Jurek v. Texas

LOCATION: North Carolina State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 75-5394
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

CITATION: 428 US 262 (1976)
ARGUED: Mar 30, 1976 / Mar 31, 1976
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1976

Anthony G. Amsterdam -
James L. Babin -
John L. Hill -
Robert H. Bork - argued for the United States, as amicus curiae
William E. James - argued for the State of California, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

After his conviction by a Texas trial court for murder and the imposition of the death penalty, Jurek challenged the constitutionality of both his death sentence, alleging it was a "cruel and unusual" punishment, and the state's capital-sentencing procedure, alleging it would result in arbitrary and "freakish" imposition of the death penalty.

This case is one of the five "Death Penalty Cases" along with Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt v. Florida, Roberts v. Louisiana, and Woodson v. North Carolina.


Is the death penalty a "cruel and unusual" punishment? Is Texas' capital-sentencing procedure unconstitutional?

Media for Jurek v. Texas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 30, 1976 (Part 1) in Jurek v. Texas
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1976 (Part 2) in Jurek v. Texas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - July 02, 1976 in Jurek v. Texas

Byron R. White:

I have the judgment to announce in Jurek against Texas, 75-5394.

Again I speak primarily for Mr. Justice Stewart and Mr. Justice Powell for the three of us have again filed a joint opinion.

The issue in this case is whether the imposition of the sentence of death for the crime of murder under the law of Texas violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

The petitioner was charged by indictment with the killing of 10-year girl, by choking and strangling her with his hands, and by drowning her in water, by throwing her into a river in the course of committing and attempting to commit kidnapping or forcible rape.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Texas law requires that if a defendant has been convicted of a capital offense, the trial court must conduct a separate sentencing proceeding before the same jury that tried the issue of guilt.

Any relevant evidence may be introduced at this proceeding, and both prosecution and the defense may present argument for or against the sentence of death.

The jury is then presented with two or sometimes three statutory questions, the answers to which determine whether a death sentence will be imposed.

In this case, the jury unanimously answered "yes" to both questions, and the judge, therefore, in accordance with the statute, sentenced the petitioner to death.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas affirmed.

After this Court's decision in Furman against Georgia, the Texas Legislature narrowed the scope of its laws relating to capital punishment and adopted a new capital sentencing procedure.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thus far affirmed only two judgments imposing death sentences under its new statute.

While Texas has not adopted a list of statutory aggravating circumstances, the existence of which can justify the imposition of the death penalty as have Georgia and Florida, Texas has narrowed the categories of murders for which a death sentence may ever be imposed.

Each of the five classes of murders made capital by the Texas statute is encompassed in Georgia and Florida by one or more of their statutory aggravating circumstances.

Thus, in essence, the Texas statute requires that the jury find the existence of a statutory aggravating circumstance before the death penalty may be imposed.

It therefore requires the sentencing authority to focus on the particularized nature of the crime.

But a sentencing system that allowed the jury to consider only aggravating circumstances would almost certainly fall short of providing the individualized sentencing determination that we believe that constitution requires.

A jury must be allowed to consider on the basis of all relevant evidence, not only why a death sentence should be imposed, but also why it should not be imposed.

Thus a capital-sentencing system must allow the sentencing authority to consider mitigating circumstances.

The Texas statute, unlike the Georgia and Florida, does not explicitly speak of mitigating circumstances.

It directs only that the jury answer certain specific questions.

Thus in our opinion the constitutionality of the Texas procedures turns on whether those questions allow consideration of particularized mitigating factors.

In this case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has interpreted the second statutory question so as to incorporate into it whatever mitigating circumstances the defense maybe able to bring to the Jury's attention.

And in the only other case in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a death sentence, it also focused on the question, whether any mitigating factors were present.

As construed therefore, the Texas statue does provide for consideration of mitigating as well as aggravating circumstance.

By narrowing its definition of capital murder, Texas has essentially said that there must be at least one statutory aggravating circumstance in a first-degree murder case before a death sentence may even be considered.

By authorizing the defense to bring before the jury at the separate sentencing hearing, whatever mitigating circumstances relating to the individual defendant can be adduced, Texas has ensured that the sentencing jury will have adequate guidance to enable it to perform its sentencing function.

By providing prompt judicial review of the jury's decision in a court with statewide jurisdiction, Texas has provided a means to promote the evenhanded, rational, and consistent imposition of death sentences under law.

Accordingly, for reasons more fully stated in the opinion which Mr. Justice Stewart, Mr. Justice Powell and I have filed with the clerk, the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in this case is affirmed.

Mr. justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall have filed dissenting opinions.