Simmons v. South Carolina

PETITIONER: Jonathan Dale Simmons
RESPONDENT: South Carolina
LOCATION: Richland County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 92-9059
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 512 US 154 (1994)
ARGUED: Jan 18, 1994
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1994

ADVOCATES:
David I. Bruck - by appointment of the Court, for the petitioner
Richard A. Harpootlian - for the respondent

Facts of the case

In July 1990, Jonathan Dale Simmons beat an elderly woman to death in her home. The week before his trial for capital murder was scheduled to begin, Simmons pled guilty to first-degree robbery and two counts of criminal sexual conduct in connection with two previous assaults. These guilty pleas rendered him ineligible for parole if convicted of any other violent-crime offense. Prior to jury selection, the trial court judge granted the prosecution’s motion to bar any questions pertaining to parole during the jury selection process. Simmons was convicted of murder and brought forth mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. In closing arguments, the prosecution focused on the issue of the future danger the defendant presented to society as a reason to sentence him to death. The defense requested that the trial judge give a specific jury instruction clarifying the meaning of “life imprisonment” in this case, and the trial judge refused to do so. The jury sentenced Simmons to death. On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court declined to reach a decision on the merits and instead held that the trial judge’s instructions to the jury satisfied the substance of Simmons’ request.

Question

Does a state court’s refusal to instruct a jury in a sentencing trial that a defendant is ineligible for parole violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Simmons v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 1994 in Simmons v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 17, 1994 in Simmons v. South Carolina

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 92-9059, Simmons against South Carolina will be announced by Justice Blackmun.

Harry A. Blackmun:

This case comes to us from the Supreme Court of the State of South Carolina.

During the penalty phase of petitioner's State Court trial, the state argued that future dangerousness was a factor for the jury to consider in deciding between the death penalty and life imprisonment for the murder of an elderly woman.

Petitioner in rebuttal presented evidence that his future dangerousness was limited to elderly women.

The court refused to give the jury petitioner's proposed instruction that under state law he was ineligible for parole.

The court instructed the jury not to consider parole in reaching their verdict.

A death sentence was returned.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the instruction satisfies in substance petitioner's request for a charge on ineligibility.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, that judgment is reversed and the case is remanded.

The opinion I have written is only a plurality and is joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg.

We would hold that due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible.

The Trial Court's instruction did not satisfy petitioner's request for a parole ineligibility charge.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Stevens has joined.

Justice O'Connor, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy, concluded that where the state puts a defendant's future dangerousness at issue and the only available alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without parole, then due process entitles the defendant to inform the sentencing jury that he is parole ineligible.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a concurring opinion, and Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined.