Johnson v. Texas

PETITIONER: Dorsie Lee Johnson, Jr.
LOCATION: Allsup's Convenience Store

DOCKET NO.: 92-5653
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

CITATION: 509 US 350 (1993)
ARGUED: Apr 26, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1993

Dana E. Parker - on behalf of the Respondent
Michael E. Tigar - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

On March 23, 1986, Dorsie Lee Johnson, Jr., who was 19, shot Jack Huddleston in the course of a convenience store robbery by telling Huddleston to get on the ground and then shooting Huddleston in the back of the neck. A few weeks later, Johnson was arrested for a subsequent robbery and attempted murder. At that time he confessed to the murder of Jack Huddleston.

Johnson was tried and convicted of capital murder. After a jury determined that he was guilty, a separate proceeding was held to determine whether Johnson would be sentenced to death or to life in prison. Pursuant to the Texas capital sentencing statute, the court instructed the jury to determine two special issues, whether Johnson caused the death of Jack Huddleston intentionally and whether Johnson was likely to constitute a continuing threat to society. Under Texas law, if the jury answered yes to both questions Johnson would be sentenced to death. The court further instructed the jury that it may consider any aggravating or mitigating evidence. However, the jury was given no special instruction to consider Johnson's youth. A unanimous jury found that the answer to both special issues was yes, and the trial court sentenced Johnson to death.

Johnson appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the conviction. Johnson later filed a motion for rehearing arguing that the special issues did not allow for adequate consideration of Johnson's youth. The court of appeals rejected Johnson's argument concluding that the jury was able to express a reasoned and moral response to Johnson's mitigating evidence. Johnson then filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court.


Did the Texas capital sentencing statute unconstitutionally preclude the jury from fully considering the mitigating effect of the petitioner's youth at the time of the crime?

Media for Johnson v. Texas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 1993 in Johnson v. Texas

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 92-5653, Dorsie Lee Johnson v. Texas.

Mr. Tigar.

Michael E. Tigar:

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

Dorsie Johnson was 19 when he accepted the gun from Amanda Miles and, at her urging, entered the Allsup's convenience store and shot Jack Huddleston to death.

In the punishment phase of his trial for capital murder, the jury was limited to answering two special issues under the former Texas statute.

Issue one, deliberately.

The statute has a text.

It mandates a narrow mens rea inquiry into the deliberateness of the act that proximately caused death.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, whose cases respondent hardly cites and does not discuss, has so construed it.

Indeed, respondent's reference at page 40 of its brief to how the issue might be construed is plain wrong.

One need only look at Farris v. State in which the Court of Criminal Appeals said that the fact the defendant had a gun was enough.

Hardly more than intentional said the court in Farris, that is to say, the element of which Mr. Johnson had just been convicted.

No, said the Court of Criminal Appeals in Farris.

The issue doesn't even ask as much about the defendant's state of mind as the element of premeditation which, of course, was universally a part of first degree murder statutes after the Pennsylvania statutory compromise of 1792.

Deliberately, as the district attorney said to the jurors here, can be two blinks of an eye.

The issue does not call for a reasoned moral response, but a narrow factual one, a construction we submit is supported by this Court's discussion Arrave v. Creech.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Tigar, you say that the petitioner was 19 when the offense was committed.

Michael E. Tigar:

Yes, Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now, I guess under Texas law, he became an adult at 18?

Michael E. Tigar:

That's correct, Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So, how long in your view is youth a factor then in a case such as this?

Presumably he was treated, for all purposes in Texas, as an adult at the age of 18.

Michael E. Tigar:

Surely the entitlement to an instruction on youthful age in our view lasts until a defendant is 21 or 22.

By the respondent referring to Jurek as a--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, why do you say that, and what do we look to?

I find that a difficult aspect of the case.

Michael E. Tigar:

--I submit that one could look first to respondent's concession here that Jurek was youthful although he was 22.

But also there is this consensus, Justice O'Connor, the consensus that in the States that give an instruction on youth, the generality of those States... and the roll call was called in Stanford v. Kentucky... leave it to the jury, guided by cautionary instructions.

Another approach is to say up to the age of 21 or 22.

The scientists we have spoken... whose works we've cited, speak of the time of adolescence which lasts somewhat longer, perhaps 23 or 24.