Capital Punishment and the Right of Appeal

Appellate review should ensure that no death sentence is handed down in an arbitrary and capricious manner. When the U.S. Supreme Court voided forty state death penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia, it held that unrestricted jury discretion in imposing a death sentence resulted in arbitrary sentencing. Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, holding that capital punishment does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, provided that a death sentence is not arbitrary and capricious.

After Gregg, all capital crimes are prosecuted in a bifurcated trial, with the guilt–innocence phase conducted separately from the penalty phase. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the same jury will turn to the question of whether to impose a death sentence. Capital defendants are entitled to meaningful appellate review of both stages of the bifurcated trial.

The Court declared that the sentencing scheme in Gregg was constitutional because the appellate court would review the death sentence in every case to determine whether the jury had imposed death under the influence of passion or prejudice, whether the evidence supported the jury finding of a statutory aggravating circumstance, and whether the death sentence was proportionate to sentences in similar cases. In Proffitt v. Florida, handed down the same day as Gregg, the Court endorsed Florida’s appellate review process because it guaranteed a review of aggravating circumstances and proportionate sentencing.

Most of the thirty-eight death penalty states provide for automatic appellate review of all death sentences, though in denying cert in U.S. v. Hammer the Court implicitly held that a mandatory review is not required by the Constitution. Furthermore, in Gilmore v. Utah, the Court found that a defendant could, with full knowledge of his right to seek an appeal, waive that right. In Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, the trial judge imposed a life sentence after a jury hung during the sentencing phase. The defendant appealed, the case was reversed, the defendant was retried, and he received a death sentence at the retrial. On appeal, the Court held that there was no double jeopardy bar to the death sentence on retrial because the life sentence at issue did not amount to an acquittal on the basis of the government’s failure to prove one or more aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt at sentencing during the first trial.

After completing the direct appeals process, capital defendants may exercise their right to file a petition for habeas corpus review. These petitions usually raise new issues that were not expressly part of the trial. Ineffective assistance of counsel, police and prosecutor misconduct, and newly discovered evidence are typical subjects for habeas petitions. The reviewing court must assess whether the alleged error substantially affected the jury in deciding to sentence the defendant to death.

The Federal Death Penalty Act sets out appellate guidelines used in most capital cases. The act requires the appellate court to review the entire record, including the procedures used and evidence admitted during the sentencing and to examine the aggravating and mitigating factors enumerated in the statute. Whereas the appellate court may not reverse for harmless error, it must reverse if it concludes that the jury imposed the death sentence under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor.

J. AMY DILLARD

References and Further Reading

  • Golden, Sara L., Constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty Act: Is the Lack of Mandatory Appeal Really Meaningful Appeal? Temple Law Review (Summer 2001): 429–468. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Gilmore v. Utah, 429 U.S. 1012 (1976) 
  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) 
  • Furman v. Georgia, 409 U.S. 902 (1972) 
  • Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976) 
  • Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 537 U.S. 101 (2003) 
  • U.S. v. Hammer, 226 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2000) 
  • 39 C.J.S. Habeas Corpus § 159 

See also Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Habeas Corpus: Modern History

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