Lowenfield v. Phelps

484 U. S. 231

January 13, 1988

So, this bad guy murders five people all in one go. Then, at sentencing, the jury seems to be at an impasse. Twice the judge polls the jury on whether more deliberation will help, and both times a majority of jurors say it will. The judge asks them to reach a conclusion if they can, and reminds them that the murderer will get life imprisonment if the jury cannot agree. Finally, the jury comes back with the death sentence. The aggravating circumstance that merited death was the five-fold nature of the murder – precisely what allowed the crime to be charged as first degree murder at all.

Rehnquist wrote for the Court that the death sentence was sound. The Court held 5-3 that the jury had not been coerced by the judge’s actions, and held 6-2 that the aggravating circumstance used was appropriate. Rehnquist noted that the judge never pressured the jurors to choose one sentence over another, just to come to a decision. He distinguished the case factually from other jury coercion rulings. What’s more, the defense counsel did not even object to the judge’s actions during the trial, so obviously any illicit coercion must have been extremely subtle. With regard to the aggravating circumstance being one of the factors that allowed for a first degree murder charge to be brought, Rehnquist noted that this was perfectly consistent with the 1976 death penalty cases. The point of the aggravating circumstance was only that it narrowed the field of death penalty candidates.

Marshall wrote the dissent, which Brennan joined in full, and Stevens joined on the coercion issue. He argued that a jury would only come to a verdict after 22 hours of deliberations if a judge was exerting pressure. He further noted that the judge’s repeated statement about life imprisonment must have functioned as tacit coercion to return with a death sentence. Finally, Marshall found it significant that the judge was informed which jury members were the most intransigent. On the issue of aggravating circumstances, Marshall blankly asserted that letting an element of the crime also function as a aggravating circumstance was unfair. It’s cases like this that give me an ever so slight appreciation for Justice Blackmun. As much as he hated the death penalty, he was sometimes willing to let sentences stand when the only argument against them were idiotic minutia.

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