Maxwell v. Bishop

LOCATION: District Court of Garland County

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 398 US 262 (1970)
ARGUED: Mar 04, 1969
REARGUED: May 04, 1970
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1970

Facts of the case

On November 3, 1961 William L. Maxwell was arrested and charged with raping a woman in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The jury convicted him of rape but did not render a verdict of life imprisonment. Accordingly, the trial court imposed the death penalty, and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed. Maxwell sought a writ of habeas corpus in the district court and claimed that his conviction and punishment were unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the jury had determined the guilt and the penalty in a single proceeding. Additionally, he argued that the jury was not given any standards or direction regarding the imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment. The district court denied the writ, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial.


(1) Does the imposition of the death penalty violate the defendant's right to due process when guilt and punishment are determined in a single proceeding?

(2) Does the imposition of the death penalty violate the defendant's right to due process when the jury was not given standards or directions on whether to impose the death penalty or life imprisonment?

Media for Maxwell v. Bishop

Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - May 04, 1970 in Maxwell v. Bishop

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 04, 1969 in Maxwell v. Bishop

Earl Warren:

Number 622, William L. Maxwell, petitioner versus O.E. Bishop, Superintendent, Arkansas State Penitentiary.

Mr. Amsterdam.

Anthony G. Amsterdam:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This is a federal habeas corpus proceeding on behalf of William Maxwell.

It condemned challenging the sentence of death imposed upon him by an Arkansas jury.

Unlike the Boykin case which the Court has just heard.

No question is presented here with regard to the ultimate power of the State of Arkansas to use death as a penalty for crime.

Even for the crime of rape of which William Maxwell was convicted.

The Questions presented relate entirely to the procedures by which the death penalty is administered in the State of Arkansas and by which out of the total number of persons convicted of the crime of rape, some are selected to live and others are selected to die.

We have two federal constitutional claims against the Arkansas procedure which for short reference I may term the standards claim and the single verdict claim.

In order to put this into prospective and to show their relationship because I think they are eminently related.

I would like to take a hard look at the outset if I may at the procedure by which Arkansas does determine case by case and individual cases whether persons convicted of rape shall live or shall go to their death in the electric chair.

Now under Arkansas law, there is one statutory provision which provides that the punishment for the crime of rape is death.

In other statute, in effect since 1915 provides that in any case in which the punishment is death by law, the jury may return instead a verdict of imprisonment for life in state penitentiary.

The effect of these two statutes therefore is to create an authorization.

The availability of returning the death penalty in a broad range of cases but to require the death penalty and not thereby both supposing that selection is possible among the total number of persons convicted of rape and requiring that selection must in fact be made among the total number of persons convicted of rape of some smaller number who shall suffer death, the extreme penalty for that crime.

Now, it’s not surprising that such a selective process is set in motion by Arkansas law because the crime of rape is in Arkansas as elsewhere.

A crime that includes a wide range of factual situations, it is simply any consummated sexual assault.

It can be committed against a mature woman, against a child, with a weapon endangering life, or not endangering life.

The victim can be permanently, physically injured or not permanently physically injured.

Tremendous range of factual situations involved any large range of offenders and in fact on this record one can say that only about a quarter, 25 out of a 100 of the persons actually convicted of rape get to death sentence.

Now, I put the focus here at the beginning to point out what I -- where I think the focus has to be in this case.

On the process by which that selective judgment is made, this is not an insignificant or non-important process.

It is literally vital but it is also vital and legal sense because the law of Arkansas as to whether rape is or is not a capital offense is in fact being made case by case as in each individual adjudication the determination is made whether the defendant lives or dies.

It is a law making process the penalty for rape in Arkansas is not death.

It is subjection to this decisional process and the question which this case presents is whether the specific procedure here is in Arkansas.

To make that decision, comport with the Constitution.

Now, how is the decision in fact made.

It is made in each case by a jury.

A jury cannot be waived in a death case in Arkansas.