Walton v. Arizona

PETITIONER: Jeffrey Alan Walton
RESPONDENT: State of Arizona
LOCATION: Gates Pass, Tucson, Arizona

DOCKET NO.: 88-7351
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Arizona Supreme Court

CITATION: 497 US 639 (1990)
ARGUED: Jan 17, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1990

Paul Joseph McMurdie - on behalf of the Petitioner
Timothy K. Ford - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

According to Arizona state law, after a person has been convicted of first-degree murder, there is a separate sentencing hearing to determine whether the punishment will be death or life imprisonment. The court must determine whether aggravating or mitigating factors were present. The judge imposes the death sentence if one or more aggravating factors are proven to exist.

On March 2, 1986, Jeffrey Alan Walton, Robert Hoover, and Sharold Ramsey went to a bar in Tucson intending to rob someone at random and steal that individual’s car. The three robbed Thomas Powell at gunpoint and forced him into his car that they drove into the desert. They later stopped the car, forced Powell to lie on the ground, and Walton shot him in the head. After the body was found, the coroner determined that the shot did not kill Powell, but rather that he died from dehydration, starvation, and pneumonia from being left in the desert. Walton was convicted of first-degree murder.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution argued that two aggravating factors were present: the murder was committed in “an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner” and for the purposes of financial gain. The defense argued that mitigating factors were present in the form of Walton’s history of substance abuse, possible sexual abuse as a child, and the fact that he was 20 years old at the time of the trial. The court found that the aggravating factors were present, and the judge sentenced Walton to death. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.



Are the Arizona state statutes governing death penalty sentencing constitutional under the Sixth Amendment?

Media for Walton v. Arizona

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1990 in Walton v. Arizona

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 89-7351, Jeffrey Alan Walton v. Arizona.

Mr. Ford.

Timothy K. Ford:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case presents three issues regarding the constitutionality of aspects of Arizona's death sentencing statute.

I'd like to begin by briefly addressing the last of those that is discussed in our briefs, the constitutionality of the provision of Arizona law that makes murder a capital crime if it is committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved fashion.

That issue is before the Court, of course, in another case, Lewis v. Jeffers, which will be argued I believe immediately after the recess the Court is about to take.

And it is our submission, as it is the submission of the Respondent in Lewis, that the case is directly controlled by this Court's decision in Maynard v. Cartwright, holding almost identical language in the Oklahoma statute to have failed to control sentencing discretion.

The... Professor Rosen, who wrote the seminal article on this... it was relied on in Maynard and also the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals en banc and the Adamson case, have also reviewed the Arizona statute, its application, in great detail, and come to the conclusion that there is no way in which it can be distinguished from the Oklahoma statute in Maynard.

Since Adamson, of course, the Arizona court has gone even farther.

This case was decided by the Arizona Supreme Court after Adamson, and that court continued to take steps to stretch the breadth of this aggravating circumstance even to greater lengths.

In this case, affirming a trial judge's finding of the aggravating circumstance which was unadorned by any explanation of what the trial judge's understanding of what the circumstance meant, which followed arguments by the prosecution with regard to an interpretation of the statute which the Arizona Supreme Court rejected.

And in this case, the Arizona court took the final step in a series of decisions by which it ultimately said that the fear of a robbery victim, a person who is not necessarily even going to be the victim of a homicide, the uncertainty of... as to the person's fate is sufficient to constitute suffering which is sufficient to constitute cruelty, which is sufficient to make out the statute and qualify a defendant in that kind of a case for a sentence of death.

And in this case, as we pointed out in our--

Antonin Scalia:

That... that is different from... from just in the course of a robbery suddenly shooting someone.

I mean, I... I suppose holding someone hostage in... as occurred in this case, debating with your accomplices whether you will kill him or not while he's lying there on the ground... I suppose that is something in addition to merely killing somebody in the course of a robbery, isn't it?

Timothy K. Ford:

--Well, I can't refrain, Justice Scalia, from pointing out that there isn't, of course, any testimony that such a debate occurred.

That... that debate is a product of the rhetoric of the Arizona Attorney General and the Arizona Supreme Court.

According to the witness, the discussion was over what the person would be tied up with.

But, again, to take the Court's hypothetical, there are always those facts that can be said to distinguish one homicide from another, to constitute as... cruelty because every homicide, as the Court has pointed out in Maynard, is... could be said by a reasonable person to be cruel.

You can always find a fact in any case that says, well, that's a cruel fact.

That's different than some other cases.

Byron R. White:

Well, what about this... how about the fact that Justice Scalia points to?

You say it's a hypothetical but, nevertheless, that's what the... that's what the Arizona Supreme Court recited.

And what about that fact?

Timothy K. Ford:

Well, if the Arizona Supreme Court had said that discussing whether or not to shoot a person in... in his presence was an aggravating circumstance... and that was the definition of this aggravating circumstance... that would be, of course, a different case.

They never said that--

Byron R. White:


Timothy K. Ford:

--until this case, and I'm not sure they said it in this case.

Byron R. White:

--Well, what if they did say it in this case?

Timothy K. Ford:

Well, if they did say it in this case, the point... our point again... remains, Justice White, that they never said it in any case before and in many other cases where it occurred before that was--