Graham v. Collins

RESPONDENT: James A. Collins, Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division
LOCATION: Safeway grocery store

DOCKET NO.: 91-7580
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 506 US 461 (1993)
ARGUED: Oct 14, 1992
DECIDED: Jan 25, 1993

Charles A. Palmer - on behalf of the Respondent
Michael E. Tigar - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

On May 13, 1981, 17-year-old Gary Graham accosted Bobby Grant Lambert in the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store in Houston, Texas, and attempted to steal his wallet. When Lambert refused to hand it over, Graham shot and killed him. Graham was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Graham petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus by arguing that the sentencing jury should have considered the mitigating circumstances of his youth and troubled family life. The district court denied the petition, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, and a panel reversed the district court’s ruling. Upon an en banc review, the Court of Appeals vacated the panel’s decision


Would granting Graham the writ of habeas corpus create a new constitutional rule that would require special jury instructions on the consideration of the mitigating circumstances the defense presented?

Media for Graham v. Collins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 14, 1992 in Graham v. Collins

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in number 91-7580, Gary Graham v. James A. Collins.

Mr. Tigar.

Michael E. Tigar:

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

Gary Graham was 17 years old and the product of a profoundly troubled family background when he struggled with, shot, and killed Bobby Grant Lambert in the supermarket parking lot.

His case, and the issues presented today, must be resolved, we suggest, by reference to precedent, experience, and tradition.

Precedent, in the guise of Locket and Eddings, yes, and Stanford v. Kentucky, in which the Court has repeated over and over again the powerful mitigating force of youth, and yes, precedent in the sense of Penry v. Lynaugh, because this case, we submit, is stronger for us than Penry's was for him because of the role of youth in this Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and because of the presence here, as in Eddings, of the potentiating force of the family background coupled with the evidence of youth.

And it is weaker for the respondent than their position was in Penry, not simply because Penry has in the interim been decided, not simply because the prosecutor here, as in Penry, sought to make the second Texas special issue into a double-edged sword by arguing that the condition in fact made the defendant more dangerous, but also because in this case the trial judge told the jury over and over again in voir dire, or voir dire, whatever one prefers, that they were to consider the special issue language in ways that cabined, confined, and constricted those special issues, cabined and confined them so there was no chance that the promise of Jurek could be redeemed.

Jurek was premised on a promise.

The Court said that it appeared the State... that the jury could consider certain things and the Court said that right after a paragraph in which it enumerated age as among the things it thought of constitutional significance.

That's the promise that has not been redeemed.

That is why Judge Higginbotham in the court below said that this case is governed by precedent, so I turn to the issues that the jury had before it, those special issues 1 and 2, because those are the significant ones.

Special issue number 1 has to do with deliberateness, and yet the trial judge told the jury that that meant nothing more than intentionality.

That is to say, the same element of the offense of which Gary Graham then stood convicted, because that's the element under 6.02(a) of the Texas Penal Code that is a part of first degree murder.

Special issue 2, future dangerousness... here, as in Penry, both double-edged and under-inclusive.

It's double-edged because Gary Graham is 17.

He has a longer time before he got old enough to outgrow the kinds of behavior the trial judge said satisfied future dangerousness: doing wheelies with your Harley on a lawn, pouring paint on a car... those sorts of relatively trivial offenses.

Double-edged because there is in this court's cases a deep and, we say, rationally-based social consensus that youth is mitigating in and of itself.

That is to say, that it's mitigating beyond what it may have in terms of predictive ability.

The prosecutor emphasized the double-edged point by saying as the seed is planted so grows the sprout, as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

David H. Souter:

If we accept that, do we have to overrule Jurek, because Jurek was premised on the fact that the moral significance could theoretically at least be considered within the framework of the questions, and I'm not sure that the youth consideration could meet the test, as you describe it, unless we overrule Jurek?

Michael E. Tigar:

No, Justice Souter, we do not ask you to overrule Jurek, any more than the State asks you to overrule Penry.


Penry said there would have to be an additional instruction beyond the special issue, and all Jurek says is that the jury may be asked to consider whatever evidence of mitigating circumstances.

Jurek didn't say that it had to be within the special issues, and the problem, Justice Souter, is created by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which in Black v. State says, we will not retreat a millimeter back from the language of the special issues.

We won't authorize giving any extra instructions.

It's futile to ask for them.

So no, we don't think that Jurek should be overruled, and in fact the Court's opinion in Franklin stands as a testament that under certain circumstances, perhaps many, Jurek and what this Court said in Jurek, what it said in later cases, can live quite happily together without questioning Jurek.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, it seems, Mr. Tigar, that in almost any case there's going to be some evidence of troubled background, positive character traits, so I'm not sure where the limits of your rule are.

I have the same experience as Mr. Justice Souter does.

It seems to me that in order to rule for you we have to overrule, if not Jurek, certainly Franklin--