighed" the coldness factor in this case. Nor is there any question that the factor was "invalid" for Clemons purposes, since the State Supreme Court found it to be unsupported by the evidence. See Parker, supra, 498 U.S. at ----, 111 S.Ct. at ----. Pp. 2122-2123.

(c) The State Supreme Court did not cure the Eighth Amendment error. That court generally does not reweigh evidence independently. See, e.g., Parker, supra, at ----, 111 S.Ct. at ----. Nor did that court support the death verdict by performing harmless-error analysis, since its opinion fails to mention "harmless error" and expressly refers to the quite different inquiry whether Sochor's sentence was proportional, and since only one of the four cases cited by the court contained explicit harmless-error language. Pp. 2122-2123.

580 So.2d 595 (Fla.1991), vacated and remanded.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, Part I of which was unanimous, Parts II-A and II-B of which were joined by REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., Part III-A of which was joined by REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., Part III-B-1 of which was joined by REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., and Parts III-B-2 and IV of which were joined by BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which WHITE and THOMAS, JJ., joined.

Page 529

STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Gary Caldwell, West Palm Beach, for petitioner.

Miss Carolyn M. Snurkowski, Tallahassee, Fla., for respondent.

Justice SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under Florida law, after a defendant is found guilty of capital murder, a separate jury proceeding is held as the first of two steps in deciding whether his sentence should be life imprisonment or death. Fla.Stat. § 921.141(1) (1991). At the close of such aggravating and mitigating evidence as the prosecution and the defense may introduce, the trial judge charges the jurors to weigh whatever aggravating and mitigating circumstances or factors they may find, and to reach an advisory verdict by majority vote. § 921.141(2). The jury does not report specific findings of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but if, at the second sentencing step, the judge decides upon death, he must issue a written statement of the circumstances he finds. § 921.141(3). A death sentence is then subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court of Florida. § 921.141(4).

A Florida trial court sentenced petitioner to death after a jury so recommended, and the Supreme Court of Florida affirmed. We must determine whether, as petitioner claims, the sentencer in his case weighed either of two aggravating factors that he claims were invalid, and if so, whether the State Supreme Court cured the error by holding it harmless.

Page 530

We answer yes to the first question and no to the second, and therefore vacate the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida and remand.

I

On New Year's Eve, 1981, Petitioner Dennis Sochor met a woman in a bar in Broward County, Florida. Sochor tried to rape her after they had left together, and her resistance angered him to the point of choking her to death. He was indicted for first-degree murder and kidnaping and, after a jury trial, was found guilty of each offense.

At the penalty hearing, aggravating and mitigating evidence was offered, and the jury was instructed on the possibility of finding four aggravating circumstances, two of which were that

"the crime for which the defendant is to be sentenced was especially wicked, evil, atrocious or cruel, and [that] the crime for which the defendant is to be sentenced was committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner, without any pretense of moral or legal justification." App. 326-327.

The judge then explained to the jury that it could find certain statutory and any nonstatutory mitigating circumstances, which were to be weighed against any aggravating ones. By a vote of 10 to 2, the jury recommended the death penalty for the murder. The trial court adopted the jury's recommendation, finding all four aggravating circumstances as defined in the jury instructions and no circumstances in mitigation.

The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed. 580 So.2d 595 (1991). It declined to reverse for unconstitutional vagueness in the trial judge's instruction that the jury could find as an aggravating factor that "the crime for which the defendant is to be sentenced was especially wicked, evil, atrocious or cruel" (hereinafter, for brevity, the "heinousness factor," after the statute's words "heinous, atrocious, or

Page 531

cruel," Fla.Stat. § 921.141(5)(h) (1991)). The court held the issue waived for failure to object and the claim lacking merit in any event. 580 So.2d, at 602-603, and n. 10. The court also rejected Sochor's claim of insufficient evidence to support the trial judge's finding of the heinousness factor, citing evidence of the victim's extreme anxiety and fear before she died. The State Supreme Court did agree with Sochor, however, that the evidence failed to support the trial judge's finding that "the crime . . . was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification" (hereinafter the coldness factor), holding this factor to require a "heightened" degree of premeditation not shown in this case. Id., at 603. The State Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence notwithstanding the error, saying that:

"[1] [W]e . . . disagree with Sochor's claim that his death sentence is disproportionate. [2] The trial court carefully...

