McKoy v. North Carolina/Opinion of the Court

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In this case we address the constitutionality of the unanimity requirement in North Carolina's capital sentencing scheme. That requirement prevents the jury from considering, in deciding whether to impose the death penalty, any mitigating factor that the jury does not unanimously find. We hold that under our decision in Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367, 108 S.Ct. 1860, 100 L.Ed.2d 384 (1988), North Carolina's unanimity requirement violates the Constitution by preventing the sentencer from considering all mitigating evidence. We therefore vacate petitioner's death sentence and remand for resentencing.

* Petitioner Dock McKoy, Jr., was convicted in Stanly County, North Carolina, of first-degree murder. During the sentencing phase of McKoy's trial, the trial court instructed the jury, both orally and in a written verdict form, to answer four questions in determining its sentence. Issue One asked: "Do you unanimously find from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, the existence of one or more of the following aggravating circumstances?" App. 6, 23. The jury found two statutory aggravating circumstances: that McKoy "had been previously convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person" [1] and that the murder was committed against a deputy sheriff who was "engaged in the performance of his official duties." [2] The jury therefore answered "Yes" to Issue One and was instructed to proceed to the next Issue.

Issue Two asked: "Do you unanimously find from the evidence the existence of one or more of the following mitigating circumstances?" Id., at 8, 24. The judge submitted to the jury eight possible mitigating circumstances. With respect to each circumstance, the judge orally instructed the jury as follows: "If you do not unanimously find this mitigating circumstance by a preponderance of the evidence, so indicate by having your foreman write, 'No,' in that space" on the verdict form. Id., at 10-13. The verdict form reiterated the unanimity requirement: "In the space after each mitigating circumstance, write 'Yes,' if you unanimously find that mitigating circumstance by a preponderance of the evidence. Write, 'No,' if you do not unanimously find that mitigating circumstance by a preponderance of the evidence." Id., at 24.

The jury unanimously found the statutory mitigating circumstance that McKoy's capacity "to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was impaired." [3] It also unanimously found the nonstatutory mitigating circumstance that McKoy had a "borderline intellectual functioning with a IQ test score of 74." Id., at 25. The jury did not, however, unanimously find the statutory mitigating circumstances that McKoy committed the crime while "under the influence of mental or emotional disturbance" [4] or that McKoy's age at the time of the crime, 65, was a mitigating factor. [5] The jury also failed to find unanimously four nonstatutory mitigating circumstances: that for several decades McKoy exhibited signs of mental or emotional disturbance or defect that went untreated; that McKoy's mental and emotional disturbance was aggravated by his poor physical health; that McKoy's ability to remember the events of the day of the murder was actually impaired; and that there was any other circumstance arising from the evidence that had mitigating value. [6]

Because the jury found the existence of mitigating circumstances, it was instructed to answer Issue Three, which asked: "Do you unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt that the mitigating circumstance or circumstances found by you is, or are, insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstance or circumstances found by you?" Id., at 13, 26 (emphasis added). The jury answered this issue "Yes," and so proceeded to the final issue. Issue Four asked: "Do you unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance or circumstances found by you is, or are, sufficiently substantial to call for the imposition of the death penalty when considered with the mitigating circumstance or circumstances found by you?" Id., at 14, 26 (emphasis added). The jury again responded "Yes." Pursuant to the verdict form and the court's instructions, the jury therefore made a binding recommendation of death.

During the pendency of petitioner's direct appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, this Court decided Mills v. Maryland, supra. There, we reversed a death sentence imposed under Maryland's capital punishment scheme because the jury instructions and verdict form created "a substantial probability that reasonable jurors . . . well may have thought they were precluded from considering any mitigating evidence unless all 12 jurors agreed on the existence of a particular such circumstance." Id., at 384, 108 S.Ct., at 1870. We reasoned that allowing a "holdout" juror to prevent the other jurors from considering mitigating evidence violated the principle established in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 98 S.Ct. 2954, 57 L.Ed.2d 973 (1978), that a sentencer may not be precluded from giving effect to all mitigating evidence. 486 U.S., at 375, 108 S.Ct., at 1865.

