BARCLAY V. FLORIDA, 463 U. S. 939 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939 (1983)

Barclay v. Florida

No. 81-6908

Argued March 30, 1983

Decided July 6, 1983

463 U.S. 939


Petitioner and other men, whose apparent purpose was to indiscriminately kill white persons and to start a racial war, killed a white hitchhiker in Florida. Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in a Florida state court, and as required by the Florida death penalty statute a separate sentencing hearing was held before the same jury, which rendered an advisory sentence recommending life imprisonment. However, the trial judge, after receiving a presentence report, sentenced petitioner to death. As required by the Florida statute, the judge made written findings of fact, including findings of the statutory aggravating circumstances that petitioner had knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons, had committed the murder while engaged in a kidnaping, had endeavored to disrupt governmental functions and law enforcement, and had been especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel. The judge also found that, in addition to the statutory aggravating circumstances, the petitioner's record constituted an aggravating circumstance, and ultimately concluded that there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to justify the death sentence. The judge did not find any mitigating circumstances, noting particularly that petitioner had an extensive criminal record, and thus did not qualify for the statutory mitigating circumstance of having no significant history of prior criminal activity. On automatic appeal, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed, approving the trial judge's findings and concluding that the trial judge properly rejected the jury's recommendation of life imprisonment. However, the Florida Supreme Court later vacated its judgment and remanded to the trial court to give petitioner a full opportunity to rebut the information in the presentence report. After a resentencing hearing, the trial court reaffirmed the death sentence on the basis of findings that were essentially identical to its original findings, and the Florida Supreme Court again affirmed.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

411 So.2d 1310, affirmed.


1. Although the State concedes that, under Florida law, the trial judge improperly found that petitioner's criminal record was an "aggravating circumstance" because that factor was not among those established as

Page 463 U. S. 940

"aggravating circumstances" by the Florida statute, there is no merit to petitioner's challenge concerning the findings on other aggravating circumstances. Pp. 463 U. S. 946-951.

(a) The findings as to the presence of the statutory aggravating circumstances were made by the trial court and approved by the Florida Supreme Court under Florida law, and thus this Court's review is limited to the question whether the findings were so unprincipled or arbitrary as to violate the Federal Constitution. It was not irrational or arbitrary to apply the statutory aggravating circumstances to the facts of this case. Pp. 463 U. S. 946-947.

(b) Nor must the sentence be vacated on the ground that the trial judge, in explaining his sentencing decision, discussed the racial motive for the murder and compared it with his own Army experiences in World War II, when he saw Nazi concentration camps and their victims. The Constitution does not require that the sentencing process be transformed into a rigid and mechanical parsing of statutory aggravating factors. It is entirely fitting for the moral, factual, and legal judgment of judges and juries to play a meaningful role in sentencing. Pp. 463 U. S. 948-951.

2. Although, under Florida law, the trial court improperly considered the petitioner's criminal record as an "aggravating circumstance," imposition of the death penalty on petitioner does not violate the Federal Constitution. Pp. 463 U. S. 951-958.

(a) The Florida statute requires the sentencer to find at least one valid statutory aggravating circumstance before the death penalty may even be considered, and permits the trial court to admit any evidence that may be relevant to the proper sentence. Florida law requires the sentencer to balance statutory aggravating circumstances against all mitigating circumstances, and does not permit nonstatutory aggravating circumstances to enter into the weighing process. However, when the trial court erroneously considers improper aggravating factors, the Florida Supreme Court applies a harmless error analysis if the trial court properly found that there were no mitigating circumstances. Pp. 463 U. S. 952-956.

(b) Nothing in the Federal Constitution prohibited the trial court from considering petitioner's criminal record. And under Florida law, the evidence was properly introduced to prove that the mitigating circumstance of absence of a criminal record did not exist. P. 463 U. S. 956.

(c) There is no constitutional defect in a death sentence based on both statutory and nonstatutory aggravating circumstances, and mere errors of state law are not the concern of this Court unless they rise to the level of a denial of constitutional rights. There is no reason why the Florida Supreme Court, in applying its harmless error analysis, cannot examine the balance struck by the trial judge and decide that the elimination of improperly considered aggravating circumstances could not

Page 463 U. S. 941

possibly affect the balance. What is important is an individualized determination on the basis of the character of the individual and the circumstances of the crime. Pp. 463 U. S. 956-958.

JUSTICE STEVENS, joined by JUSTICE POWELL, stressed the importance of procedural protections that are intended to insure that the death penalty will be imposed in a consistent, rational manner. He concluded that Florida's sentencing procedure is constitutionally adequate; that the Florida rule that statutory aggravating factors must be exclusive affords greater protection than the Federal Constitution requires; that, although a death sentence may not rest solely on a nonstatutory aggravating circumstance, the Constitution requires no more than one valid statutory aggravating circumstance, at least a long as none of the invalid aggravating circumstances is supported by erroneous or misleading information; that there is no merit in petitioner's contention that none of the statutory aggravating circumstances found by the trial court may be sustained under Florida law and the Federal Constitution; that the trial court did not commit reversible error of constitutional magnitude by considering nonstatutory aggravating factors; and that the Florida Supreme Court ha fulfilled its constitutionally mandated responsibility of performing meaningful appellate review of death sentence. Pp. 463 U. S. 960-974.

REHNQUIST, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 463 U. S. 958. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 463 U. S. 974. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 463 U. S. 991.

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