To continue reading

Request your trial
269 practice notes
  • Nelson v. Sec'y, Case No: 2:11-cv-327-Ftm-29CM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • 20 Agosto 2014
    ...case.Nelson I, 748 So. 2d at 244-45. Petitioner asserts that the state court's rejection of this claim was contrary to Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 532 (1992) because "[a]n aggravating circumstance is invalid for Eighth Amendment purposes if it is not supported by the evidence." (Doc. 3......
  • Pizzuto v. Arave, No. 97-99017.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • 6 Febrero 2002
    ...denied, 416 U.S. 943, 94 S.Ct. 1950, 40 L.Ed.2d 295 (1974). The Supreme Court approved of this limiting construction in Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 536, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 119 L.Ed.2d 326 (1992), "understanding the factor, as defined by the Florida Supreme Court, to apply only to a `consc......
  • Williams v. Calderon, No. CV 89-0327 SVW.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • 25 Marzo 1998
    ...The state court's opinion must "clearly and expressly" indicate that the state ground is an alternative holding. Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 2119, 119 L.Ed.2d 326 If a claim is found to be procedurally barred by an adequate and independent state law ground, in appropria......
  • People v. Proctor, No. S004555
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 28 Diciembre 1992
    ...factor not supported by substantial evidence) in denying the motion under section 190.4, subdivision (e), Sochor v. Florida (1992) 504 U.S. 527, ---- - ----, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 2120-2123, 119 L.Ed.2d 326, cited in defendant's supplemental brief, has no application to the present 14 The court s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
268 cases
  • Nelson v. Sec'y, Case No: 2:11-cv-327-Ftm-29CM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • 20 Agosto 2014
    ...case.Nelson I, 748 So. 2d at 244-45. Petitioner asserts that the state court's rejection of this claim was contrary to Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 532 (1992) because "[a]n aggravating circumstance is invalid for Eighth Amendment purposes if it is not supported by the evidence." (Doc. 3......
  • Pizzuto v. Arave, No. 97-99017.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • 6 Febrero 2002
    ...denied, 416 U.S. 943, 94 S.Ct. 1950, 40 L.Ed.2d 295 (1974). The Supreme Court approved of this limiting construction in Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 536, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 119 L.Ed.2d 326 (1992), "understanding the factor, as defined by the Florida Supreme Court, to apply only to a `consc......
  • Williams v. Calderon, No. CV 89-0327 SVW.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • 25 Marzo 1998
    ...The state court's opinion must "clearly and expressly" indicate that the state ground is an alternative holding. Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 2119, 119 L.Ed.2d 326 If a claim is found to be procedurally barred by an adequate and independent state law ground, in appropria......
  • People v. Proctor, No. S004555
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 28 Diciembre 1992
    ...factor not supported by substantial evidence) in denying the motion under section 190.4, subdivision (e), Sochor v. Florida (1992) 504 U.S. 527, ---- - ----, 112 S.Ct. 2114, 2120-2123, 119 L.Ed.2d 326, cited in defendant's supplemental brief, has no application to the present 14 The court s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • Article III Separation of Powers, Standing, and the Rejection of a 'Public Rights' Model of Environmental Citizen Suits
    • United States
    • The Clean Water Act and the Constitution. Legal Structure and the Public's Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment Part II
    • 20 Abril 2009
    ...by plaintiffs to have 13. Id . at 361-62. 14. Id . at 362. 15. Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 522-23 (1997); Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527, 533-34 & n.112 (1992); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991); Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 262 (1989); Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117,......
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • 1 Diciembre 2014
    ...676 (2010)Smith v. Texas, 543 U.S. 37 (2004)Smith v. Texas, 550 U.S. 297 (2007)Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008)Sochor v. Florida, 504 U.S. 527 (1992)South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805 (1989)Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984)Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989)Stansbu......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT