Stringer v. Black

RESPONDENT:Black, Commissioner, Mississippi Department Of Corrections, et al.
LOCATION:Northern District Court of New York

DOCKET NO.: 90-6616
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 503 US 222 (1992)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1991
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1992

Kenneth J. Rose – on behalf of the Petitioner
Marvin L. White, Jr. – on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Stringer v. Black

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 09, 1991 in Stringer v. Black

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 09, 1992 in Stringer v. Black

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-6616, Stringer versus Black will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case is here after we granted a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

After James Stringer was found guilty of murder, he was sentenced to death by a jury in a Mississippi State Court.

The jury found there were three aggravating factors, but one of them, that the capital murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel was not further defined or explained according to the standards that we have set forth in various cases including one case, Maynard versus Cartwright.

Maynard versus Cartwright was decided after Stringer’s conviction became final.

Stringer’s conviction was affirmed on direct review and he failed to obtain relief in collateral proceedings in the State Courts.

He sought relief in the Federal Court system and after various proceedings including one remand from us, the Court of Appeals again denied relief.

Stringer is the petitioner in the case here today.

The case turns on the application of the doctrine of Teague versus Lane, a 1989 case from this Court.

In Teague, we said that final convictions in criminal cases are not to be upset by collateral proceedings based on new principles of law announced after the convictions are final.

There are two exceptions to Teague but neither is applicable in Stringer’s case.

So the question is whether the relief stringer seeks would require the application of principles that were announced after his conviction and sentenced were final.

We have little difficulty in concluding that the imprecision in the jury instruction did violate then settled principles and indeed, the State of Mississippi appears to concede as much.

And so cases such as Maynard versus Cartwright did not break new ground in Stringer’s case.

The harder question is whether the rules we have set forth to implement our standards on jury instructions are also retroactive or on the other hand, whether they are a new law.

The dispute comes down to whether or not the Mississippi Courts had noticed that when one of the three aggravating factors is invalid, they have a duty to examine the evidence and reexamine it to see that it supported the death sentence and reweigh it or subject it to harmless error analysis.

We hold that the requirements of reweighing and evaluating for harmless error were not new rules and that they were binding on the Mississippi Courts when Stringer’s case came before them.

It is argued that Mississippi’s sentencing system is different from the system used in the states where we have required disclose appellate scrutiny because Mississippi is a weighing state when in which the jury balances the aggravating factors against all of the mitigating evidence.

But in our view, this serves only to highlight the importance of appellate scrutiny.

When the sentencing body is told to weigh an invalid factor in its decision, Reviewing Court may not assume it would have made no difference if the thumb had been removed from death side of the scale.

When the weighing process itself has been skewed, only constitutional harmless error analysis or reweighing at the trial or appellate level can suffice to guarantee that the defendant received an individualized sentence.

We think this result is dictated by our decisions prior to the time petitioner’s conviction and sentence became final.

The judgment is reversed and the case remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia and Thomas join.