Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978)

2012-07-25 14:08:37

This case recognizes the unique individuality of every criminal defendant convicted of capital murder by requiring that juries consider mitigating factors before Sentencing a defendant to death.

Sandra Lockett was the getaway driver in the robbery of a pawnshop, which inadvertently resulted in the death of the pawnshop owner. She was subsequently charged with capital murder. The jury found Lockett guilty as charged. Under Ohio law then in existence, the trial judge determined whether she should be sentenced to death. In making this determination, Ohio law permitted the judge to consider only three mitigating factors: (1) that the victim had induced or facilitated the offense, (2) that the defendant committed the offense under duress, coercion, or strong provocation, or (3) that the offense was primarily the product of the defendant’s mental illness. Other factors, such as Lockett’s age, her lack of a prior criminal record, any remorse she may have expressed, her relatively minor role in the crime, and the fact that she had no specific intent to kill the pawnbroker were not allowed to be considered.

The Supreme Court held that the Ohio law was invalid and that the sentencer could not be precluded from considering, ‘‘as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.’’ According to the Supreme Court, if the sentencer is unable to consider all potentially mitigating factors, the risk is high that death will be imposed despite factors that may call for a less severe penalty.

This case has allowed capital defendants to put forth a host of potentially mitigating factors, such as their abusive upbringing and mental deficiencies. In addition, it set the stage for future decisions specifically mandating the consideration of age and adjustment to prison as mitigating factors.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982)
  • Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 154 (1994)

See also Capital Punishment; Capital Punishment and the Equal Protection Clause Cases; Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits;Capital Punishment: EighthAmendment Limits; Capital Punishment: History and Politics