Jones v. United States

PETITIONER: Jones
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Residence of Brenda Roe

DOCKET NO.: 97-9361
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 527 US 373 (1999)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1999

ADVOCATES:
Michael R. Dreeben - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Timothy Crooks - Fort Worth, Texas, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Louis Jones, Jr., kidnapped Private Tracie Joy McBride at gunpoint from the Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. After sexually assaulting McBride, Jones killed her with repeated blows to the head from a tire iron. The Federal Government charged Jones with kidnapping resulting in the victim's death, in violation of 18 USC section 1201(a)(2), an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death. Pursuant to the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, the government sought the death sentence. A jury found Jones guilty. The jury unanimously recommended the death penalty at Jones's sentencing hearing. The District Court imposed the death sentence in accordance with the jury's recommendation. The court refused Jones' request to include in the jury instructions an instruction that in the event of a jury deadlock concerning what sentence to impose -- either death or life imprisonment without possibility of release -- the District Court would impose no less of a sentence than of life imprisonment without possibility of release. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question

Is a death-sentence-eligible defendant entitled to a jury instruction as to the effect of jury deadlock? Is there a reasonable likelihood that a jury might believe that a death-sentence-eligible defendant would receive a court-imposed sentence less than life imprisonment in the event that they could not reach a unanimous sentence recommendation?

Media for Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1999 in Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 1999 in Jones v. United States

John Paul Stevens:

Justice Thomas has an opinion to announce.

Clarence Thomas:

I have Jones versus United States, No. 97-9361.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Petitioner was sentenced to death for committing a kidnapping that resulted in the death of the victim.

This sentence was imposed under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994.

The District Court for the Northern District of Texas imposed sentence in accordance with the juries recommendation and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm.

We are presented with three questions: Whether petitioner was entitled to an instruction as to the effect of jury deadlocked; whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury was led to believe that petitioner would receive a court impose sentence less than life imprisonment, in the event that they could not reach unanimous sentence recommendation; and whether the submission to the jury of two allegedly vague, duplicative and overbroad non-statutory aggravating factors was harmless error?

As for the first question, we conclude that petitioner was not entitled to an instruction as to the consequence of jury deadkick, neither the Death Penalty Act nor the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution requires such an instruction be given.

Such an instruction concerns a purely procedural matter and also would tend to encourage the jury to disregard its responsibility to reach agreement.

We also are of the view that there was no reasonable likelihood that the jury was led by the instructions and decision forms to believe that petitioner would receive a court imposed sentence less than life-imprisonment in the event that they could not reach a unanimous sentence recommendation.

The scope of our review in this case is shaped by the fact that petitioner did not raise the objections to the District Court's instructions and decisions form that he now impresses.

In such circumstances, we review for plain error.

Even assuming arguendo that there was a reasonable likelihood of jury confusion and that error thus occurred petitioners cannot show that the error affected his substantial rights as plain error review requires.

Finally, assuming arguendo again that there was error in the non-statutory aggravating factors considered by the jury, the error rests in loose drafting and it is claimed that the error was harmless.

The government's argument that the jury cured the non-statutory aggravating factors of any infirmity as written, we are satisfied that the jury in this case actually understood that each non-statutory factor was designed to put before it and therefore have no doubt that the jury would have reached the same conclusion that had factors been more precisely defined in writing.

The Chief Justice, Justice O'Connor and Justice Kennedy joined the opinion in full; Justice Scalia joins all of the opinion but Part III-A, where we concluded there was no error at all in the submission of the non-statutory aggravating factors of the jury.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Stevens and Justice Souter have joined and in which Justice Breyer has joined in part.