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The Eighth Amendment and Mitigating Circumstances in a Death Penalty Case

Even a person who is only casually familiar with the criminal justice system likely knows that the prosecution must prove a defendant’s guilt by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In a death penalty case in most states, the process can get more complicated: once guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, a “sentencing phase” begins where the prosecution must bring forth evidence of one or more “aggravating circumstances” and prove (again) beyond a reasonable doubt that such aggravating circumstances exist. Furthermore, there must be a conclusion that any mitigating factors that suggest a sentence of death is not appropriate must be outweighed by the aggravating factors present in the case.

Most states do not require the mitigating factors to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be considered (unlike aggravating factors). Does the Eighth Amendment require a court to instruct a jury in a death penalty case about this fact and the different burdens of proof?

The Kansas Supreme Court is Corrected by the U.S. Supreme Court

This very question was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court recently in the Kansas case State v. Carr. The Carr brothers had previously been sentenced to death for what became known as “The Wichita Massacre,” but the Kansas Supreme Court overturned their death sentences after concluding that the Eighth Amendment required the jury to be specifically instructed that they did not have to find the existence of mitigating circumstances by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When considered as a whole, the Kansas Supreme Court concluded, the instructions could be confusing to a jury and could lead the jury to conclude it must apply the same burden of proof to mitigating circumstances as it does to aggravating circumstances.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, however, and found that the Eighth Amendment is not violated when a court does not specifically instruct a jury that it does not have to find mitigating circumstances exist beyond a reasonable doubt before considering them in a death penalty sentencing phase. In the case of Kansas’ jury instructions, the court found it sufficient that the instructions indicated that aggravating factors must be proven by proof beyond a reasonable doubt but contained no similar language regarding mitigating circumstances. (Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court should not have granted certiorari to hear the case at all.)

Applicability to Florida’s Death Penalty Scheme

The death penalty in Florida is, of course, in a state of flux at the moment after the U.S. Supreme Court found the method by which defendants are sentenced to death to be unconstitutional. While changes must be made to give the jury the ultimate decision as to whether death or life imprisonment is an appropriate sentence in a given case, do not expect the addition of any clarifying instructions to the jury to be made as part of these changes.

The best course of action when you are charged with a capital offense remains to contact an experienced and knowledgeable death penalty criminal defense attorney. Jeffrey S. Weiner has years of experience defending clients in South Florida who are facing serious sentences, including the death penalty. Contact him for assistance right away by calling (305) 670-9919 or contact him online.

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