Death Term Must Be Voided if Prosecutor Minimizes Jury’s Role, High Court Rules

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, underscoring the “truly awesome” responsibility of jurors in capital cases, ruled Tuesday that a death sentence must be overturned if the jury was led to believe that an appeals court actually would be responsible for the defendant’s fate.

By a 5-3 vote, the court held unconstitutional a death sentence rendered against a convicted Mississippi murderer in a case in which the prosecutor told jurors that the “final decision” on life or death would be made by the state Supreme Court.

The justices rejected pleas from prosecutors in 17 states, not including California, who had urged that the Mississippi prosecutor’s remarks be upheld as a permissible reminder that juries are just one part of the criminal process.

The court stressed that although an appeals court can review the procedures--and, to some extent, the evidence--in a capital case, the responsibility for the “moral judgment” of death lies squarely with the jury. No appeals court could fully evaluate the “literally countless factors” underlying a death sentence, the justices said.


‘Awesome Responsibility’

“This court has always premised its capital punishment decisions on the assumption that a capital sentencing jury recognizes the gravity of its tasks and proceeds with the appropriate awareness of its ‘truly awesome responsibility,’ ” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the court majority.

The impact of the court’s ruling on the 1,513 inmates now on Death Row nationwide is uncertain. Five justices agreed that the Mississippi prosecutor’s remarks were misleading, improperly minimizing the role of the jury. But only four of these justices--one short of a majority--agreed that any comment about the appellate process should be barred.

Some states do not permit comment on the possibility of a verdict being reversed on appeal. In California, such comment is prohibited in capital and non-capital cases, chief assistant state Atty. Gen. Steve White said.


In the case before the court, a Mississippi man, Bobby Caldwell, was convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of the owner of a small grocery store while Caldwell was participating in a work-release program at the state penitentiary in 1980.

‘Rests in Your Hands’

In the penalty phase of the trial, his lawyers presented testimony about his youth, family background and poverty, asking the jury to show mercy. “I say unto you, he is a human being,” one of Caldwell’s lawyers said. “He has a life that rests in your hands.”

The prosecutor, in response, appeared to minimize the jury’s role, telling jurors that “your decision is not the final decision"--and that their verdict would be reviewed automatically by the state Supreme Court. It was “terribly, terribly unfair,” the prosecutor said, to suggest that, should the jury return the death penalty, “they’re gonna take Bobby Caldwell out in front of this courthouse in moments and string him up.”


The justices, in their decision (Caldwell vs. Mississippi, 83-6607), concluded that the jurors had been misled.

If jurors could shift their sense of responsibility to an appeals court, Marshall warned, they might become less concerned about making mistakes, believing that any error would be corrected on appeal. Jurors who opposed a death sentence might be implored to “give in” on the same basis, he noted.

Commutation Possible

Marshall sought to differentiate the Mississippi case from a ruling that the court made in a California case in 1983, upholding a requirement that jurors in capital cases be told that the governor can commute a sentence of life in prison. (The California Supreme Court recently struck down the requirement on state constitutional grounds because jurors were not also told that the governor can commute death sentences).


Unlike the Mississippi case, the California case involved “accurate and relevant” information about a defendant’s potential release from prison, Marshall said in an opinion joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concurred but disagreed with Marshall’s suggestion that even “non-misleading and accurate” information about the appellate process was “wholly irrelevant” to the jury’s sentencing task.

In dissent, Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Byron R. White, said the prosecutor’s comments, in their entirety, were permissible. The jury was entitled to know that its determination was subject to judicial review, he said. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. did not participate.