Petitioner challenged his sentence on the basis of Mills. The North Carolina Supreme Court, in a split decision, purported to distinguish Mills on two grounds and therefore denied relief. First, it noted that "Maryland's procedure required the jury to impose the death penalty if it 'found' at least one aggravating circumstance and did not 'find' any mitigating circumstances" or "if it unanimously found that the mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances." 323 N.C. 1, 40, 372 S.E.2d 12, 33 (1988). In contrast, the court stated, Issue Four in North Carolina's scheme allows the jury to recommend life imprisonment "if it feels that the aggravating circumstances are not sufficiently substantial to call for the death penalty, even if it has found several aggravating circumstances and no mitigating circumstances." Ibid.

Second, the court asserted that whereas in Maryland's scheme evidence remained "legally relevant" as long as one or more jurors found the presence of a mitigating circumstance supported by that evidence, id., at 41, 372 S.E.2d, at 34, "in North Carolina evidence in effect becomes legally irrelevant to prove mitigation if the defendant fails to prove to the satisfaction of all the jurors that such evidence supports the finding of a mitigating factor," id., at 40, 372 S.E.2d, at 33. The North Carolina Supreme Court believed that we had found the "relevance" of the evidence in Mills a significant factor because we had stated in a footnote that " '[n]o one has argued here, nor did the Maryland Court of Appeals suggest, that mitigating evidence can be rendered legally "irrelevant" by one holdout vote.' " Id., at 41, 372 S.E.2d, at 34 (quoting Mills, 486 U.S., at 375, n. 7, 108 S.Ct., at 1865, n. 7). The court thus interpreted Mills as allowing States to define as "irrelevant" and to exclude from jurors' consideration any evidence introduced to support a mitigating circumstance that the jury did not unanimously find. Accordingly, the State Supreme Court upheld McKoy's death sentence.

Despite the state court's inventive attempts to distinguish Mills, our decision there clearly governs this case. First, North Carolina's Issue Four does not ameliorate the constitutional infirmity created by the unanimity requirement. Issue Four, like Issue Three, allows the jury to consider only mitigating factors that it unanimously finds under Issue Two. Although the jury may opt for life imprisonment even where it fails unanimously to find any mitigating circumstances, the fact remains that the jury is required to make its decision based only on those circumstances it unanimously finds. The unanimity requirement thus allows one holdout juror to prevent the others from giving effect to evidence that they believe calls for a " 'sentence less than death.' " Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110, 102 S.Ct. 869, 874, 71 L.Ed.2d 1 (1982), quoting Lockett, supra, at 604, 98 S.Ct., at 2964 (plurality opinion). Moreover, even if all 12 jurors agree that there are some mitigating circumstances, North Carolina's scheme prevents them from giving effect to evidence supporting any of those circumstances in their deliberations under Issues Three and Four unless they unanimously find the existence of the same circumstance. This is the precise defect that compelled us to strike down the Maryland scheme in Mills. See 486 U.S., at 374, 108 S.Ct., at 1865. Our decision in Mills was not limited to cases in which the jury is required to impose the death penalty if it finds that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances or that no mitigating circumstances exist at all. Rather, we held that it would be the "height of arbitrariness to allow or require the imposition of the death penalty" where 1 juror was able to prevent the other 11 from giving effect to mitigating evidence. Ibid. (emphasis added).

