Dobbert v. Florida

PETITIONER:Ernest John Dobbert, Jr.
LOCATION:Jacksonville, Florida

DOCKET NO.: 76-5306
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court

CITATION: 432 US 282 (1977)
ARGUED: Mar 28, 1977
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1977
GRANTED: Nov 08, 1976

Charles W. Musgrove – for respondent
Louis O. Frost, Jr. – for petitioner

Facts of the case

In the spring of 1972, Ernest Dobbert’s son was found wandering outside a Holiday Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, with apparent signs of a beating. He told a circuit court judge that his injuries were the result of beatings from his father, that his brother and one of his sisters had been killed by his father, and that his other sister was kept locked in a closet at home. The judge issued a warrant for Dobbert’s arrest, and Dobbert fled Jacksonville. In October 1973, Dobbert was arrested in Texas and extradited to Florida for trial. The Florida death penalty law in place when the children were killed, which gave the jury ultimate authority in deciding to impose the penalty, was found unconstitutional before Dobbert’s trial. It was replaced by a new law where the jury gave an advisory recommendation, but the judge made the ultimate decision.

Before his trial, Dobbert applied to the Supreme Court of Florida for a constitutional stay of trial, arguing that applying the new death penalty law violated the ex post facto and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. His application was denied. Dobbert also moved for a change of venue from Duval County based on the publicity his trial was receiving. The trial judge took the motion under advisement and later denied it. Dobbert was convicted of the first-degree murder of his daughter, second-degree murder of his son, and the torture and abuse of his two other children. At his sentencing hearing, the jury recommended life imprisonment, but the trial judge, acting under the authority granted to him by the Florida statute governing the death penalty, overruled the jury and sentenced Dobbert to death. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed.


Did the changes to the Florida death penalty statutes submit Dobbert to a trial by ex post facto laws or deny him his rights to equal protection and a fair trial?

Media for Dobbert v. Florida

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 28, 1977 in Dobbert v. Florida

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 17, 1977 in Dobbert v. Florida

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in Number 76-5306, Dobbert against Florida, to be announced by Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

The petition in this case was convicted of murdering and torturing his children and was sentenced to death by a Florida trial court sitting in Jacksonville.

The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed his conviction and we granted certiorari to consider his constitutional attacks on the judgment.

At the time the murder has occurred, the Florida death sentencing statute provided at the jury was to determine whether the sentence was to be life or death.

Subsequent to this Court’s decision in Furman versus Georgi, but prior to petitioner’s trial, the Florida court’s found that this procedure was unconstitutional.

The Florida legislature enacted a new procedure whereby the jury made a recommendation as to life or death but the final determination was placed in the hands of a trial judge subject to automatic review by the Florida Supreme Court.

Petitioner was tried under this statute and the jury in his case recommended by attend of two-vote that he would be subject only to life imprisonment.

The judge set aside this recommendation made the findings required by the Florida statute and imposed the sentence of death.

Petitioner contends here that the death sentence had imposed upon and violates the Ex Post Facto Clause, the United States constitution, both because of the change in the role of the judge and the jury and because the Florida statute imposing the death sentence for the crime of which he convicted was later held unconstitutional.

We reject these contentions.

Petitioner was on notice from the earlier Florida death — death penalty statute that criminal conducts such as that of which he was found guilty was punishable by death.

The change in the allocation of function between the judge and the jury and the imposition of the death sentence was procedural in nature and did not work to the overall detriment of petitioner since it provide him with greater rather than less procedural protection.

This is true even though in petition is particular case the fact that the majority of the jury recommended life imprisonment would under the old statute have prevented the imposition of the death sentence upon it.

Petitioner has also claimed that this change in law violated the Equal Protection Clause and that he was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial by the refusal to grant his motion for a change of venue.

For reasons more fully stated in the opinion, we reject these contentions also.

We affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida.

The Chief Justice has filed a concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Rehnquist.