Lowenfield v. Phelps

LOCATION:Wall Street Journal Corporate Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 86-6867
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1987-1988)

CITATION: 484 US 231 (1988)
ARGUED: Oct 14, 1987
DECIDED: Jan 13, 1988

Facts of the case


Media for Lowenfield v. Phelps

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 14, 1987 in Lowenfield v. Phelps

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 13, 1988 in Lowenfield v. Phelps

William H. Rehnquist:

I have two opinions for the Court to announce.

The first is No. 86-6867, Lowenfield against Phelps.

In this case petitioner, Leslie Lowenfield was charged in Louisiana with murdering of five people.

A Louisiana jury found him guilty on three counts of first degree murder and during the trial of several hours in the sentencing deliberations that ensued, the jury sent a note to the judge, indicating there were having difficulty reaching a verdict.

The judge polled the jury as to whether further deliberations might be fruitful and the substantial majority of the jurors answered in the affirmative.

The judge proceeded to instruct the jury that it should attempt to reach a unanimous verdict but remind that the jurors not to surrender their honest beliefs.

The jury resumed deliberation in a short time later and returned the verdict sentencing petitioner to death on all three counts of first degree murder.

In support of these three sentences, the jury found the statutory aggravating circumstance of knowingly creating a risk of death or great bodily harm to more than one person.

After exhausting state remedies, the petitioner sought federal habeas corpus.

He lost in the Federal District Court and in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

He brought the two claims raised below here, one that the Louisiana system of capital punishment does not adequately confine the jury’s discretion; and two, that the judges charged an inquiry of the jury coerce the verdict.

As explained in an opinion filed today, we reject both of these claims.

We conclude that under all the facts and circumstances here the jury was not coerced into rendering its verdict at the sentencing phase.

A trial judge has allowed to deliver a supplemental charge, urging a jury to reach a verdict even at the death penalty sentencing stage, and the inquiries made of the jurors as to the likely value of further deliberation did not inform the Trial Court as to the numerical division of the jury on the merits and were not improper.

We also reject petitioner’s claim of the use of an element of the offense as to the sole aggravating circumstance in support of a death sense fails adequately to perform the constitutionally mandated function of narrowing the class of murderers eligible for the death penalty.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is accordingly affirmed.

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Brennan has joined; Justice Stevens has joined the part of the Court’s opinion and a part Justice Marshall’s dissenting opinion.