Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman

PETITIONER:Jalil Abdul-Kabir, fka Ted Calvin Cole
RESPONDENT:Nathaniel Quarterman, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division
LOCATION:United States District Court for the District of Colorado

DOCKET NO.: 05-11284
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 233 (2007)
GRANTED: Oct 13, 2006
ARGUED: Jan 17, 2007
DECIDED: Apr 25, 2007

Edward L. Marshall – Attorney for Respondent
Robert C. Owen – Attorney for Petitioner, Attorney for Petitioner

Facts of the case

Jalil Abdul-Kabir was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At his sentencing, Abdul-Kabir presented mitigating evidence of his destructive family background and neurological defects. The jury was instructed to give effect to all mitigating evidence by making yes-or-no determinations on Texas’s two “special issues” for capital sentencing: the deliberateness of the crime and the future dangerousness of the criminal. After his sentencing, Abdul-Kabir filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal District Court, arguing that the special issues had not allowed the jury to give full consideration and effect to his mitigating evidence as required by the Supreme Court inPenry v. Johnson. The District Court denied Abdul-Kabir habeas relief, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The Fifth Circuit held that the mitigating evidence was not “constitutionally relevant,” and that in any case the jury could have given it consideration as part of the “deliberateness” and “dangerousness” determinations. After the Supreme Court rejected the “constitutional relevance” test, the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed its decision that Abdul-Kabir’s mitigating evidence had been given full consideration and effect under the Texas special issues. The case was consolidated withBrewer v. Quarterman No. 05-11287.


Do Texas’s “special issue” jury instructions for capital sentencing allow jurors to give full consideration and effect to mitigating evidence about a defendant’s destructive family background and mental defects, as required by the Eighth Amendment?

Media for Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 17, 2007 in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 25, 2007 in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Stevens has the opinion this morning in 05-11284, Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman in the consolidated case 05-11287, Brewer v. Quarterman.

John Paul Stevens:

These cases come to us from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

In both cases petitioner’s claim that the former Texas Capital sentencing statute in impermissibly prevented the sentencing jury from giving meaningful consideration to institutionally relevant mitigating evidence.

We agree, and accordingly we reverse judgments of the Court of Appeals in both cases.

Both petitioners were convicted of capital murder, death sentencing one of them presented mitigating evidence of childhood neglect and abandonment and possible neurological damage.

The other presented mitigating evidence of mentally illness, substance abuse and a troubled childhood.

In both cases the Texas State Court denied petitioners relief on direct appeal and post conviction review and the Fifth Circuit denied Federal Habeas Relief.

The cases implicate the same concerns raised repeatedly in this court regarding a jury’s ability to give adequate consideration to capital defendant’s proffered mitigating evidence.

Our first important opinion confining this issue was written by Chief Justice Berger in Lockett v. Ohio in 1978.

His opinion which has been repeatedly followed concluded that sentencing juries must 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 offence that may provide a base for imposing a sentence less than death.

A little over a decade later in Penry v. Lynaugh, we reaffirmed that basic rule in the more specific context of Texas capital sentencing jury instructions.

Under the version of the Texas statutes applicable to both of these petitioners at the time of their sentencing, the jury answers to two special issues determine whether the defendant would be sentenced to death.

First, was the conduct of the defendant to cause the death of the deceased committed deliberately and with a reasonable expectation that the death would incur and second is there are probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence who would constitute a continue threat to society.

In affirmative answer to those questions required the jury to impose the death sentence, no matter how persuasive the defendant’s mitigating evidence might be.

In Penry we held that neither of these two instructions known as “the deliberateness and future dangerousness special issues” provided the jury with a meaningful opportunity to give the fact to the defendant’s mitigating evidence of mental retardation and childhood abuse.

As we explained in that opinion the defendant may present evidence about his background or character or about the circumstances of the crime.

That is either irrelevant to the special issues or that has relevance to defendant’s moral culpability for the crime, beyond the scope of the special issues.

In either of them the Texas special issues do not provide the jury with a mean through expressing this reason to moral response to that evidence in determining, whether the defendant is deserving the death.

In the case of mitigating evidence like Penry’s where that presented by these petitioners, the evidence may function as a two edged sword because it may diminish the defendant’s blame worthiness for the crime even as it also supports an affirmative answer to one or both of the special issues.

Limited only to “the deliberateness in future dangerousness special issues” the jury may find itself faced with mitigating evidence such as childhood abuse or neglect or mental illness which simultaneously suggests that a defendant will be dangerous in the future but that is moral culpability for the crime does not warrant a death sentence.

Rather than correctly applying the reasoning and the rules set fourth in Penry, the Texas State Court in both of these cases held that the Texas special issues did provide for adequate consideration of each defendant’s mitigating evidence.

In both cases this conclusion was both contrary to an involved and unreasonable application of clearly established law as determine by this court.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgments of the Court of Appeals and remand each case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas and Justice Alito have joined.

Justice Scalia has also filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined and in which Justice Alito has joined as to Part I.