Hicks v. Oklahoma

LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

DOCKET NO.: 78-6885
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals

CITATION: 447 US 343 (1980)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 16, 1980

David M. Ebel - on behalf of the Petitioner
Janet L. Cox - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Hicks v. Oklahoma

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1980 in Hicks v. Oklahoma

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear argument next in No. 78-6885, Hicks v. Oklahoma.

Mr. Ebel.

David M. Ebel:

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

This is a sentencing procedures case and it raises important constitutional questions about the procedures that need to be followed in sentencing defendants.

This is not a case that challenges inherently habitual sentencing statutes, and it is not a case that challenges the excessiveness of a 40-year sentence for a person who commits the kind of crimes that the defendants Hicks has committed.

Rather, it is a case that challenges the method of imposing that sentence on him.

Hicks is a young black man.

He was 28 years old at the time of the trial.

He and his codefendant were convicted by a jury in Oklahoma of a single sale of heroin worth $50.

Now, Oklahoma has a peculiar statute which says that a defendant in Oklahoma has a right to be sentenced by a jury, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has said that that is a sacred right that may not be lost except by express waiver.

Now, because neither defendant here waived that right, the jury was reconvened to sentence these two defendants.

Hicks' codefendant received the minimum sentence possible under the heroin statute, that is five years.

Hicks, on the other hand, was charged under the habitual criminal statute in Oklahoma.

And I should pause for a minute to tell you that Oklahoma has two habitual criminal statutes, 51(A) and 51(B).

51(B) is a mandatory statute and it says that if you have been convicted of two prior felonies, you must be sentenced to the maximum term permissible under the third offense plus an additional 20 years, and that formula here would calculate to a 40-year sentence for Hicks.

Now, the other statute is 51(A) and that is a discretionary statute.

That statute says that if you committed one or more prior offenses, that the jury may sentence you to anything it wishes between ten years and life.

Well, at Hicks trial the jury was given evidence of two prior felony convictions.

Hicks did not challenge that evidence, so the judge instructed the jury that if you find Hicks as guilty of the two prior felonies, you must find him guilty under 51(B) and you must sentence him to 40 years in jail.

The jury listened to those instructions carefully and it followed them and it returned a 40-year mandatory habitual criminal sentence against him.

Now, while that case was pending on appeal, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decided a second case that was called Thigpen v. State, and in that case the Oklahoma court held that 51(B) was unconstitutional.

William H. Rehnquist:

Do you think Thigpen rested on state constitutional grounds or federal constitutional grounds?

David M. Ebel:

Your Honor, I think it rested on federal constitutional grounds, although it doesn't say so in the opinion, and my opinion that it rests on federal grounds rests on the fact that the appendix attached to the opinion is premised upon federal grounds, and it appears to have been cited with approval by the majority opinion.

William H. Rehnquist:

The District Court of Oklahoma?

David M. Ebel:

That's correct.

Warren E. Burger:

So when you said a little while ago that Oklahoma has two statutes, you really mean now it has only one?

David M. Ebel:

That's correct, Your Honor, now it has one.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, what if we were to conclude that Thigpen was incorrectly, decided as a matter of federal constitutional law?

David M. Ebel:

Well, I think, Your Honor, that that issue isn't directly before this Court because Thigpen was not appealed here.

At least when Hicks was sentenced at the Court of Criminal Appeals, I think that Thigpen represented the law as interpreted by Oklahoma, and so for the case at least of Hicks we can assume that 51(B) was improper.