Truesdale v. Aiken

480 U. S. 527

March 23, 1987

In a 1986 case known as Skipper, the Court held that evidence of a convict’s predicted future conduct must be admitted in the mitigating evidence phase of sentencing for a capital crime. Skipper built off previous cases which had required states to allow mitigating evidence to be presented. Direct review of Truesdale’s case ended after those prior precedents, but before Skipper. Under Griffith, new rules could be applied retroactively to cases on direct review.

In a 6-3 per curiam ruling, the Court held that Skipper was not a new rule, but a simple application of prior precedents. On the basis of Skipper and those prior precedents, Truesdale’s death sentence was accordingly vacated. Powell, joined by Rehnquist and O’Connor, dissented from the summary judgment. Powell felt that Skipper represented a new rule, and did not naturally follow from the prior precedent. Since direct review of the Truesdale case had ended, Powell thought the Court should hear arguments to determine whether new rules established during collateral review should be applied retroactively.

One might wonder why Marshall did not dissent as he usually does in summary judgments. My guess is that his abhorrence of the death penalty trumped his distaste for summary judgment in this case. In any event, Truesdale is a good illustration of the fact that bright line rules are never quite as bright line as you hope. The Court may have thought that Griffith definitively answered some tough questions about retroactive rule application, but only a few months later confusion reigned once again.

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