Second, the State Supreme Court's holding that mitigating evidence is "relevant" only if the jury unanimously finds that it proves the existence of a mitigating circumstance distorts the concept of relevance. "[I]t is universally recognized that evidence, to be relevant to an inquiry, need not conclusively prove the ultimate fact in issue, but only have 'any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.' " New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 345, 105 S.Ct. 733, 744, 83 L.Ed.2d 720 (1985), quoting Fed.Rule Evid. 401. The meaning of relevance is no different in the context of mitigating evidence introduced in a capital sentencing proceeding. As the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court stated in dissent in this case:

"Relevant mitigating evidence is evidence which tends logically to prove or disprove some fact or circumstance which a fact-finder could reasonably deem to have mitigating value. Whether the fact-finder accepts or rejects the evidence has no bearing on the evidence's relevancy. The relevance exists even if the fact-finder fails to be persuaded by that evidence. It is not necessary that the item of evidence alone convinces the trier of fact or be sufficient to convince the trier of fact of the truth of the proposition for which it is offered." 323 N.C., at 55-56, 372 S.E.2d, at 45 (Exum, C. J., dissenting), citing M. Graham, Handbook of Federal Evidence § 401.1, n. 12 (2d ed. 1986).

Clearly, then, the mitigating circumstances not unanimously found to be present by the jury did not become "irrelevant" to mitigation merely because one or more jurors either did not believe that the circumstance had been proved as a factual matter or did not think that the circumstance, though proved, mitigated the offense. [7]

Furthermore, our holdings in Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1, 106 S.Ct. 1669, 90 L.Ed.2d 1 (1986), and Eddings v. Oklahoma, supra, show that the mere declaration that evidence is "legally irrelevant" to mitigation cannot bar the consideration of that evidence if the sentencer could reasonably find that it warrants a sentence less than death. In Skipper, the trial court had excluded as irrelevant to mitigation evidence that the defendant had adjusted well to prison life. This Court reversed the death sentence on the ground that such evidence was "by its nature relevant to the sentencing determination" because it might convince the jury that the defendant "would pose no undue danger to his jailers or fellow prisoners and could lead a useful life behind bars if sentenced to life imprisonment." 476 U.S., at 7, 106 S.Ct., at 1672. Similarly, in Eddings, the sentencing court had ruled that it was precluded by law from considering evidence of the defendant's troubled childhood and emotional disturbance. The State Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that such evidence was irrelevant to mitigation because it did not support a legal excuse from criminal liability. This Court reversed on the ground that such evidence was undoubtedly relevant to mitigation even if it did not excuse the defendant's conduct. 455 U.S., at 113-116, 102 S.Ct., at 876-77.

Nor can the State save the unanimity requirement by characterizing it as a standard of proof intended to ensure the reliability of mitigating evidence. The State's reliance on Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 97 S.Ct. 2319, 53 L.Ed.2d 281 (1977), is misplaced. In that case, this Court rejected a due process challenge to a New York law requiring a defendant charged with second-degree murder to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance in order to reduce the crime to manslaughter. The Court reasoned that a State is not constitutionally required to provide that affirmative defense. But if a State "nevertheless chooses to recognize a factor that mitigates the degree of criminality or punishment, . . . the State may assure itself that the fact has been established with reasonable certainty." Id., at 209, 97 S.Ct., at 2326. Patterson, however, did not involve the validity of a capital sentencing procedure under the Eighth Amendment. The Constitution requires States to allow consideration of mitigating evidence in capital cases. Any barrier to such consideration must therefore fall. As we stated in Mills:

"Under our decisions, it is not relevant whether the barrier to the sentencer's consideration of all mitigating evidence is interposed by statute, Lockett v. Ohio, supra; Hitchcock v. Dugger, 481 U.S. 393, 107 S.Ct. 1821, 95 L.Ed.2d 347 (1987); by the sentencing court, Eddings v. Oklahoma, supra; or by an evidentiary ruling, Skipper v. South Carolina, supra. The same must be true with respect to a single juror's holdout vote against finding the presence of a mitigating circumstance. Whatever the cause, . . . the conclusion would necessarily be the same: 'Because the [sentencer's] failure to consider all of the mitigating evidence risks erroneous imposition of the death sentence, in plain violation of Lockett, it is our duty to remand this case for resentencing.' Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S., at 117, n. *, 102 S.Ct., at 878, n. * (O'CONNOR, J., concurring)." 486 U.S., at 375, 108 S.Ct., at 1865-1866.

