Howell, aka Cox v. Mississippi

PETITIONER:Marlon Howell, aka Marlon Cox
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-9560
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Mississippi

CITATION: 543 US 440 (2005)
GRANTED: Jun 28, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 29, 2004
DECIDED: Jan 24, 2005

James M. Hood, III – argued the cause for Respondent
Jim Hood – for respondent
Kent S. Scheidegger – for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae
Ronnie M. Mitchell – argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

A Mississippi court convicted Marlon Howell of capital murder – murder committed during a felony – and sentenced him to death. Howell appealed and argued the trial court was wrong to deny the jury the option of finding Howell guilty of the lesser offenses of non-capital murder or manslaughter, for which the death penalty would not have been an option. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled against Howell and said there was no evidence to support lesser charges.


1. In death penalty cases can a state court refuse to give a jury the option of finding a defendant guilty of at least one lesser offense if it is recognized by state law and supported by evidence?

2. Was Howell’s federal constitutional claim properly raised before the Mississippi Supreme Court?

Media for Howell, aka Cox v. Mississippi

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 29, 2004 in Howell, aka Cox v. Mississippi

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 24, 2005 in Howell, aka Cox v. Mississippi

Sandra Day O’Connor:

Finally, I have a Per Curiam opinion to announce in No.03-9560, Howell versus Mississippi.

Marlon Howell, the petitioner in this case, was convicted of capital murder.

He argues that the Mississippi courts violated his Federal constitutional rights by refusing to require a jury instruction for manslaughter or simple murder.

When we granted certiorari, we asked the parties to address whether this federal constitutional claim was properly raised before the Mississippi Supreme Court for purposes of Section 28 U.S. Code 1257.

That statute gives this Court the power to review State Court judgments when federal rights are specially set up or claimed.

Under that statute, this Court has almost unfailingly refused to consider any federal law challenge to a State Court decision unless the federal claim was either addressed by or properly presented to the State Court.

We hold the petitioner’s brief in the State Supreme Court did not properly present his claim as one arising under federal law.

In the relevant argument, he did not cite the U.S. Constitution or even any cases directly construing it, much less any of this Court’s cases.

Instead, he argues that he presented his federal claim by citing one case which cited another case, which in turn cited the case from this Court that established the constitutional right he now asserts.

This daisy chain is too lengthy to meet this Court’s standards for proper presentation of a federal claim.

As we recently explained in a slightly different context, a litigant wishing to raise a federal issue can easily indicate the federal law basis for the claim by citing in conjunction with the claim the federal source of law on which he relies or a case deciding such a claim on federal grounds or by simply labeling the claim federal.

In the context of Section 1257, the same steps toward clarity are just as easy to take and are generally necessary to establish that a federal question was properly presented to a State Court.

Petitioner took none of these steps.

Petitioner also contends he raised his federal claim by implication because the State Law rule on which he relied was identical or virtually identical to the constitutional claim we have articulated.

But Mississippi’s rule about jury instructions differs from our constitutional rule in several ways.

Petitioner finally suggests that we still have discretion to consider his federal claim because the presentation requirement is not jurisdictional.

As in prior cases however, we need not decide today whether our requirement that a federal claim be properly presented in a State Court is jurisdictional or prudential, because even treating the rule as purely prudential, the circumstances here justify no exception.

Accordingly, the writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted.