LOCATION:Attorney General’s Office of MA
DOCKET NO.: 00-5250
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court
CITATION: 532 US 36 (2001)
ARGUED: Jan 09, 2001
DECIDED: Mar 20, 2001
David I. Bruck – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Wesley Aaron Shafer, Jr., was found guilty of murder, among other things. During the sentencing phase, Shafer’s counsel argued that Simmons v. South Carolina required the trial judge to instruct the jury that under South Carolina law a life sentence carries no possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Simmons that where a capital defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and the only sentencing alternative to death available to the jury is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, due process requires that the jury be informed of the defendant’s parole ineligibility. The prosecution responded that because the state did not plan to argue to the jury that Shafer would be a danger in the future that no Simmons instruction was required. During deliberations, the jury asked under what conditions someone convicted of murder could become available for parole. The trial judge stated that parole eligibility or ineligibility was not a matter for the jury’s consideration. Ultimately, the jury recommended the death penalty and the judge imposed the sentence. In affirming, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that Simmons generally did not apply to the State’s sentencing scheme because an alternative to death other than life without the possibility of parole exists.
Did the South Carolina Supreme Court properly hold Simmons v. South Carolina inapplicable to the state’s current sentencing regime?
Media for Shafer v. S. Carolina
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 20, 2001 in Shafer v. S. Carolina
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 00-5250, Shafer against South Carolina will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
In capital cases, a state may support its death penalty plea by suggesting to the jury that the defendant will pose a future danger to society unless the ultimate punishment is imposed.
In a 1994 decision, Simmons against South Carolina, we held that when a state suggests the defendant’s future dangerousness, if the jury is allowed only two sentencing choices, death or life imprison without the possibility of parole, due process requires that the jurors be told of defendant’s parole ineligibility.
This case concerns the application of Simmons to the capital sentencing scheme, effective in South Carolina since 1996.
This scheme enforce when petitioner Wesley Aaron Shafer was tried and convicted of murder.
During the sentencing phase of Shafer’s trial, the defense maintained and the prosecutor denied that the state had placed Shafer’s future dangerousness at issue.
The Trial Court thought the question closed but ruled in the prosecution’s favor.
The judge therefore refused to tell the jury that a life sentence carries no possibility of parole.
He simply instructed that life imprisonment means until the death of the defendant.
After deliberating for some hours, the jury sought further instruction.
It sent a note to the judge asking ‘is there any remote chance for someone convicted of murder to become eligible for parole’.
The judge replied, ‘parole eligibility or ineligibility is not for your consideration’.
About an hour and 20 minutes later, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty which the judge imposed.
The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that court assumed for purposes of its decision that the prosecutor have in fact placed Shafer’s future dangerousness at issue.
Nevertheless, the court held that Simmons was inapplicable to the State’s new sentencing scheme.
Under that regime the court explained, when a capital jury begins its sentencing deliberations, three sentencing possibilities exist: death, life without the possibility of parole, or a mandatory minimum 30-year sentence.
Because an alternative to death, other than life without parole, figures in the scheme, the court concluded that Simmons no longer bears on South Carolina’s capital sentencing.
Satisfied that the South Carolina Supreme Court read our Simmons’ decision incorrectly, we reverse.
The South Carolina Supreme Court’s reasoning might be persuasive if the sentencing discretion entrusted to the jury included the three choices the court identified, but it does not.
South Carolina capital jurors are charged to approach their sentencing task sequentially.
First, they decide whether the state has proven beyond the reasonable doubt, the existence of any of the aggravating circumstances set out in the sentencing statute.
If no statutory aggravator is found unanimously, the jury’s job is done.
The judge then becomes the sentencer and may impose either a life sentence or mandatory minimum 30-year prison term.
If, on the other hand, the jury finds one of the listed aggravators, it then faces just two sentencing choices: death or a life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
No other sentencing option is available to the jury.
When the jurors endeavor the moral judgment whether to impose the death penalty, parole eligibility or the absence thereof, may become critical to its life or death decision.
Therefore, Simmons holds sway at that stage and the jury must be told that the defendant is ineligible for parole.
We reject South Carolina’s alternative argument that the jury was adequately informed by the Trial Court’s instructions and by defense counsel’s closing argument that Shafer would die in prison if sentenced to life.
Eliminating parole availability is a relatively recent development.
Common sense indicates that many jurors might not know whether a life sentence carries with it the possibility of parole.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
The jury’s question whether someone convicted of a murder could be eligible for parole indicates that Shafer’s sentencers failed to gain from counsel or court a clear understanding of what a South Carolina life sentence means.
South Carolina Supreme Court did not take up the question whether the prosecutor’s evidentiary submissions or closing arguments in fact placed Shafer’s future dangerousness at issue.
That matter remains open for consideration on remand.
Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have each filed a dissenting opinion.