It is no answer, of course, that the jury is permitted to "consider" mitigating evidence when it decides collectively, under Issue Two, whether any mitigating circumstances exist. Rather, Mills requires that each juror be permitted to consider and give effect to mitigating evidence when deciding the ultimate question whether to vote for a sentence of death. This requirement means that, in North Carolina's system, each juror must be allowed to consider all mitigating evidence in deciding Issues Three and Four: whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances, and whether the aggravating circumstances, when considered with any mitigating circumstances, are sufficiently substantial to justify a sentence of death. Under Mills, such consideration of mitigating evidence may not be foreclosed by one or more jurors' failure to find a mitigating circumstance under Issue Two.

Finally, we reject the State's contention that requiring unanimity on mitigating circumstances is constitutional because the State also requires unanimity on aggravating circumstances. The Maryland scheme in Mills also required unanimity on both mitigating and aggravating circumstances. See id., at 384-389, 108 S.Ct., at 1870-72. Such consistent treatment did not, however, save the unanimity requirement for mitigating circumstances in that case. A State may not limit a sentencer's consideration of mitigating evidence merely because it places the same limitation on consideration of aggravating circumstances. As the Court stated in Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 109 S.Ct. 2934, 106 L.Ed.2d 256 (1989):

" 'In contrast to the carefully defined standards that must narrow a sentencer's discretion to impose the death sentence, the Constitution limits a State's ability to narrow a sentencer's discretion to consider relevant evidence that might cause it to decline to impose the death sentence.' McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 304, 107 S.Ct. 1756, 1773, 95 L.Ed.2d 262 (1987) (emphasis in original). Indeed, it is precisely because the punishment should be directly related to the personal culpability of the defendant that the jury must be allowed to consider and give effect to mitigating evidence relevant to a defendant's character or record or the circumstances of the offense." Id., at 327-328, 109 S.Ct., at 2951. III

We conclude that North Carolina's unanimity requirement impermissibly limits jurors' consideration of mitigating evidence and hence is contrary to our decision in Mills. [8] We therefore vacate the petitioner's death sentence and remand this case to the North Carolina Supreme Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


^1  N.C.Gen.Stat. § 15A-2000(e)(3) (1988).

^2  § 15A-2000(e)(8).

^3  § 15A-2000(f)(6).

^4  § 15A-2000(f)(2).

^5  § 15A-2000(f)(7).

^6  § 15A-2000(f)(9). Although this "catch-all" provision is provided by statute, it is grouped with the nonstatutory circumstances because it allows for the consideration of mitigating factors not statutorily specified.

^7  In North Carolina's capital sentencing scheme, if the jury finds a statutory mitigating circumstance to be present, that circumstance is deemed to have mitigating value as a matter of law. State v. Stokes, 308 N.C. 634, 653, 304 S.E.2d 184, 196 (1983). For nonstatutory mitigating circumstances, the jury must decide both whether the circumstance has been proved and whether it has mitigating value. See State v. Pinch, 306 N.C. 1, 26, 292 S.E.2d 203, 223, cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1056, 103 S.Ct. 474, 74 L.Ed.2d 622 (1982), citing State v. Johnson, 298 N.C. 47, 72-74, 257 S.E.2d 597, 616-617 (1979).

^8  In fact, this case presents an even clearer case for reversal than Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367, 108 S.Ct. 1860, 100 L.Ed.2d 384 (1988). In Mills, the Court divided over the issue whether a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instructions in that case as allowing individual jurors to consider only mitigating circumstances that the jury unanimously found. Compare id., at 375-384, 108 S.Ct., at 1866-70, with id., at 391-395, 108 S.Ct., at 1873-75. (REHNQUIST, C.J., dissenting). Indeed, the dissent in Mills did not challenge the Court's holding that the instructions, if so interpreted, were unconstitutional. In this case, by contrast, the instructions and verdict form expressly limited the jury's consideration to mitigating circumstances unanimously found.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).