Kelly v. South Carolina

RESPONDENT: South Carolina
LOCATION: Oklahoma School District

DOCKET NO.: 00-9280
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 534 US 246 (2002)
ARGUED: Nov 26, 2001
DECIDED: Jan 09, 2002

David I. Bruck - Argued the cause for the petitioner
S. Creighton Waters - South Carolina, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

After convicting William Kelly for murder, a South Carolina jury was asked to determine whether any aggravating factors had been shown and, if so, to recommend a sentence of death or life imprisonment. During sentencing, the prosecutor presented testimony that Kelly had taken part in an escape attempt with plans to hold a female guard hostage; provided evidence of Kelly's sadism and his desires to kill anyone who irritated him; and spoke of Kelly as a "butcher," "bloody," and "dangerous." Relying on the holding of Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, that when "a capital defendant's future dangerousness is at issue, and the only sentencing alternative to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, due process entitles the defendant 'to inform the jury of [his] parole ineligibility,'" Kelly's counsel requested a jury instruction stating that Kelly would be ineligible for parole if he received a life sentence. In refusing, the trial court said that the State's evidence went to Kelly's character and characteristics, not to future dangerousness. The jury recommended a death sentence. In affirming the sentence, the State Supreme Court held Simmons inapposite because state law provided the jury with a third sentencing alternative and future dangerousness was not at issue.


Did the state trial court err in holding Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 inapposite in the death sentence proceeding of William Kelly?

Media for Kelly v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 26, 2001 in Kelly v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 09, 2002 in Kelly v. South Carolina

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-9280 Kelly against South Carolina will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

In 1996, the South Carolina jury convicted the petitioner William Kelly who agrees with the kidnapping and robbery and murder.

During the separate sentencing proceedings, the prosecutor presented evidence that Kelly had fashioned crude knives while he was in jail and took part in an attempt to take a hostage and to escape.

On cross examination of the psychologist the prosecutor brought out evidence of Kelly's childhood sadism as well of his recurrent homicidal fantasies.

After presentation of the evidence but before the closing arguments, Kelly's counsel relied on our decision and Simmons v. South Carolina in requesting a so-called Simmons instruction to the jury, that if Kelly received the sentence of life imprisonment, he would be ineligible for parole.

The prosecutor objected on the ground that he was not going to argue future dangerousness and the trial judge denied the request of charge ruling the State's evidenciary submission went not to future dangerousness but only to Kelly's character and characteristics.

In his closing argument, the prosecutor compared Kelly to a notorious serial killer, characterizing him variously as Bloody Billy, the butcher of Batesburg and as a little more dangerous because he was intelligent and quick-witted.

Thereafter the trial judge charged the jury without giving a Simmons instruction.

The jury recommended the death sentence and the trial court imposed it.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the conviction and sentence.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we reverse the judgment of the State Supreme Court.

In upholding the trial court's refusal to instruct the jury on the parole ineligibility, the State Supreme Court advanced two rationales.

One ground given by the court was that Simmons was inapplicable to South Carolina's new sentencing scheme because life without possibility of parole was not the only legally available sentencing alternative to death.

We invalidated this ground in last term in Shafer v. South Carolina.

There we held it well a capital defendant in South Carolina can under some circumstances receive a sentence less than life imprisonment, under the state's scheme, a jury makes a sentencing recommendation only if the the jury's first find one or more aggravating factors.

In the event that they do find an aggravating circumstance, their recommendations can be only death or life without parole.

Thus, the State's Supreme Court's reasoning about the availability of a third sentencing alternative cannot be accepted.

A second ground given by the State's Supreme Court in this case for holding no Simmons instruction was required was that Kelly's future dangerousness was not at issue, a conclusion that is in sharp conflict with the evidence presented in the arguments made at Kelly's trial, the state court failed to recognize that evidence may have a tendency to prove future dangerousness even though that same evidence can support other inferences or be described in other terms, and the State Court likewise can overlook the fact that the prosecutor accentuated the clear implication of future dangerousness raised by the evidence when his argument invited the jury to conclude that Kelly was a dangerous and bloody butcher.

We find no merit in the State's alternative argument here that Kelly's jury was not confused about the matter of his parole ineligibility because the jury did not request further instructions from the trial judge.

A judge's obligation to give adequate explanation of the law does not depend on expressions of perplexity by the jury and there is no reason to believe that Kelly's jury was aware of relatively recent changes in South Carolina Law that categorically preclude parole for capital defendants sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Kennedy has joined; Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Scalia has joined.