Zant v. Stephens, No. 81-89

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEVENS
Citation462 U.S. 862,77 L.Ed.2d 235,103 S.Ct. 2733
Decision Date24 February 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-89
PartiesWalter ZANT, Warden, Petitioner v. Alpha Otis O'Daniel STEPHENS

462 U.S. 862
103 S.Ct. 2733
77 L.Ed.2d 235
Walter ZANT, Warden, Petitioner

v.

Alpha Otis O'Daniel STEPHENS.

No. 81-89.
Argued Feb. 24, 1982.
Question Certified May 3, 1982.
Decided June 22, 1983.
Syllabus

In a bifurcated trial in a Georgia state court, a jury found respondent guilty of murder and imposed the death penalty. At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that it was authorized to consider all of the evidence received during the guilt phase of the trial as well as all facts and circumstances presented in mitigation or aggravation during the sentencing proceeding, and that it must find and designate in writing the existence of one or more specified statutory aggravating circumstances in order to impose the death penalty. The jury stated in writing that it found the statutory aggravating circumstances that respondent had a prior conviction of a capital felony, that he had "a substantial history of se ious assaultive criminal convictions," and that the murder was committed by an escapee. While respondent's appeal was pending, the Georgia Supreme Court held in another case that one of the aggravating circumstances—"substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions"—was unconstitutionally vague. In respondent's case, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the two other aggravating circumstances adequately supported the sentence. After the Federal District Court denied respondent's petition for habeas corpus, the Court of Appeals held that respondent's death penalty was invalid. In response to this Court's certified question, 456 U.S. 410, 102 S.Ct. 1856, 72 L.Ed.2d 222, the Georgia Supreme Court explained the state-law premises for its view that the failure of one aggravating circumstance does not invalidate a death sentence that is otherwise adequately supported by other aggravating circumstances. Under Georgia law the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance serves a limited purpose—it identifies those members of the class of persons convicted of murder who are eligible for the death penalty, without furnishing any further guidance to the jury in the exercise of its discretion in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed.

Held:

1. The limited function served by the jury's finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance does not render Georgia's statutory scheme invalid under the holding in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346. Under Georgia's scheme, the jury is required to find and identify in writing at least one valid statutory aggravating circumstance, an individualized

Page 863

determination must be made on the basis of the defendant's character and the circumstances of the crime, and the State Supreme Court reviews the record of every death penalty proceeding to determine whether the sentence was arbitrary or disproportionate. The narrowing function of statutory aggravating circumstances was properly achieved in this case by the two valid aggravating circumstances upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, because these two findings adequately differentiate this case in an objective, evenhanded, and substantively rational way from the many Georgia murder cases in which the death penalty may not be imposed. Moreover, the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed respondent's death sentence to determine whether it was arbitrary, excessive, or disproportionate. Thus the Georgia capital sentencing statute is not invalid as applied here. Pp. 873-880.

2. Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 51 S.Ct. 532, 75 L.Ed. 1117 does not require that respondent's death sentence be vacated. Stromberg requires that a general guilty verdict be set aside if the jury was instructed that it could rely on any of two or more independent grounds, and one of those grounds is insufficient, because the verdict may have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground. In this case, however, the jury did not merely return a general verdict stating that it had found at least one aggravating circumstance, but instead expressly found two aggravating circumstances that were valid and legally sufficient to support the death penalty. Nor is a second rule derived from Stromberg —requiring that a general guilty verdict on a single-count indictment or information be set aside where it rests on both a constitutional and an unconstitutional ground—applicable here. There is no suggestion that any of the aggravating circumstances involved any conduct protected by the Constitution. Pp. 880-884.

3. Respondent's death sentence was not impaired on the asserted ground that the jury instruction with regard to the invalid statutory aggravating circumstance may have unduly affected the jury's deliberations. Although the aggravating circumstance was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court because it failed to provide an adequate basis for distinguishing a murder case in which the death penalty may be imposed from those cases in which such a penalty may not be imposed, the underlying evidence as to respondent's history of serious assaultive criminal convictions was fully admissible under Georgia law at the sentencing phase of the trial. Pp. 884-891.

631 F.2d 397 (5th Cir.1980) and 648 F.2d 446 (5th Cir.1981), reversed.

Daryl A. Robinson, Atlanta, Ga., for petitioner.

John Charles Boger, New York City, for respondent.

Page 864

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether respondent's death penalty must be vacated because one of the three statutory aggravating circumstances found by the jury was subsequently held to be invalid by the Supreme Court of Georgia, although the other two aggravating circumstances were specifically upheld. The answer depends on the function of the jury's finding of an aggravating circumstance under Georgia's capital sentencing statute, and on the reasons that the aggravating circumstance at issue in this particular case was found to be invalid.

In January 1975 a jury in Bleckley County, Georgia, convicted respondent of the murder of Roy Asbell and sentenced him to death. The evidence received at the guilt phase of his trial, which included his confessions and the testimony of a number of witnesses, described these events: On August 19, 1974, while respondent was serving sentences for several burglary convictions and was also awaiting trial for escape, he again escaped from the Houston County jail. In the next two days he committed three auto thefts, an armed robbery, and several burglaries. On August 21st, Roy Asbell interrupted respondent and an accomplice in the course of burglarizing the home of Asbell's son in Twiggs County. Re-

Page 865

spondent beat Asbell, robbed him, and, with the aid of the accomplice, drove him in his own vehicle a short distance into Bleckley County. There they killed Asbell by shooting him twice through the ear at point blank range.

