Buchanan v. Angelone

LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-8400
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 522 US 269 (1998)
ARGUED: Nov 03, 1997
DECIDED: Jan 21, 1998

Gerald T. Zerkin - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Katherine P. Baldwin - Argued the cause for respondents

Facts of the case

Following Douglas Buchanan's conviction for the capital murders of his father, stepmother, and two brothers, the prosecutor sought the death penalty based on Virginia's aggravating factor that the crime was vile. The trial court instructed the jury that if it found beyond a reasonable doubt that Buchanan's conduct was vile, "then you may fix the punishment...at death," but "if you believe from all the evidence that...death...is not justified, then you shall fix the punishment...at life imprisonment." Buchanan sought four additional instructions on particular mitigating factors and a general instruction on the concept of mitigating evidence. The court denied Buchanan, refusing to single out certain mitigating factors to the sentencing jury. The jury returned with a verdict for the death penalty.


Does the Eighth Amendment require that a capital jury be instructed on particular statutory mitigating factors and the concept of mitigating evidence generally?

Media for Buchanan v. Angelone

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 03, 1997 in Buchanan v. Angelone

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 96-8400, Douglas McArthur Buchanan v. Ronald J. Angelone.

Mr. Zerkin.

Gerald T. Zerkin:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

Douglas Buchanan was sentenced to death by a jury entirely uninstructed as to those fundamental Eighth Amendment principles which could have saved his life.

Indeed, neither the word mitigation, or anything related to mitigation, ever crossed the judge's lips.

There are only a couple of Virginia inmates who, like Douglas Buchanan, have been sentenced to death and have preserved challenges to the absence of mitigation instructions.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Zerkin, is the instruction given here typical of the instruction that is routinely given in Virginia in these capital cases, or is it different?

Gerald T. Zerkin:

Justice O'Connor, it is... it was somewhat typical.

There is now recently, as of about 1993, a Virginia model jury instruction which is more expansive and has a definition of mitigation in it.

It came about from a case called Stewart v. Commonwealth in which the trial judge gave an expansive mitigation instruction, and the Virginia supreme court did not rule on whether that instruction was proper because it had been given.

It did say that a further instruction, which was really not very much more expansive, would have been duplicative of what was given, but the model jury instructions now have that... the instruction from Stewart in the book.

That did not exist at the time of Mr. Buchanan's trial.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

What is the specific test that you say we must employ in determining whether these instructions necessitate overturning--

Gerald T. Zerkin:

Your Honor--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--the sentence or the trial?

Gerald T. Zerkin:


It's our position that the instructions must reasonably accommodate the dual interest that this Court has discussed--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, but what's the test that we employ?

Now, I had thought... and you correct me if I'm wrong.

I thought the test was, is there a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction in such a way that the jury was prevented from considering constitutionally relevant evidence.

Gerald T. Zerkin:

--Your Honor, that is--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Is that right?

Gerald T. Zerkin:

--Well, I don't think that that's the test that applies here--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Gerald T. Zerkin:

--because there's no instruction at all on the issue of mitigation.

If there were... the Court has applied--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Applied the instructions--

Gerald T. Zerkin:

--The Court--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--in the case in such a way that they were prevented from considering constitutionally relevant evidence.

Now, I thought that was the test we employed.