ZANT V. STEPHENS, 462 U. S. 862 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983)

Zant v. Stephens

No. 81-89

Argued February 24, 1982

Question certified May 3, 1982

Decided June 22, 1983

462 U.S. 862


In a bifurcated trial in a Georgia state court, a jury found respondent guilty of murder and imposed the death penalty. At the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that it was authorized to consider all of the evidence received during the guilt phase of the trial as well as all facts and circumstances presented in mitigation or aggravation during the sentencing proceeding, and that it must find and designate in writing the existence of one or more specified statutory aggravating circumstances in order to impose the death penalty. The jury stated in writing that it found the statutory aggravating circumstances that respondent had a prior conviction of a capital felony, that he had "a substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions," and that the murder was committed by an escapee. While respondent's appeal was pending, the Georgia Supreme Court held in another case that one of the aggravating circumstances -- "substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions" -- was unconstitutionally vague. In respondent's case, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the two other aggravating circumstances adequately supported the sentence. After the Federal District Court denied respondent's petition for habeas corpus, the Court of Appeals held that respondent's death penalty was invalid. In response to this Court's certified question, Zant v. Stephens, 456 U. S. 410, the Georgia Supreme Court explained the state law premises for its view that the failure of one aggravating circumstance does not invalidate a death sentence that is otherwise adequately supported by other aggravating circumstances. Under Georgia law, the finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance serves a limited purpose -- it identifies those members of the class of persons convicted of murder who are eligible for the death penalty, without furnishing any further guidance to the jury in the exercise of its discretion in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed.


1. The limited function served by the jury's finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance does not render Georgia's statutory scheme invalid under the holding in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238. Under Georgia's scheme, the jury is required to find and identify in writing at least one valid statutory aggravating circumstance, an individualized

Page 462 U. S. 863

determination must be made on the basis of the defendant's character and the circumstances of the crime, and the State Supreme Court reviews the record of every death penalty proceeding to determine whether the sentence was arbitrary or disproportionate. The narrowing function of statutory aggravating circumstances was properly achieved in this case by the two valid aggravating circumstances upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, because these two findings adequately differentiate this case in an objective, evenhanded, and substantively rational way from the many Georgia murder cases in which the death penalty may not be imposed. Moreover, the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed respondent's death sentence to determine whether it was arbitrary, excessive, or disproportionate. Thus the Georgia capital sentencing statute is not invalid as applied here. Pp. 462 U. S. 873-880.

2. Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359, does not require that respondent's death sentence be vacated. Stromberg requires that a general guilty verdict be set aside if the jury was instructed that it could rely on any of two or more independent grounds, and one of those grounds is insufficient, because the verdict may have rested exclusively on the insufficient ground. In this case, however, the jury did not merely return a general verdict stating that it had found at least one aggravating circumstance, but instead expressly found two aggravating circumstances that were valid and legally sufficient to support the death penalty. Nor is a second rule derived from Stromberg -- requiring that a general guilty verdict on a single-count indictment or information be set aside where it rests on both a constitutional and an unconstitutional ground -- applicable here. There is no suggestion that any of the aggravating circumstances involved any conduct protected by the Constitution. Pp. 462 U. S. 880-884.

3. Respondent's death sentence was not impaired on the asserted ground that the jury instruction with regard to the invalid statutory aggravating circumstance may have unduly affected the jury's deliberations. Although the aggravating circumstance was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court because it failed to provide an adequate basis for distinguishing a murder case in which the death penalty may be imposed from those cases in which such a penalty may not be imposed, the underlying evidence as to respondent's history of serious assaultive criminal convictions was fully admissible under Georgia law at the sentencing phase of the trial. Pp. 462 U. S. 884-891.

631 F.2d 397 and 648 F.2d 446, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment,

Page 462 U. S. 864

post, p. 462 U. S. 891. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 462 U. S. 893. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 462 U. S. 904.

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