LOWENFIELD V. PHELPS, 484 U. S. 231 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231 (1988)

Lowenfield v. Phelps

No. 86-6867

Argued October 14, 1987

Decided January 13, 1988

484 U.S. 231


At petitioner's state court trial on charges of killing five people, the jury returned guilty verdicts on three counts of first-degree murder, an essential statutory element of which, under the circumstances, was a finding of intent "to kill or inflict great bodily harm upon more than one person." At the penalty phase, in response to notes from the jury indicating difficulty in reaching a decision, the court twice polled the jury as to whether further deliberations would be helpful in reaching a verdict, a majority of the jurors answering affirmatively in each instance. After the second poll, the judge reiterated earlier instructions, declaring that he would impose a sentence of life imprisonment without benefit of probation, parole, or suspended sentence if the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous recommendation, and admonishing them to consult and consider each other's views with the objective of reaching a verdict, but not to surrender their own honest beliefs in doing so. Defense counsel did not object to either poll, to the manner in which they were conducted, or to the supplemental instruction. The jury then returned a verdict in 30 minutes, sentencing petitioner to death on all three first-degree murder counts upon finding the statutory aggravating circumstance of "knowingly creat[ing] a risk of death or great bodily harm to more than one person." After the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld petitioner's convictions and sentences, the Federal District Court denied him habeas corpus relief, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. When considered in context and under all the circumstances, the two jury polls and the supplemental charge did not impermissibly coerce the jury to return a death sentence. The supplemental charge is similar to the traditional Allen charge long approved by this Court on the ground that it is an attempt to secure jury unanimity, which reasoning applies with even greater force here, since this charge does not speak specifically to the minority jurors. Although not without constitutional weight, the fact that one of the purposes served by such a charge -- the avoidance of the societal costs of a retrial -- is not present here, because Louisiana law requires the court to impose a life sentence if the jury is hung, does not render the charge impermissible under the Due Process

Page 484 U. S. 232

Clause and the Eighth Amendment in light of the State's strong interest in having capital sentencing juries express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death. Jenkins v. United States, 380 U. S. 445, and United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U. S. 422, cannot aid petitioner, since the supplemental instruction given in this case did not require the jury to reach a decision. Similarly, Brasfield v. United States, 272 U. S. 448, cannot help petitioner, since the questions asked the jury here did not require it to reveal the nature or extent of its division on the merits. Although coercion is suggested by the fact that the jury returned its verdict soon after receiving the supplemental instruction, defense counsel's failure to object to either the polls or the instruction at the time indicates that the potential for coercion argued now was not then apparent. Pp. 484 U. S. 237-241.

2. The death sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment simply because the single statutory "aggravating circumstance" found by the jury duplicates an element of the underlying offense of first-degree murder. To pass constitutional muster, a capital sentencing scheme must

"genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty, and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder."

Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 462 U. S. 877; cf. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153. This narrowing function may constitutionally be provided in either of two ways: the legislature may broadly define capital offenses and provide for narrowing by jury findings of aggravating circumstances at the penalty phase, as most States have done, or the legislature may itself narrow the definition of capital offenses so that the jury finding at the guilt phase responds to this concern, as Louisiana has done here. See Jurek v. Texas, 428 U. S. 262. Thus, the duplicative nature of the statutory aggravating circumstance did not render petitioner's sentence infirm, since the constitutionally mandated narrowing function was performed at the guilt phase, and the Constitution did not require an additional aggravating circumstance finding at the penalty phase. Pp. 484 U. S. 241-246.

817 F.2d 285, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which, except for the last sentence thereof, STEVENS, J., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, and in Part I of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 484 U. S. 246.

Page 484 U. S. 233

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