At the sentencing phase of the trial the State relied on the evidence adduced at the guilt phase and also established that respondent's prior criminal record included convictions on two counts of armed robbery, five counts of burglary, and one count of murder. Respondent testified that he was "sorry" and knew he deserved to be punished, that his accomplice actually shot Asbell, and that they had both been "pretty high" on drugs. The State requested the jury to impose the death penalty and argued that the evidence established the aggravating circumstances identified in subparagraphs (b)(1), (b)(7), and (b)(9) of the Georgia capital sentencing statute.1

The trial judge instructed the jury that under the law of Georgia "every person found guilty of Murder shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life, the sentence to be fixed by the jury trying the case." He explained that the jury was authorized to consider all of the evidence

Page 866

received during the trial as well as all facts and circumstances presented in extenuation, mitigation, or aggravation during the sentencing proceeding. He then stated:

"You may consider any of the following statutory aggravating circumstances which you find are supported by the evidence. One, the offense of Murder was committed by a person with a prior record of conviction for a Capital felony, or the offense of Murder was committed by a person who has a substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions. Two, the offense of Murder was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind or an aggravated battery to the victim. Three, the offense of Murder was committed by a person who has escaped from the lawful custody of a peace officer or place of lawful confinement. These possible statutory circumstances are stated in writing and will be out with you during your deliberations on the sentencing phase of this case. They are in writing here, and I shall send this out with you. If the jury verdict on sentencing fixes punishment at death by electrocution you shall designate in writing, signed by the foreman, the aggravating circumstances or circumstance which you found to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Unless one or more of these statutory aggravating circumstances are proved beyond a reasonable doubt you will not be authorized to fix punishment at death." 2

The jury followed the Court's instruction and imposed the death penalty. It designated in writing that it had found the aggravating circumstances described as "One" and "Three" in the judge's instruction.3 It made no such finding with re-

Page 867

spect to "Two".4 It should be noted that the jury's finding under "One" encompassed both alternatives identified in the judge's instructions and in subsection (b)(1) of the statute—that respondent had a prior conviction of a capital felony and that he had a substantial history of serious assaultive convictions. These two alternatives and the finding that the murder was committed by an escapee are...

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1822 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Angiulo, Nos. 86-1331
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • November 7, 1989
    ...have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground.' " United States v. Ochs, 842 F.2d 515, 520 (1st Cir.1988) (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 881, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 2745, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983)). Courts have applied this general rule in the RICO context to vacate RICO convictions whe......
  • Williams v. Bagley, No. 02-3461.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 13, 2004
    ...the competing considerations. See Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S. 164, 172-73, 108 S.Ct. 2320, 101 L.Ed.2d 155 (1988); Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 875, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983). The Court has held that "it is constitutionally required that the sentencing authority have inform......
  • U.S. v. Friend, No. Crim.A. 3:99CR201-01.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • April 19, 2000
    ...in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case." Id. at 305, 96 S.Ct. at 2991.7 In Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983), the Court further explicated the role of aggravating factors in death penalty Our cases indicate, then,......
  • U.S. v. Dedman, No. 06-6124.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • May 29, 2008
    ...is insufficient, because the verdict may have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground." Id. at 249 (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 881, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983)). The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. In 1991, citing the same cases that Naserkhaki called its "ab......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1822 cases
  • U.S. v. Angiulo, Nos. 86-1331
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • November 7, 1989
    ...have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground.' " United States v. Ochs, 842 F.2d 515, 520 (1st Cir.1988) (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 881, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 2745, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983)). Courts have applied this general rule in the RICO context to vacate RICO convictions whe......
  • Williams v. Bagley, No. 02-3461.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 13, 2004
    ...the competing considerations. See Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S. 164, 172-73, 108 S.Ct. 2320, 101 L.Ed.2d 155 (1988); Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 875, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983). The Court has held that "it is constitutionally required that the sentencing authority have inform......
  • U.S. v. Friend, No. Crim.A. 3:99CR201-01.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • April 19, 2000
    ...in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case." Id. at 305, 96 S.Ct. at 2991.7 In Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983), the Court further explicated the role of aggravating factors in death penalty Our cases indicate, then,......
  • U.S. v. Dedman, No. 06-6124.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • May 29, 2008
    ...is insufficient, because the verdict may have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground." Id. at 249 (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 881, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983)). The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. In 1991, citing the same cases that Naserkhaki called its "ab......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19 (2002)Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976)Yates v. Aiken, 484 U.S. 211 (1988)Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983)340 International Criminal Justice Review Appendix BTable B1. Bivariate Correlations Between All Variables.Variable 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 1......
  • CRIMINAL LAW: CAPITAL FELONY MERGER.
    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 111 Nbr. 3, June 2021
    • June 22, 2021
    ...(2004) (discussing the Court's death-is-different jurisprudence). (73) Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 652-53 (1990); Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 870 (1983); Gregg v.Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 195, (74) The Court has long held that "death is different." See, e.g., Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S.......
  • Finality, Comity, and Retroactivity in Criminal Procedure: Reimagining the Teague Doctrine After Edwards v. Vannoy.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 73 Nbr. 6, June 2021
    • June 1, 2021
    ...circumstances against mitigating circumstances, sentenced McKinney to death for both murders. Id. at 706; see also Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 876-77 (1983) (holding that a state's capital-sentencing regime may impose the death penalty only if at least one aggravating circumstance is fo......

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