LOCATION: Shelby County Criminal Court
DOCKET NO.: 88-7247
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Idaho Supreme Court
CITATION: 500 US 110 (1991)
ARGUED: Feb 19, 1991
DECIDED: May 20, 1991
Joan Marie Fisher - on behalf of the Petitioner
Larry Echohawk - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
Media for Lankford v. IdahoAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 19, 1991 in Lankford v. Idaho
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 20, 1991 in Lankford v. Idaho
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Stevens.
John Paul Stevens:
In the first of these two cases, Lankford against Idaho, we granted certiorari to review a judgment of the Idaho Supreme Court.
That court, by a vote of three-to-two, upheld a death sentence imposed on petitioner.
He had been tried by a jury and convicted of first degree murder, a capital offense under Idaho law.
His sentencing hearing was conducted by the trial judge some eight months after the conviction.
Several weeks in advance of the sentencing hearing, at petitioner's request, the trial judge entered an order requiring the state to notify the court and the petitioner whether it would seek the death penalty.
The state filed a formal response saying that it would not recommend the death penalty.
Although petitioner had been advised at his arraignment that if convicted he would be eligible for the death penalty under Idaho law.
At the sentencing hearing, petitioner's counsel presumably in reliance of the state's response to the Trial Court's order, made no argument whatsoever concerning the permissibility or appropriateness of a capital sentence.
Both the prosecutor and the defense merely debated the length of an appropriate sentence of imprisonment.
Several days later, the judge reconvened petitioner's sentencing hearing, read his written findings, and sentenced him to death.
The question that we decide today is whether at the time of the sentencing hearing petitioner and his counsel had adequate notice that the judge might sentence him to death.
The unique history of this case, which is spelled out at some length in our opinion, persuades us that the notice was not adequate.
The pre-sentencing order entered by the Trial Court requiring the state to advise the court and petitioner whether it sought the death penalty was somewhat comparable to a pre-trial order limiting the issues to be tried.
The purpose of such order is to eliminate the need to address matters that are not in dispute.
Defense counsel reasonably assumed that she should not present argument or evidence directed at the question whether the death penalty was either appropriate or permissible.
If defense counsel had been notified that the trial judge was contemplating a death sentence, there are legal and factual arguments that she presumably would have made but did not make because she reasonably assumed that the only issue concerning the length of petitioner's incarceration.
The trial judge's silence, following the state's response to the pre-sentencing order, had the practical effect of concealing from the parties the principal issue to be decided at the hearing.
The lack of adequate notice that the judge was contemplating the death penalty created an impermissible risk that the adversary process may have malfunctioned in this case.
Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice White, and Justice Souter have joined.