BECK V. ALABAMA, 447 U. S. 625 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980)

Beck v. Alabama

No. 78-6621

Argued February 20, 1980

Decided June 20, 1980

447 U.S. 625


Under Alabama law, felony murder is a lesser included offense of the capital crime of robbery-intentional killing. Under the Alabama death penalty statute, the trial judge is prohibited from giving the jury the option of convicting the defendant of the lesser included offense; instead, the jury must either convict the defendant of the capital crime, in which case it must impose the death penalty, or acquit him. If the defendant is convicted, the trial judge must hold a hearing to consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and may then refuse to impose the death sentence and instead sentence the defendant to life imprisonment. Petitioner was convicted of robbery-intentional killing, and the jury accordingly imposed the death sentence, which the Alabama trial court refused to overturn. At petitioner's trial, his own testimony established his participation in the robbery, but he denied killing, or any intent to kill, the victim. Because of the statutory prohibition, the trial court did not instruct the jury as to the lesser included offense of felony murder. The Alabama appellate courts upheld the conviction and death sentence, rejecting petitioner's constitutional attack on the statutory prohibition on lesser included offense instructions.

Held: The death sentence may not constitutionally be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense where the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included offense. Pp. 447 U. S. 633-646.

(a) Providing the jury with the "third option" of convicting on a lesser included offense ensures that the jury will accord the defendant the full benefit of the reasonable doubt standard. This procedural safeguard is especially important in cases such as this one. For when the evidence establishes that the defendant is guilty of a serious, violent offense but leaves some doubt as to an element justifying conviction of a capital offense, the failure to give the jury such a "third option" inevitably enhances the risk of an unwarranted conviction. Such a risk cannot be tolerated in a case in which the defendant's life is at stake. Pp. 447 U. S. 633-638.

(b) Alabama's argument that, in the context of an apparently mandatory death penalty statute, the preclusion of lesser included offense instructions heightens, rather than diminishes, the reliability of the guilt determination, must be rejected. The unavailability of lesser included

Page 447 U. S. 626

offense instructions and the apparently mandatory nature of the death penalty both interject irrelevant considerations into the factfinding process, diverting the jury's attention from the central issue of whether the State has satisfied its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a capital crime. Thus, on the one hand, the unavailability of the "third option" may encourage the jury to convict for an impermissible reason -- its belief that the defendant is guilty of some serious crime and should be punished. On the other hand, the apparently mandatory nature of the death penalty may encourage the jury to acquit for an equally impermissible reason -- that, whatever his crime, the defendant does not deserve death. While, in any particular case, these two extraneous factors may favor the defendant or the prosecution or may cancel each other out, in every case, they introduce a level of uncertainty and unreliability into the factfinding process that cannot be tolerated in a capital case. Pp. 447 U. S. 638-643.

(c) The jury's "option" of refusing to return any verdict at all, thus causing a mistrial, is not an adequate substitute for proper instructions on lesser included offenses. Nor does the fact that the trial judge has the ultimate sentencing power compensate for the risk that the jury may return an improper verdict because of the unavailability of the "third option." If the jury finds the defendant guilty only of a lesser included offense, the judge would not have the opportunity to impose the death sentence. Moreover, the jury's verdict must have a tendency to motivate the judge to impose the same sentence that the jury did. Under these circumstances, it cannot be presumed that a post-trial hearing will always correct whatever mistakes occurred in the performance of the jury's factfinding function. Pp. 447 U. S. 643-646.

365 So.2d 1006, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 447 U. S. 646. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 447 U. S. 646. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 447 U. S. 646.

Page 447 U. S. 627

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