DARDEN V. WAINWRIGHT, 477 U. S. 168 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986)

Darden v. Wainwright

No 85-5319

Argued January 13, 1986

Decided June 23, 1986

477 U.S. 168


After a jury trial in a Florida court, petitioner was found guilty of murder, robbery, and assault with intent to kill. Pursuant to Florida's capital sentencing statute, the same jury heard further testimony and argument, and made a nonbinding recommendation that the death penalty be imposed. The trial judge followed that recommendation, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and the sentence, rejecting petitioner's contention that the prosecution's closing argument during the guilt phase of the trial rendered the trial fundamentally unfair and deprived the sentencing determination of the reliability required by the Eighth Amendment. The court also rejected petitioner's contention that the trial court erred in excluding a member of the venire for cause on the basis of his affirmative response to the judge's question during voir dire

"Do you have any moral or religious, conscientious moral or religious principles in opposition to the death penalty so strong that you would be unable without violating your own principles to vote to recommend a death penalty regardless of the facts?"

In subsequent federal habeas corpus proceedings, petitioner raised the same claims, as well as the additional claim that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase of his trial. The District Court denied relief, and the Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the District Court's judgment in all of its aspects.


The record of the jury voir dire, viewed in its entirety, shows that the trial court's decision to exclude the juror involved here was proper. Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U. S. 412, held that the proper test is whether a juror's views on capital punishment would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath. Petitioner's argument on this issue rested solely on the wording of the question (quoted above) that the trial court asked the juror before excluding him. However, a proper determination of the issue requires examination of the context surrounding the juror's exclusion. The record shows that, prior to individual questioning, the trial court told the entire venire that they would be questioned on this point, and that the juror in question was present while the court repeatedly

Page 477 U. S. 169

stated the correct standard when questioning other individual members of the panel. Pp. 477 U. S. 175-178.

2. The record also supports the rejection of petitioner's contention as to the prosecution's closing argument. The prosecution's argument included improper remarks that indicated that petitioner was on weekend furlough from an earlier prison sentence when the crime involved here occurred; implied that the death penalty would be the only guarantee against a future similar act; referred to petitioner as an "animal"; and reflected an emotional reaction to the case. However, the relevant question is whether the comments so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process. Viewed under this standard, the prosecution's comments did not deprive petitioner of a fair trial. The comments did not manipulate or misstate the evidence, or implicate other specific rights of the accused, and much of their objectionable content was responsive to the opening summation of the defense (available under a state procedural rule). Moreover, defense counsel were able to use their final rebuttal argument to turn much of the prosecution's closing argument against it. Pp. 477 U. S. 178-183.

3. With respect to the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase of the trial, petitioner failed to satisfy the first part of the two-part test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, that his trial counsels' performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. There is no merit to petitioner's contention that trial counsel devoted only the time between the close of the guilt phase of trial and the start of the penalty phase -- approximately one-half hour -- to prepare the case in mitigation. The record indicates that a great deal of time and effort went into the defense of this case; a significant portion of that time was devoted to preparation for sentencing. Moreover, a defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action of counsel might be considered sound trial strategy. Petitioner did not overcome that presumption here. The record shows several reasons why counsel reasonably could have chosen to rely on a simple plea for mercy from petitioner himself, rather than to attempt to introduce mitigating evidence. 477 U. S. 184-187.

767 F.2d 752, affirmed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,filed a concurring opinion, post, p, 477 U. S. 187. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 477 U. S. 188. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 477 U. S. 188.

Page 477 U. S. 170

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