Zant v. Stephens

Facts of the Case

On August 19, 1974, while respondent Zant was serving sentences for several burglary convictions and was also awaiting trial for escape, he again escaped from the Houston County Jail. In the next two days he committed two auto thefts, an armed robbery, and several burglaries. On August 21st, Roy Asbell interrupted respondent and an accomplice in the course of burglarizing the home of Asbell’s son in Twiggs County. Respondent beat Asbell, robbed him, and, with the aid of the accomplice, drove him in his own vehicle a short distance into Bleckley County. There they killed Asbell by shooting him twice through the ear at point blank range. In January 1975, a jury in Bleckley County, Georgia, convicted respondent of the murder of Roy Asbell and sentenced him to death after finding three aggravating circumstances set forth in the Georgia death penalty statute. Thereafter, respondent sought review of his conviction at both the state and federal levels. The federal court of appeals held that respondent’s sentence was to be vacated because one of the aggravating circumstances had subsequently been held invalid. The State appealed this decision.


Should the court grant habeas corpus to Stephens because one of the aggravating circumstances leading to his death sentence is now invalid?


No. In a 7-2 decision, Justice John Paul Stephens wrote the majority opinion reversing the court of appeals. The Supreme Court held that where there are other valid aggravating circumstances to substantiate the death sentence, habeas relief is not available. The jury did not rely solely on the invalid factor in making its decision. Justice Byron R. White wrote a concurrence, stating that the sentence could stand on a line of cases where convictions are upheld if any of the counts are sustainable. Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote a concurrence emphasizing the application of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in capitol sentencing cases.Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissent condemning capital punishment as cruel and unusual. He also felt the aggravating circumstance used in making the sentencing decision was constitutionally defective. Justice William J. Brennan joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 462 US 862 (1983)
  • Argued: Feb 24, 1982
  • Decided Jun 22, 1983Granted: Oct 5, 1981