Hopkins v. Reeves

LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-1693
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 88 (1998)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 08, 1998

Donald B. Stenberg - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Paula Hutchinson - Appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court, argued the cause for the respondent
Roy W Mcleese Iii - for United States as amicus curiae by special leave of the Court
Roy W. McLeese, III - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

Randolph K. Reeves was charged with two counts of felony murder for the sexual assault and murder of Janet Mesner and Victoria Lamm, both of Lincoln, Nebraska. Under Nebraska law, felony murder is a form of first-degree murder committed in the perpetration of certain felonies, including sexual assault. A conviction for felony murder renders a defendant eligible for the death penalty; however the jury does not charge the defendant because capital sentencing is a judicial function. In his trial Reeves requested the jury be given other options rather than just felony murder. The trial court judge denied Reeves's motion and he was subsequently convicted on both counts. A three-judge panel sentenced Reeves to death. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentences. After exhausting his state remedies, Reeves filed a federal habeas corpus petition that the trial court's failure to give the requested instructions was unconstitutional. The District Court granted relief on an unrelated due process claim. The Court of Appeals rejected the lower court's decision, but held that a constitutional error had occurred.


Does the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require jurors in capital cases to be given an option to convict a defendant of offenses that are not lesser-included offenses of the crime charged? Did the Nebraska trial court err in failing to give the requested jury instructions?

Media for Hopkins v. Reeves

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 1998 in Hopkins v. Reeves

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 96-1693, Frank Hopkins v. Randolph Reeves.

General Stenberg, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Counsel, will you please take your seats.

Donald B. Stenberg:

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court--

This case presents the question of whether a defendant in a potential capital case has a constitutional right to effectively charge himself with crimes not charged by the prosecution and which are not lesser included offenses of the crimes that were charged by the prosecution, and to have his jury instructed on those offenses.

In Beck v. Alabama, this Court had said... said that if a lesser included offense exists under State law and is supported by the evidence, that an instruction on that lesser included offense must be given at the request of the defendant.

Here, Respondent Reeves was charged with two counts of felony murder.

Specifically, he was charged with killing two women in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a first degree sexual assault.

The Respondent did not ask to have his jury instructed on the lesser included offense of first degree sexual assault, which does exist as a lesser included offense under Nebraska law.

Instead, the Respondent asked to have his jury instructed on second degree murder and manslaughter.

For 100 years, the Nebraska Supreme Court has clearly and consistently held that second degree murder and manslaughter are not lesser included offenses of felony murder in the State of Nebraska.

David H. Souter:

Was... was the manslaughter that he asked for the instruction on involuntary manslaughter, in other words killing in the course of committing an unlawful act?

Donald B. Stenberg:

I don't recall, Your Honor, if the requested instruction was... was specific as to which of the types that it was.

David H. Souter:

Well, would he have been correct if... if he had asked for that?

Isn't that a lesser included of... of the felony murder charged here?

Donald B. Stenberg:

No, Your Honor, it is not, for a couple of reasons.

Of course, for 100 years, the Nebraska Supreme Court has said that it's not.

David H. Souter:

I know.

They have said that.

I don't understand why--

Donald B. Stenberg:

Well, the... there's two... there's really two answers.

One is the more general answer that has been given by the Nebraska Supreme Court over the years, which is simply to say that... that there are two different intents involved.

Under a felony murder, the intent involved looks at the intent to commit the underlying felony.

In this case, the first degree sexual assault.

Under first degree premeditated murder, second degree murder and manslaughter, the focus is on the intent to kill or the intent to commit the murder.

In answering your question, Your Honor, we have to ask what unlawful act are we referring to.

If we are... are referring to the unlawful act alleged by the prosecutor, namely, first degree sexual assault, then felony murder and manslaughter are identical offenses.

David H. Souter:

--What... what about the... what about the lesser sexual... isn't there is... what is it... I guess second degree sexual assault, which... which does not involve penetration?

Donald B. Stenberg:

Yes, Your Honor.