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

Barclay was convicted of first-degree murder for his participation in the politically and racially motivated murder of a hitchhiker. After a separate sentencing hearing in which the jury recommended that Barclay be sentenced to life in prison, the trial judge imposed a death sentence. Under Florida law, a death sentence must be based on a finding of sufficient statutory aggravating circumstances that are not outweighed by any mitigating factors. Further, a jury’s sentencing recommendation is only advisory; a judge may still impose a death sentence where the facts supporting it are so clear and convincing that no one could reasonably disagree.

Barclay argued that the trial judge relied on nonstatutory aggravating factors in violation of Florida law and relied on statutory aggravating factors that did not apply in his case. The Court held that mere errors of state law do not ordinarily constitute a denial of due process. Because the Constitution does not require states to limit consideration of aggravating factors to those statutorily specified, the trial judge’s reliance on a non-statutory factor did not violate the federal constitution. In addition, the Court determined that, despite the trial judge’s improper reliance on a non-statutory aggravating factor, the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless error analysis provided sufficient review of the relative weight of aggravating and mitigating factors. Barclay thus signals the Court’s partial retreat from the demanding procedural restrictions adopted in the 1970s and the greater deference to state capital sentencing processes characteristic of its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence in the 1980s and 1990s.

MARY SIGLER

See also Capital Punishment and Sentencing; Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

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