Lewis v. Jeffers

PETITIONER: Samuel A. Lewis, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, et al.
RESPONDENT: Jimmie Wayne Jeffers
LOCATION: United States District Court of Arizona, Tucson Division

DOCKET NO.: 89-189
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 497 US 764 (1990)
ARGUED: Feb 21, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1990

Gerald R. Grant - on behalf of the Petitioners
James S. Liebman - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

In May of 1976, Jimmy Wayne Jeffers and his girlfriend, Penelope Cheney, were arrested for possession of narcotics and receipt of stolen property. Jeffers posted bond for Cheney but was unable to post bond for himself. While in jail, Jeffers learned that Cheney was cooperating with the police. He offered another inmate money to kill Cheney, but a detention officer seized the note. Jeffers was released on bond in October of 1976. He quickly contacted Cheney and invited her to his motel room to give her heroin. When Doris Van der Veer, the woman with whom Jeffers had been living since his release from prison, entered the room a few hours later, she saw Cheney comatose on the bed and Jeffers injecting liquid into her arm. Van der Veer reported seeing Jeffers choke Cheney to death and then beat her body while calling her dirty names. Van der Veer and Jeffers then wrapped the body in newspapers and plastic bags and buried it in a shallow grave.

A jury convicted Jeffers of first-degree murder. At sentencing, the court found two aggravating circumstances and no mitigating factors, so Jeffers was sentenced to death under Arizona state law. On direct review, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the death sentence and remanded the case for resentencing. On a second direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted an independent review of the evidence and affirmed the death sentence. Jeffers petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus and argued that Arizona’s standard of an “especially heinous…or depraved” aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally vague. The district court rejected Jeffers’ challenge. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the standard was unconstitutionally vague as it applied to Jeffers and struck down the death sentence.



Can a federal district court conduct an independent review of the evidence of a state court’s finding of a constitutional aggravating circumstance?

Did Arizona’s construction of the “especially heinous…or depraved” aggravating circumstance contravene Supreme Court precedent?

Media for Lewis v. Jeffers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 21, 1990 in Lewis v. Jeffers

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 89-189, Samuel A. Lewis v. Jimmy Wayne Jeffers.

Mr. Grant, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Gerald R. Grant:

Thank you, Your Honor.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue in this capital case is what standard of review should a Federal habeas court apply in reviewing a state court's finding that an aggravating circumstance exists.

It's our position that once the Federal habeas court has examined the aggravating circumstance and determined that the state court has adopted a proper narrowing construction of it, that the state court finding that the aggravating circumstance exists is not generally subject to Federal review.

Only in those instances where the finding is so unprincipled or arbitrary as to somehow violate the Constitution should that finding be reviewed by a Federal habeas court.

William H. Rehnquist:

I suppose it would be reviewable under the Jackson against Virginia standard at... at any rate if it were argued that there were no... no juror could possibly or no court could possibly find him beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gerald R. Grant:

That's an additional standard that the dissent in the Ninth Circuit recognized.

It's also a standard we've mentioned in our briefs.

However, our one problem with that is that we do not, and this Court has not, equated aggravating circumstances with findings of guilt.

The Jackson standard does apply to standard of guilts... findings of guilt, and for that reason we would prefer the standard stated in Barclay which is the... so unprincipled or arbitrary.

Briefly, in this case the Arizona trial court found two aggravating circumstances in Mr. Jeffers' case.

He found that in committing the murder he created a grave risk of death to others.

He also found that the murder was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved fashion.

In the Arizona State Supreme Court's independent review of this case, it set aside the first aggravating circumstance, the grave risk of death.

And with regard to the second, it set aside the cruelty portion of it.

It found that cruelty had not been shown beyond a reasonable doubt.

It, however, affirmed the finding that he had committed the murder in an especially heinous and... and depraved fashion.

Mr. Jeffers then petitioned for cert. to this court.

Cert. was denied.

He then subsequently filed a Federal habeas corpus petition.

In that petition he made a number of attacks on his... on his sentencing.

Two of those attacks were that the cruel, heinous or depraved aggravating circumstance was void on its face, and, secondly, that it was void as applied to him.

The district court ruled against him on both.

He then went to the Ninth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit... with regard to the first question, the Ninth Circuit, relying on its prior decision in Chaney, found that the circumstance was not void on its face.

It then went on to address the question he had presented, essentially that it was void as applied to him.

The Ninth Circuit concluded, after reviewing some Arizona cases, that the evidence presented did not meet Arizona's definition of cruel, heinous or depraved, the narrowing decision... the narrowing construction that they had previously found had been made by the Arizona Supreme Court.

It's our position that what the Ninth Circuit essentially did, and what Respondent is asking this Court to do, is to allow Federal habeas courts to act as a third sentencer.

Our position that's not the... not the responsibility--