LOCATION: Western District Court of New York
DOCKET NO.: 96-5658
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 520 US 518 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 15, 1997
DECIDED: May 12, 1997
Carol M. Dittmar - Argued the cause for the respondent
Matthew C. Lawry - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
In the sentencing phase of the trial at which Cary Michael Lambrix was convicted on two counts of first degree murder, the Florida state court jury rendered an advisory verdict recommending death sentences on both counts. Finding numerous aggravating circumstances in connection with both murders, and no mitigating circumstances as to either, the trial court sentenced Lambrix to death on both counts. After his conviction and sentence were upheld by the Florida courts, Lambrix filed a habeas corpus petition in the Federal District Court, which rejected all of his claims. While Lambrix's appeal was pending before the Court of Appeals, The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that if the sentencing judge in a "weighing" State (i.e., a State such as Florida that requires specified aggravating circumstances to be weighed against any mitigating circumstances at a capital trial's sentencing phase) is required to give deference to a jury's advisory sentencing recommendation, then neither the jury nor the judge is constitutionally permitted to weigh invalid aggravating circumstances. Lambrix claimed that his sentencing jury was improperly instructed on the "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravator. The Court of Appeals held its proceedings in abeyance to permit Lambrix to present his claim to the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected the claim without considering its merits on the ground that the claim was procedurally barred. The Court of Appeals denied relief, ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court had announced a "new rule" which could not be applied retroactively on federal habeas corpus petitions.
Can a Florida killer's death sentence be challenged even though it was based on aggravating factors later ruled to be unconstitutional?
Media for Lambrix v. SingletaryAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 15, 1997 in Lambrix v. Singletary
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 12, 1997 in Lambrix v. Singletary
-- 5658, Lambrix against Singletary, will be announced by Justice Scalia.
This case is here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
The petitioner, Cary Michael Lambrix, was convicted by the State of Florida on two counts of first degree murder.
The jury returned an advisory verdict recommending death sentences on both counts.
Finding five aggravating circumstances as to one of the murders, four as to the other and no mitigating circumstances as to either, the trial court sentenced Lambrix to death -- to death on both counts.
Lambrix's conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal by the Florida Supreme Court.
After the Florida Courts denied his repeated efforts to obtain collateral relief, Lambrix filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court.
That court rejected all of his claims.
While Lambrix's appeal from that District Court judgment was pending before the Eleventh Circuit, this Court decided a case called “Espinosa versus Florida,” which held that in a State with the sentencing scheme such as Florida's which requires specific aggravating circumstances to be weighed against any mitigating circumstances, if a judge in such a State is required to give deference to a jury's advisory sentencing recommendation, then neither the judge nor the jury is constitutionally permitted to weigh invalid aggravating circumstances.
Since one of Lambrix's claims was that his sentencing jury was improperly instructed on the meaning of one aggravating factor, namely, that the murder had been especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, Espinosa had obvious relevance to this habeas petition.
The Eleventh Circuit held its proceedings in advance to permit Lambrix to present his Espinosa claim to the Florida Supreme Court which rejected the claim without considering its merits on the ground that the claim was procedurally barred.
Without even acknowledging the procedural bar, the Eleventh Circuit denied relief ruling that Espinosa announced a new rule which cannot be applied retroactively on federal habeas under an opinion of ours called “Teague versus Lane.”
We granted certiorari and we now affirm.
First, we consider the State's contention that Lambrix's Espinosa claim is procedurally barred.
Although our -- our opinion suggests that the procedural bar issue should ordinarily be considered before a claim of Teague bar, we nonetheless decline to resolve the case on that basis.
Lambrix asserts several reasons why procedural bar does not apply the validity of which is more appropriately determined by the lower federal courts which are more familiar with the procedural practices of the States in which they sit.
A remand on this issue would only serve to prolong this litigation.
Second, we conclude that Espinosa announced a new rule which is not applicable in a federal habeas proceeding.
Espinosa cited only a single case in support of its central conclusion and introduced that lone citation with a “cf.”
-- an introductory signal indicating authority that supports the point in dictum or by analogy.
The decisions relied upon by Lambrix do not dictate the result ultimately reached in Espinosa.
Rather, a close examination of the Florida death penalty scheme indicates that a reasonable jurist considering Lambrix's sentence at the time it became final, could have reached a conclusion different from the one announced in Espinosa.
Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer have joined.
Justice O'Connor has also filed a dissenting opinion.