Brief Fact Summary.
While serving several life sentences for numerous first-degree murders, Defendant killed another inmate. Defendant pleaded guilty at trial and the judge sentenced Defendant to death due to the alarmingly violent nature of the murder. The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed. Defendant filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
In order to be considered constitutional, an aggravating factor within a capital sentencing scheme must properly limit the sentencer’s discretion and provide clear and objective standards.
Thomas Creech (Defendant), an inmate already serving life sentences for numerous first-degree murders, killed fellow inmate David Jensen at the Idaho State Penitentiary. Defendant gave conflicting accounts of the events, but the court found that Jensen approached Defendant with a battery-filled sock, which Defendant took and with which Defendant struck Jensen in the head. After the struggle continued, Defendant repeatedly kicked Jensen in the throat and head, even though Jensen was already helpless and badly injured. Jensen later died. Defendant pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The trial judge held a sentencing hearing and found that Defendant was initially justified in protecting himself from Jensen’s attack, but Defendant was completely in control after the attack began, and the murder itself was alarmingly violent, indicating severe rage. The judge found five aggravating circumstances present, including that Defendant exhibited “utter disregard for human life,” and concluded that any mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating factors. Defendant was sentenced to death. The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed, expressing that the limiting construction it had placed on the “utter disregard for human life” language in State v. Osborn, 631 P.2d 187 (1981), was adequate and concluding that the phrase is meant to refer to circumstances that exhibit “the highest, the utmost callous disregard for human life, i.e., the cold-blooded, pitiless slayer.” Defendant filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with Defendant that the “utter disregard” language was unconstitutionally vague.
Whether an aggravating factor within a capital sentencing scheme must properly limit the sentencer’s discretion and provide clear and objective standards in order to be considered constitutional.
Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is reversed in part and the case is remanded. In order to be considered constitutional, an aggravating factor within a capital sentencing scheme must properly limit the sentencer’s discretion and provide clear and objective standards.
The judgment of the court of appeals should be affirmed. In order for the statute to be deemed constitutional, the state must offer a construction that can reasonably be expected to be applied uniformly and coherently, providing real direction to the sentencer. The term “cold-blooded” does not do this. The construction does not narrow the category of potential capital defendants, because in ordinary usage, “cold-blooded” is not restricted to defendants who murder without feeling or sympathy. Rather, it seems that any murderer would fit within this construction.
To comply with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, a capital sentencing scheme must sufficiently limit the sentencer’s discretion, so as to reduce the risk of arbitrary and inconsistent outcomes. The sentence must be guided by clear, objective, and detailed standards. In addition, a sentencing scheme must work to narrow the category of defendants eligible for the death penalty. In order to decide whether a particular aggravating circumstance meets these standards, the court must first determine whether the text of the statute defining the circumstance is itself too vague to provide any direction. If so, the court must consider whether the state courts have more specifically described the vague terms and, if they have, whether those definitions are constitutionally adequate. Here, it is unnecessary to decide whether the phrase “utter disregard for human life” is constitutional itself, because the Idaho Supreme Court has implemented a limiting construction. Based on the common dictionary definitions and ordinary usage, the words “cold-blooded, pitiless slayer” refer to a person who kills without feeling or sympathy. This phrase does not require subjective analysis. The terms actually describe the defendant’s attitude in connection with his actions and his victim. This fact is not a subjective consideration, but one that must be deduced from all surrounding circumstances. The Osborn limiting construction defines such a state of mind. In addition, the construction fulfills the narrowing requirement. A sentencing judge reasonably could conclude that not all capital defendants are cold-blooded, because some first-degree murderers do display feeling, including anger, jealousy, or revenge. Therefore, the “utter disregard” language as defined in Osborn, is constitutional on its face.