Johnson v. Mississippi

486 U. S. 578

June 13, 1988

When Samuel Johnson was sentenced to death, one of the aggravating circumstances was a prior felony conviction in New York. Some time later, New York vacated that conviction, and Johnson argued that the prior conviction aggravating circumstance was now destroyed. Mississippi disagreed for several reasons. Though it was now vacated, Johnson had indeed been convicted at one point in time, and allowing other states to throw death penalty sentences into question through overturned verdicts was bad public policy. Finally, Johnson had not challenged the New York conviction in his original round of Mississippi appeals.

The Court unanimously rejected all these arguments (though O’Connor concurred only in judgment, without opinion). Stevens said that New York’s action worked a total expunging  of the conviction. Thus, the death sentence was indeed based on an aggravating circumstance which was simply not factual. Further, allowing overturned verdicts in other states to affect death penalty impositions was good public policy, because it helped the system to become more accurate. Finally, because the Mississippi Supreme Court was not consistent in applying their rule against raising new legal concerns after the first round of appeals, Stevens was unimpressed by Mississippi’s contention that Johnson should have raised the issue in his original appeal.

I hardly need to tell you what Brennan said in a one paragraph concurrence joined by Marshall. But just in case you don’t know yet, he restated his continuing belief that the death penalty was always unconstitutional. White, joined by Rehnquist, concurred to point out that there were other aggravating circumstances against Johnson, and that the Mississippi Supreme Court could therefore decide, on remand, that his death penalty sentence ought to be summarily reimposed. I sure hope Mississippi did follow White’s recommendation, because this was yet another awful decision where a death sentence got overturned on dumb ticky-tacky grounds.

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