486 U. S. 367
June 6, 1988
Ralph Mills killed a fellow prison inmate, and was sentenced to death. The jury found no mitigating factors, and thus were not afforded the opportunity to decide whether life imprisonment would be a more appropriate sentence. Mills charged that the jury might not have known that they had to unanimously find no mitigating circumstances. If some (but not all) jurors thought there were mitigating circumstances, the death penalty should not have been automatically imposed. Lower courts ruled that reasonable jurors would understand that unanimity was required to reject the presence of mitigating circumstances.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed in a 5-4 vote. Blackmun stressed that the jury forms did not explicitly spell out that the jury needed to be unanimous to find no mitigating circumstances. It was very plausible, Blackmun contended, that a reasonable juror might be confused. Because of the irreversible nature of the death penalty, it was of added importance that the Court be reasonably certain of how the jury interpreted their instructions. The majority vacated the death sentence, arguing that the jury could plausibly have understood the their instructions incorrectly.
Brennan filed his obligatory concurrence to say that the death penalty was always unconstitutional. Shockingly, Marshall did not join it. I guess he was too distracted by soap operas that particular day. Equally baffling was White’s decision to file a two-sentence concurrence which in essence said ‘I joined the majority opinion because I think it is correct.’ (Is White implying that he sometimes joins majority opinions he thinks are wrong???)
Rehnquist, joined by O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, dissented. He analyzed the judge’s speech to the jurors, which stressed over and over the need for unanimity on every single question. Given this, a reasonable juror would not have misunderstood. Furthermore, Blackmun’s desire for reasonable certainty about the jury’s understanding was contrary to the previous year’s ruling in Brown. Finally, Rehnquist addressed a question that the majority set aside as moot: whether the death sentence was invalid because the trial involved a victim impact statement. Rehnquist here reiterated his belief that the Booth case about victim impact statements was incorrect and ought to be overruled.
I won’t belabor what I’ve said before in many other posts about the death penalty. This decision was absolutely horrible, and if you want to know more, you can start with the two decisions linked in the previous paragraph.