Schad v. Arizona

LOCATION: Clark County Jail

DOCKET NO.: 90-5551
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Arizona Supreme Court

CITATION: 501 US 624 (1991)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1991

Denise I. Young - Argued the cause for the petitioner
R. Wayne Ford - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

An Arizona prosecutor brought a charge of first-degree murder against Schad after he was found with a murder victim's vehicle and other belongings. In Arizona, first-degree murder is murder committed with premeditation or murder committed in an attempt to rob. Schad maintained that circumstantial evidence established at most that he was a thief. The jury's instructions addressed first-and second-degree murder, not theft. The jury convicted Schad of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Schad to death.


Does the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment require juries in capital cases to be instructed on every lesser offense, includeding non-capital offenses, (e.g., robbery) that are supported by the evidence?

Media for Schad v. Arizona

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1991 in Schad v. Arizona

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 1991 in Schad v. Arizona

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-5551, Schad against Arizona will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arizona.

The petitioner was indicted for first degree murder in the strangling of a 74-year-old man after he was found in possession of the man’s car and other belongings.

In Arizona or as in many states, first degree murder may be committed by premeditation or in the course of committing a serious felony.

At the trial, the prosecutor advanced theories both of premeditated murder and felony murder.

Whereas, the petitioner claimed that the evidence showed at most that he was a thief, not a murderer.

The Trial Court instructed the jurors on first degree murder by premeditation or on the course of a felony and on the lesser included offense of second degree murder.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder and the petitioner was sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed rejecting petitioner’s contention that the Trial Court erred in not requiring the jury to agree on a single theory of first degree murder rather than allowing them to combine findings of either premeditated or felony murder.

The court also rejected the argument that Beck v. Alabama required an instruction on a lesser included offense of robbery.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we hold first that Beck did not entitle petitioner to a jury instruction on robbery.

Beck held unconstitutional an Alabama statute prohibiting lesser included defense instructions in capital cases.

It was based on a concern that a jury convinced that the defendant had committed some violent crime but not convinced that he was guilty of a capital offense might nonetheless vote for a capital conviction if the only alternative was to set the defendant free with no penalty at all.

This concern is not implicated here because the jury was given a third option of convicting petitioner of the non-capital offense of second degree murder and nonetheless found him guilty of murder in the first degree.

It would be irrational to assume that the jury might have chosen capital murder rather than second degree murder as its means of keeping a robber off the street.

There is, thus, no reason to doubt the reliability of the capital murder verdict.

Second, in an opinion in which I am joined by the Chief Justice, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy, we conclude that Arizona’s characterization of first degree murder is a single crime as to which the jury need not agree on one of the alternative theories of premeditated or felony murder is not unconstitutional.

That there is a long established rule that a jury need not agree on which overt act, among several, was the means by which a crime was committed and we think the same is true as to different means of satisfying the mens rea element of the crime which is at issue here.

The Due Process Clause, however, does place limits on a state’s capacity to define different courses of conduct or states of mind as merely alternative means of committing a single offense.

There is point at which differences between the means become so important that they may not be viewed merely as alternatives to a common end but must be treated as differentiating between what the Constitution requires to be treated as separate offenses requiring separate jury findings.

Because there is no a priori standard for determining the point at which different means must be treated as reaching independent ends, the inquiry must be taken with a threshold presumption of legislative competence as indicated by our burden-shifting cases such as Patterson and New York.

We also find it significant here that Arizona’s treatment of premeditated and felony murder is mere means of establishing a single offense subject to a general verdict find substantial, historical, and contemporary echoes.

We have confidence that state criminal definitions and practices will not retain wide acceptance over time if they conflict with notions of fairness and rationality sufficiently fundamental to be comprehended in due process.

Finally, we note that the mental state necessary for premeditated murder and not necessary for felony murder can reasonably be considered equivalent as established by our cases, such as Tison and Arizona.

This is enough to rule out the argument that a moral disparity bars treating the two mental states merely as alternative means of satisfying the mental element of the single offense.

Although the foregoing considerations may not exhaust the universe of considerations potentially relevant, they are sufficient to persuade us that the jury’s options in this case did not fall beyond the constitutional bounds of fundamental fairness and rationality.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment; Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion in which he is joined by Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens.