Sawyer v. Whitley

LOCATION:Mississippi Governor’s Office

DOCKET NO.: 91-6382
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 505 US 333 (1992)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 1992
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1992

Dorothy A. Pendergast – on behalf of the Respondent
Paul J. Larkin, Jr. – on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae supporting Respondent
R. Neal Walker – on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Sawyer v. Whitley

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 25, 1992 in Sawyer v. Whitley

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 22, 1992 in Sawyer v. Whitley

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 91-6382, Sawyer against Whitley.

The petitioner in this case, Robert Sawyer, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Louisiana jury for the murder of Frances Arwood which was committed in 1979.

Petitioner and his accomplice beat Arwood, scolded her with boiling water, and lit her on fire.

Petitioner’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal and both the State and Federal Courts denied later petitions for habeas relief.

The District Court denied relief to Sawyer on this, his second federal habeas petition, without reaching the merits of the bulk of his claims, because it concluded that the claims were either abusive, that is, they could have been brought in his first petition but were not or successive, meaning that they were brought and decided against him in the first petition.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court holding that Sawyer could not bring himself within the miscarriage of justice exception described in our cases because he had failed to show that he was actually innocent of the murder of the death penalty.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the Court of Appeals and hold that to show actual innocence of the death penalty so as to allow a Federal Court to reach the merits of abusive or successive claims a petitioner must show by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would find him eligible for the death penalty under applicable state law.

This standard properly concentrates on the objective factors which must be proved before a defendant is eligible to have the death sentence imposed.

We reject petitioner’s submission that the standard applied by the Eighth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals which would allow actual innocence to be established by showing that constitutional error prevented the jury from considering relevant mitigating evidence.

Including mitigating factors would allow a showing of actual innocence on little more than what is required to show prejudice under our present law.

Sawyer must, therefore, show that the evidence claim to have been admitted, omitted, or excluded in violation of the Constitution and his case would have shown him to be ineligible for the death penalty.

He is not made such a showing and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Blackmun and Justice O’Connor have joined; Justice Blackmun has also filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.