Beck v. Alabama

LOCATION: Rincon Island

DOCKET NO.: 78-6621
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Alabama

CITATION: 447 US 625 (1980)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 20, 1980

David Klingsberg - for Petitioner
Edward E. Carnes - for Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Beck v. Alabama

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1980 in Beck v. Alabama

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first in Beck against Alabama.

Mr. Klingsberg, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

David Klingsberg:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

This case is here on writ of certiorari for the Supreme Court of Alabama, which upheld a death sentence based on a conviction for the crime of robbery where the victim was intentionally killed.

The grant of certiorari was limited to the narrow question of whether a sentence of death constitutionally may be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense where a jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included non-capital offense and when the evidence would have supported such a verdict.

As to the second condition in Your Honors' grant of certiorari, the state has conceded that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction of a lesser included offense either of robbery or felony murder, both of which are non-capital offenses in Alabama.

The evidence supporting the lesser offense, briefly stated, is as follows.

Petitioner confessed that he and another man named Roy Clements participated in a robbery in which the victim was killed.

Petitioner, however, took the stand on his own behalf and testified that he did not do the killing, that Mr. Clements did the killing, that when Mr. Clements did do the killing, petitioner immediately protested, "Oh, my God, what did you do?"

At which point he left the premises.

He denied having any weapon.

He denied intending to kill.

He said that even though there was a discussion prior to the robbery, tying up the victim, there was no discussion or intention of harming or killing the victim.

The principal evidence against the petitioner was the testimony of the woman who was described by petitioner as an accomplice and a lookout, which she denied.

She testified that petitioner had been sharpening a knife before the robbery.

That was also denied by petitioner and contradicted by other evidence.

The trial judge, following the dictates of the statute in Alabama, did not charge the jury that it could find petitioner guilty of a lesser included offense.

Moreover, the trial judge told the jury that if it acquitted the defendant, he could never be tried for anything that he did to the victim.

The Alabama circuit court, intermediate court, said that this instruction was in accordance with the Alabama statute.

We contend principally --

William H. Rehnquist:

You went also to the Supreme Court of Alabama on the case?

David Klingsberg:

Yes, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

And what question did you raise there?

David Klingsberg:

The petition for writ of certiorari -- which, incidentally, was not originally in the record, but we had it sent up, a certified copy -- said that the statute violates the Constitution of the United States of America in that it violates provisions in the Constitution under the Eighth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States and is in fact a mandatory death sentence.

The arguments which had been made below in a motion to quash the indictment on similar grounds, indicating that the procedure was akin to or in the nature of a mandatory death sentence, specifically referred to the choice which the jury was given of either, one extreme, acquitting the defendant or, the other extreme, convicting of the capital offense.

It is true that unfortunately even though extensive arguments were made in the circuit court directly on the point of the lesser included offense, that that was although in the petition, not in the brief to the Supreme Court of Alabama.

However, the Supreme Court of Alabama did affirm on the basis of its decision in the Jacobs case, which dealt only with federal constitutional issues, dealt at length with the lesser included offense issue, and there were two dissents which also incorporated and referred directly to their decisions in Jacobs which dealt practically entirely with this lesser offense question.

So, I think there is not any doubt that this was considered by the Alabama Supreme Court.

And the question has been preserved.

Moreover, the state does not challenge that, at least on the due process question, only on the equal protection argument.