487 U. S. 164
June 22, 1988
In Texas, a defendant is sentenced to death if the jury answers ‘yes’ to two questions focused on the defendant’s substantial guilt, and his future danger to the community. The Supreme Court upheld this sentencing process in a case called Jurek. Nonetheless, one convict challenged his sentence by claiming that the jury did not have adequate opportunity under the two questions to consider his good behavior in prison, and any lingering doubts about his guilt. Under the Lockett-Eddings line of cases, juries had to be given the chance to weight any mitigating evidence.
The Court ruled 6-3 that the jury had an adequate opportunity to consider all the mitigating evidence. White, joined by Rehnquist, Scalia, and Kennedy, said that there is no Eighth Amendment right to have the jury consider lingering residual doubt over the defendant’s guilt (indeed, all nine Justices agreed with this proposition). Turning to the prison behavior issue, White said that this would naturally be considered under the jury question about the defendant’s future danger to the community. Since the Court had found the Texas system Constitutional in Jurek, White was loath to entertain doubts about it now. And indeed, it was quite appropriate for states to have preexisting systems in place to channel and foster proper consideration of mitigating evidence.
O’Connor, joined by Blackmun, said that the Jurek framework would sometimes be insufficient for certain mitigating factors. Nonetheless, she agreed that good prison behavior did go directly to the question of the defendant’s future danger. Thus, in the facts of this particular case, the jury questions allowed for the consideration of all relevant mitigating evidence.
Stevens, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He contended that the prison behavior issue communicated two different things about the defendant. First, it communicated that he would not be a danger in the future. But it also communicated that he was a decent person in the past. A precedent called Skipper had recognized this subtle distinction. The Jurek system did not allow for proper consideration of mitigating evidence relevant to a defendant’s good behavior in the past. Stevens stressed that the Jurek case only upheld the system against a facial challenge, and that in the facts of this case, the jury was indeed denied the opportunity to weigh all of the facets of the prison behavior evidence.
With prosecutors having to deal with junk appeals like this, it’s a wonder that anyone gets executed at all. The most appalling part of the decision was a footnote where we learn that defendant Franklin had been sentenced to death three separate times for the same murder. The first two sentences, we can safely assume, were overturned on the basis of some similarly trivial BS.