Tennessee v. Middlebrooks

PETITIONER: Tennessee
RESPONDENT: Middlebrooks
LOCATION: U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute

DOCKET NO.: 92-989
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: Tennessee Supreme Court

CITATION: 510 US 124 (1993)
ARGUED: Nov 01, 1993
DECIDED: Dec 13, 1993

ADVOCATES:
Charles W. Burson - on behalf of the Petitioner
David C. Stebbins - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Tennessee v. Middlebrooks

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 01, 1993 in Tennessee v. Middlebrooks

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Number 92-989, Tennessee v. Donald Ray Middlebrooks.

General Burson.

Charles W. Burson:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

We ask the Court today to reverse the judgment of the Tennessee supreme court vacating the sentence of death imposed by a jury on Donald Middlebrooks.

The Tennessee death penalty system achieves the goal of rational and principled sentencing in which only those truly deserving of the death penalty suffer the imposition of death.

The central procedural components of the system are narrowing, particularized, and individualized considerations at the penalty phase and proportionality review on direct appeal.

In Tennessee--

William H. Rehnquist:

Have you ever held that proportionality review is constitutionally required?

Charles W. Burson:

--Your Honor, the comparative proportionality review I think this Court has said is not constitutionally required.

The Tennessee supreme court indicated that it undertakes both types, traditional proportionality as well as comparative proportionality.

William H. Rehnquist:

So you're just describing the Tennessee--

Charles W. Burson:

Yes.

William H. Rehnquist:

--system.

Charles W. Burson:

Yes.

In Tennessee, narrowing first occurs when murderers who might otherwise be eligible as capital offenders are excluded by definition from the class of first degree murderers.

It next occurs when the legislature defines specific circumstances of first degree murder for which death may be imposed.

Unless the jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that such a circumstance exists, they cannot impose death.

This is the means of channeling the jury's discretion so as to reduce the likelihood of death being imposed for irrelevant or constitutionally impermissible factors such as race.

It's the State's position that Tennessee's felony murder narrowing device serves this purpose in a rational, principled, and constitutionally sufficient manner.

It is rational in that it clearly, objectively, and specifically identifies circumstances of first degree murder that do not embrace all first degree murders.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Do you have any idea, General Burson, of the percentage of first degree murders that are not subject to the capital sentencing procedure?

Do you have those statistics--

Charles W. Burson:

No, Justice Kennedy--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

--or can you get them to me?

Charles W. Burson:

--and we've tried to kind of run those down, and they're very elusive.

The classes that would not be subject to first degree murder would be simple intent murderers as well as those who murder not in the course of a felony that might be extremely reckless, and they would be preexcluded from the class of first degree murder.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But you can't give us any idea of the percentage of the total universe of first degree murders that the excluded portion consists of?

Charles W. Burson:

No.

William H. Rehnquist:

General Burson, how are you defining first degree murder if simple intent murder comes within first degree murder?

Charles W. Burson:

No, simple intent murder does not come within first degree murder.