California v. Ramos

PETITIONER: California
LOCATION: Residence of Gates

DOCKET NO.: 81-1893
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 463 US 992 (1983)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1983
DECIDED: Jul 06, 1983

Ezra Hendon - on behalf of the Defendant (appointed by this Court)
Harley D. Mayfield - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for California v. Ramos

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1983 in California v. Ramos

Warren E. Burger:

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

And, we are hearing California against Ramos.

Harley D. Mayfield:

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

The Respondent was sentenced to death for first-degree murder during the commission of a robbery.

He robbed the on-duty employees at a fast food restaurant where he worked, after which he shot both of them in the head, and one of them lived.

He was convicted of two counts of robbery, attempted murder, and murder of the first degree, along with a special allegation that the murder was committed during the commission of a robbery.

Under the California Penal Code, murder of the first degree is punishable by 25 years to life, unless certain special circumstances are alleged and found true beyond a reasonable doubt.

In which case, the alternative penalties are death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The penalty is determined at a separate hearing in which the trier of fact is a jury unless waived by both parties.

At that separate hearing both parties may present additional evidence, and the statute provides for certain specified aggravating and mitigating factors which the jury must consider in addition to an additional catch-all factor permitting the jury to consider any factor in litigation.

If the aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances, the jury is required to return a verdict of death.

If mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances, the jury is required to return a verdict of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

The trial judge may modify a verdict of death to one of life without the possibility of parole; although if the jury returns the lesser punishment, it cannot be increased.

The statute also requires that the trier of fact be instructed that the punishment of life imprisonment without possibility of parole may in the future be modified by the governor to include a lesser sentence which permits the possibility of parole.

In this case, defense counsel objected to that instruction being given on the ground that it violated his right to due process of law, and the trial judge overruled the objection on the ground it was required by statute.

On automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court, the Court expressly and exclusively reversed the death penalty on the ground that the portion of the statute which required the giving of that instruction violated the defendant's right to due process under the 5th, 8th, and 14th Amendments for two reasons.

One, that it introduced an extraneous factor into the jury's deliberations.

And, second, that it was misleading because it did not require an instruction, because the instruction did not inform the jury that the governor could also commute a sentence of death to a lesser sentence.

The issue presented on Certiorari to this Court is whether enforcement of that statutory provision requiring instruction violates the 5th, 8th, and 14th Amendments.

This Court's cases indicate that due process is violated whenever a defendant is deprived of some guaranteed right, or if a procedure is fundamentally unfair.

In the capital cases which sort of blend the 5th, the 14th, and 8th Amendment principles, cases have held that a procedure which increases the likelihood of an arbitrary, a capricious, or unreliable sentencing determination may violate due process.

There is a basic distinction this Court has drawn between capital cases and others on the ground that the death sentence is unique in its finality.

A subsidiary question under the question presented on Certiorari, since this is a state statutory procedure, is the question whether the statute clearly and unmistakably violates the defendant's due process rights.

In California's alternative sentences, the sentence of death, the meaning is quite clear.

If that sentence is carried out, the defendant will be put to death.

On the other hand, the sentence... the alternative sentence of life without possibility of parole is not literally accurate because it does not mean that if that sentence is imposed the defendant must inevitably be perpetually imprisoned... imprisoned until death.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Mayfield, is the phrase

"life imprisonment without possibility of parole. "

a word of art in California jurisprudence, or something to that effect?

Harley D. Mayfield:

It is, Your Honor, in the sense that it does not literally mean what it says.