Brown v. Payton

PETITIONER: Jill L. Brown, Warden
RESPONDENT: William Charles Payton
LOCATION: Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-1039
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 133 (2005)
GRANTED: May 24, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 22, 2005

A. Natalia Cortina - for petitioner
Andrea N. Cortina - argued the cause for Petitioner
Charles L. Hobson - for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal
Deputy Attorney General - for petitioner
Dean R. Gits - argued the cause for Respondents
Kent S. Scheidegger - for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal

Facts of the case

A California court sentenced William Payton to death for murder and attempted murder. Payton appealed and alleged the jury, when imposing the death penalty, did not consider the potentially mitigating evidence of his post-crime religious conversion. California's death penalty statute required jurors to weigh 11 factors when imposing a death penalty. The first 10 factors were specific to the crime and the eleventh factor was a "catch-all factor" that allowed the judge or jury to consider any other circumstance the defendant presented in mitigation of a death sentence. Payton alleged the judge's jury instructions effectively prevented the jury from considering his post-crime religious conversion. The California Supreme Court ruled there was nothing wrong with the judge's jury instructions. A federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Payton and reversed the death sentence. The Ninth Circuit said the California Supreme Court's application of U.S. Supreme Court precedent was objectively unreasonable. According to the Ninth Circuit, the clearly established precedent required juries to consider mitigating post-crime evidence when considering a death sentence.


Was the 9th Circuit correct to rule the California Supreme Court objectively unreasonable in holding that California's "catch-all" mitigation instruction in capital cases is constitutional as applied to post-crime evidence in mitigation?

Media for Brown v. Payton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 2004 in Brown v. Payton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 22, 2005 in Brown v. Payton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-1039, Brown against Payton will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As the Chief Justice indicated, this is Brown versus Payton.

And in 1980, the respondent, William Payton, was convicted of the rape and murder of Pamela Montgomery and of the attempted murders of a Patricia Pensinger and her 10-year-old son.

Payton presented no evidence in the guilt phase of the trial and he was convicted on all counts.

During the penalty phase, his only evidence in mitigation was that in the one year and nine months he had spent in prison since his arrest, he had made a sincere commitment to God, participated in prison Bible study classes in the prison ministry, and had a calming effect on other prisoners.

To guide the jury in determining whether to impose a sentence of death or life imprisonment after the jury heard the aggravating and mitigating testimony, the trial judge gave jury instructions that follow verbatim the text of a California statute.

One of these was what was then known in California as the Factor (k) instruction.

It was the last in a list of special instructions, and it was a catchall instruction.

It directed jurors to consider any circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime.

During closing argument, the prosecutor offered jurors his erroneous opinion that Factor (k) did not allow them to consider anything that happened after the crime.

The defense counsel objected.

The court admonished the jury that the prosecutor’s statements were only argument and not evidence.

The Trial Court did not, however, explicitly instruct the jury that the prosecutor’s interpretation was incorrect.

The jury recommended that Payton be sentenced to death and this was the sentence imposed.

Payton appealed to the California Supreme Court.

He argued that the text of Factor (k) was ambiguous made more so in light of the prosecutor’s argument.

The California Supreme Court rejected that claim and it relied on our decision in Boyde versus California.

The Boyde case had considered the constitutionality of the identical Factor (k) instruction and upheld it.

The California Supreme Court also held that in the context of the whole proceding, there was no reasonable likelihood that a jury believed it could not consider the mitigating evidence.

In an en banc decision, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that the California Supreme Court’s decision was an objectively unreasonable application of our precedents, and in its view, two things made Payton’s case unlike the Boyde case that the California Supreme Court had relied on.

First, Boyde concerned pre-crime not post-crime mitigation evidence.

Second, unlike in Boyde, the prosecutor in Payton’s case misstated the proper scope of Factor (k) and therefore, they granted Payton habeas relief.

In this case, we must determine whether the Ninth Circuit’s decision exceeded the limits of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, referred to as AEDPA.

AEDPA provides that in a case like this, a Federal Court may not grant habeas relief unless the State Court’s adjudication of the claim resulted in a decision that was contrary to or involved in an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

We hold today that these conditions for the grant of federal habeas corpus relief have not been met in Payton’s case.

We do not think that in light of Boyde, the California Supreme Court acted unreasonably in declining to distinguish between pre-crime and post-crime mitigating evidence.

Further, the California Supreme Court could reasonably conclude that the prosecutor’s argument did not mislead the jury about Payton’s mitigation evidence.

The prosecutor’s argument came after the defense presented eight witnesses spending some two days of testimony.

There was not a single objection to the prosecutor as to relevance.

And for the jury to believe that it could not consider Payton’s mitigating evidence, it would have had to believe that the penalty phase served no purpose at all.