LOCATION: Etowah County Commission
DOCKET NO.: 91-5843
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court
CITATION: 504 US 527 (1992)
ARGUED: Mar 02, 1992
DECIDED: Jun 08, 1992
Carolyn M. Snurkowski - on behalf of the Respondent
Gary Caldwell - on behalf of the Petitioner
Facts of the case
Media for Sochor v. FloridaAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 1992 in Sochor v. Florida
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 08, 1992 in Sochor v. Florida
David H. Souter:
The second case I have to announce this morning is Sochor v. Florida, No. 91-5843.
This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Florida.
The jury found petitioner, Dennis Sochor, guilty of first degree murder for chocking a woman to death when she resisted his attempt to rape her.
After a separate penalty trial, the jury recommended that the Trial Court imposed the death penalty.
The Trial Court found that four of the aggravating factors enumerated in Florida's capital sentencing statute applied to Sochor.
Among them, that Sochor's murder was heinous, atrocious, and cruel and that Sochor committed the murder in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Florida rejected Sochor's claim that vagueness in the description in the heinousness factor resulted in constitutional error.
However, it sustains Sochor's claim that the evidence failed to support the trial judge's finding of the coldness factor.
Nevertheless, the court affirmed Sochor's sentence.
In this court, Sochor renews his claims.
First, that the jury instructions on the heinousness factor were unconstitutionally vague.
We cannot reach that claim however, because the Florida Supreme Court found that Sochor's trial lawyer failed to object when the judge instructed the jury.
Next, we reject on the merits of Sochor's claim that the heinousness factor left the trial judge without sufficient guidance.
The Supreme Court of Florida has consistently held that finding of heinousness is proper when a defendant has strangled a conscious victim and we must assume that the trial judge was aware of that.
Third, Sochor argues that error occurred when the jury considered the coldness factor because the evidence did not support a finding of that factor.
However, Florida juries do not reveal the specific aggravating factors they find and we decline to presume that the jury found the coldness factor applicable even though the evidence did not support it.
Finally, Sochor argues that although the Supreme Court of Florida found that the trial judge erred in considering an aggravating factor that the evidence did not support, the court failed to make sure that the error was harmless.
This time we agree with Sochor.
The court's remarks on the issue are ambiguous at best and thus, insufficient to cure the error.
Accordingly, we vacate the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida and remand the case for further proceedings.
Justice O'Connor has filed a concurring opinion; the Chief Justice has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice White and Justice Thomas have joined.
Justice Stevens has also filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice Blackmun has joined.
Finally, Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.