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SCOTUS: Jury in capital case doesn’t need instruction on proof of mitigating circumstances

Kansas v. Carr, USSC Nos. 14-449, 14-450, 14-452, 2016 WL 228342 (January 20, 2016); reversing and remanding Kansas v. (Jonathan) Carr, 329 P.3d 1195 (Kan. 2014), Kansas v. (Reginald) Carr, 331 P.3d 544 (Kan. 2014), and Kansas v. Gleason, 329 P.3d 1102 (Kan. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

The Eighth Amendment does not require courts to instruct the jury deciding whether to impose the death penalty that the defendant does not have to prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.

At capital sentencing hearings, prosecutors present evidence of aggravating circumstances, such as the heinous nature of the crime, that make it appropriate to impose the death penalty, while defendants can present evidence of mitigating factors in favor of sparing their lives. The juries in these cases were instructed that they should impose a death sentence if they found “unanimously beyond a reasonable doubt” that at least one of the aggravating factors had been satisfied and was “not outweighed by any mitigating factors found to exist.” The defendants argue this suggested they had to prove the existence of mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the jury should have been instructed that they didn’t have that burden.

The Court disagrees, saying there’s no such requirement under its precedent, see Buchanan v. Angelone, 522 U. S. 269 (1998), and Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U. S. 225 (2000). (Slip op. at 11). And, even apart from precedent:

…we doubt whether it is even possible to apply a standard of proof to the mitigating-factor determination …. It is possible to do so for the aggravating-factor determination … because that is a purely factual determination. The facts justifying death set forth in the Kansas statute either did or did not exist—and one can require the finding that they did exist to be made beyond a reasonable doubt. Whether mitigation exists, however, is largely a judgment call (or perhaps a value call); what one juror might consider mitigating another might not. And of course the ultimate question whether mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances is mostly a question of mercy—the quality of which, as we know, is not strained [sic]. It would mean nothing, we think, to tell the jury that the defendants must deserve mercy beyond a reasonable doubt; or must more-likely-than-not deserve it. …. (Slip op. at 10).

Nor were the instructions in these cases confusing, as the defendants contend, as the instructions as a whole made it clear the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt one or more aggravating factor, while any mitigating factors need not even be found by all members of the jury for the factor or factors to be considered by individual jurors in their sentencing decision. (Slip op. at 12-13).

The co-defendant Carr brothers also argue that their joint sentencing was improper because it violated their right to individualized sentencing determinations. In particular, Reginald argued that Jonathan’s mitigating evidence—which painted Reginald as a corrupting influence—”put a thumb on death’s scale” for him; which Jonathan argued that the jurors would be unable to consider him separately from his sociopathic brother. The Court found these arguments to be “beyond the pale.” (Slip op. at 15). The jurors were instructed to consider the two brothers separately, and in any event joint sentencing is “not only permissible but are often preferable” in cases (like this one) arising from a single course of conduct because that allows the jury to assign responsibility for the crimes more fairly. (Slip op. at 15, 16-17). Last and not least, in light of the “almost inconceivable cruelty and depravity” of the brothers’ crimes, it is “beyond reason to think that the jury’s death verdicts were caused by the identification of Reginald as the ‘corrupter’ or of Jonathan as the ‘corrupted.’” (Slip op. at 17).

Justice Sotomayor was the sole dissenter, on the ground the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in all of the cases was based on state law, not the Eighth Amendment, thereby depriving the Court of the power to review the decision at all–a contention the majority curtly rejected at the outset of its opinion (slip op. at 8-9).

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