LOCATION: US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
DOCKET NO.: 99-5746
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
CITATION: 528 US 225 (2000)
ARGUED: Dec 06, 1999
DECIDED: Jan 19, 2000
Mark E. Olive - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Robert H. Anderson, III - Richmond, Virginia, argued the cause for the respondent
Facts of the case
Lonnie Weeks, Jr., was found guilty of capital murder in the death of Virginia State Trooper Jose Cavazos. During the penalty phase of his trial, the prosecution sought to prove two aggravating circumstances. Weeks' defense presented 10 witnesses in mitigation. During deliberations, the jurors sent the trial judge a note asking whether, if they believed Weeks guilty of at least one of the aggravating circumstances, it was their duty to issue the death penalty, or whether they must decide whether to issue the death penalty or a life sentence. In responding, the trial judge only referred the jury to their instructions, which stated: "If you find from the evidence that the Commonwealth has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, either of the two [aggravating circumstances], and as to that alternative, you are unanimous, then you may fix the punishment...at death, or if you believe from all the evidence that the death penalty is not justified, then you shall fix the punishment...at life imprisonment." The defense counsel objected, arguing for the judge to instruct the jury it could find one or both of the aggravating circumstances and still impose a life sentence. In finding one of the aggravating circumstances and after considering the evidence in mitigation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict fixing Weeks' punishment at death. On appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Weeks' presented 47 assignments of error, of which his assignment of error respecting the judge's answering the jury's question about mitigating circumstances was number 44. The court affirmed Weeks' conviction and sentence. Weeks' petition for federal habeas relief was ultimately denied.
Is the Constitution's due process requirement violated when a trial judge directs a capital jury's attention to a specific paragraph of a constitutionally sufficient instruction in response to a question regarding the proper consideration of mitigating circumstances?
Media for Weeks v. AngeloneAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 06, 1999 in Weeks v. Angelone
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 19, 2000 in Weeks v. Angelone
William H. Rehnquist:
I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 99-5746, Weeks against Angelone.
Virginia jury found the petitioner Lonnie Weeks Jr., guilty of the murder of Virginia State Trooper.
At sentencing the prosecution sought to prove too aggravating circumstances, and petitioner presented 10 witnesses in mitigation.
While the jurors were deliberating, they sent the trial judge a note, the jurors note asked, whether assuming that they had found that the prosecution proved in aggravating circumstance, they were required to give the death penalty or could choose between a life sentence and the death penalty.
The judge responded by directing the jurors to the precise paragraph of the jury instruction that dealt with their question, and we have previously held in our Buchanan opinion that this jury instruction satisfies the Constitution.
Two hours later the jury returned a verdict finding one of the aggravating circumstances and sentencing the petitioner to death.
The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction in sentence.
A Federal Habeas District Court denied relief and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of habeas relief.
Petitioner argues that the manner in which the trial judge answered the juror’s question did not resolve their confusion.
Thus he contends there exists a reasonable likelihood that the jurors felt they were not free to consider mitigating evidence in violation of our cases.
For reasons set out in detail in our opinion, we hold that petitioner is not demonstrated that such a reasonable likelihood exists.
Accordingly, we conclude that petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief under Section 2254(d) and the judgment of Court of Appeals is affirmed.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg and Breyer joined and in which Justice Souter joins in part.