Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law
Adam J. McKee
JUSTICE STEVENS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE POWELL joined.
Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. When the trial judge imposed the death sentence he stated that he was relying in part on information in a presentence investigation report. Portions of the report were not disclosed to counsel for the parties. Without reviewing the confidential portion of the presentence report, the Supreme Court of Florida, over the dissent of two justices, affirmed the death sentence. We conclude that this procedure does not satisfy the constitutional command that no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law.
On June 30, 1973, the petitioner assaulted his wife with a blunt instrument, causing her death. On January 10, 1974, after a trial in the Circuit Court of Citrus County, Fla., a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.
The separate sentencing hearing required by Florida law in capital cases was held later on the same day. The State merely introduced two photographs of the decedent, otherwise relying on the trial testimony. That testimony, if credited, was sufficient to support a finding of one of the statutory aggravating circumstances, that the felony committed by petitioner “was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.”
In mitigation petitioner testified that he had consumed a vast quantity of alcohol during a day-long drinking spree which preceded the crime, and professed to have almost no recollection of the assault itself. His testimony, if credited, was sufficient to support a finding of at least one of the statutory mitigating circumstances.
After hearing this evidence, the jury was instructed to determine by a majority vote (1) whether the State had proved one of the aggravating circumstances defined by statute, (2) whether mitigating circumstances outweighed any such aggravating circumstance, and (3) based on that determination, whether the defendant should be sentenced to life or death.
After the jury retired to deliberate, the judge announced that he was going to order a presentence investigation of petitioner. Twenty-five minutes later the jury returned its advisory verdict. It expressly found that the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances and advised the court to impose a life sentence.
The presentence investigation report was completed by the Florida Parole and Probation Commission on January 28, 1974. On January 30, 1974, the trial judge entered findings of fact and a judgment sentencing petitioner to death. His ultimate finding was that the felony “was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel; and that such aggravating circumstances outweighs the mitigating circumstance, to-wit: none.” As a preface to that ultimate finding, he recited that his conclusion was based on the evidence presented at both stages of the bifurcated proceeding, the arguments of counsel, and his review of “the factual information contained in said pre-sentence investigation.”
There is no dispute about the fact that the presentence investigation report contained a confidential portion which was not disclosed to defense counsel. Although the judge noted in his findings of fact that the State and petitioner’s counsel had been given “a copy of that portion of the report to which they are entitled,” counsel made no request to examine the full report or to be apprised of the contents of the confidential portion. The trial judge did not comment on the contents of the confidential portion. His findings do not indicate that there was anything of special importance in the undisclosed portion, or that there was any reason other than customary practice for not disclosing the entire report to the parties.
On appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, petitioner argued that the sentencing court had erred in considering the presentence investigation report, including the confidential portion, in making the decision to impose the death penalty. The per curiam opinion of the Supreme Court did not specifically discuss this contention, but merely recited the trial judge’s finding, stated that the record had been carefully reviewed, and concluded that the conviction and sentence should be affirmed. The record on appeal, however, did not include the confidential portion of the presentence report.
Justice Ervin and Justice Boyd dissented on several grounds. They regarded the evidence as sufficient to establish a mitigating circumstance as a matter of law, and also concluded that it was fundamental error for the trial judge to rely on confidential matter not provided to the parties. They stated, in part:
“Additionally, it appears from the record that there was a ‘confidential’ portion of the PSI report made available to the trial judge which was not provided to either Appellant or Appellee. In fact, it is unclear from the record whether this Court has been provided the ‘confidential’ portion thereof for our review, a critical final step between conviction and imposition of the death penalty – one of the safeguards outlined in Dixon. What evidence or opinion was contained in the ‘confidential’ portion of the report is purely conjectural and absolutely unknown to and therefore unrebuttable by Appellant. We have no means of determining on review what role such ‘confidential’ information played in the trial judge’s sentence, and thus I would overturn Appellant’s death sentence on the basis of this fundamental error alone.”
Petitioner’s execution was stayed pending determination of the constitutionality of the Florida capital-sentencing procedure. Following the decision in Proffitt v. Florida, holding that the Florida procedure, on its face, avoids the constitutional deficiencies identified in Furman v. Georgia, the Court granted certiorari in this case to consider the constitutionality of the trial judge’s use of a confidential presentence report in this capital case.
The State places its primary reliance on this Court’s landmark decision in Williams v. New York. In that case, as in this, the trial judge rejected the jury’s recommendation of mercy and imposed the death sentence in reliance, at least in part, on material contained in a report prepared by the court’s probation department. The New York Court of Appeals had affirmed the sentence, rejecting the contention that it was a denial of due process to rely on information supplied by witnesses whom the accused could neither confront nor cross-examine.
This Court referred to appellant’s claim as a “narrow contention,” and characterized the case as one which “presents a serious and difficult question . . . relating to the rules of evidence applicable to the manner in which a judge may obtain information to guide him in the imposition of sentence upon an already convicted defendant.”
The conviction and sentence were affirmed, over the dissent of two Justices.
Mr. Justice Black’s opinion for the Court persuasively reasons why material developed in a presentence investigation may be useful to a sentencing judge, and why it may not be unfair to a defendant to rely on such information even if it would not be admissible in a normal adversary proceeding in open court. We consider the relevance of that reasoning to this case in Part III of this opinion. Preliminarily, however, we note two comments by Mr. Justice Black that make it clear that the holding of Williams is not directly applicable to this case.
It is first significant that in Williams the material facts concerning the defendant’s background which were contained in the presentence report were described in detail by the trial judge in open court. Referring to this material, Mr. Justice Black noted:
“The accuracy of the statements made by the judge as to appellant’s background and past practices was not challenged by appellant or his counsel, nor was the judge asked to disregard any of them or to afford appellant a chance to refute or discredit any of them by cross-examination or otherwise.”
In contrast, in the case before us, the trial judge did not state on the record the substance of any information in the confidential portion of the presentence report that he might have considered material. There was, accordingly, no similar opportunity for petitioner’s counsel to challenge the accuracy or materiality of any such information.
It is also significant that Mr. Justice Black’s opinion recognized that the passage of time justifies a re-examination of capital-sentencing procedures. As he pointed out: “This whole country has traveled far from the period in which the death sentence was an automatic and commonplace result of convictions—even for offenses today deemed trivial.”
Since that sentence was written almost 30 years ago, this Court has acknowledged its obligation to re-examine capital-sentencing procedures against evolving standards of procedural fairness in a civilized society.
In 1949, when the Williams case was decided, no significant constitutional difference between the death penalty and lesser punishments for crime had been expressly recognized by this Court. At that time the Court assumed that after a defendant was convicted of a capital offense, like any other offense, a trial judge had complete discretion to impose any sentence within the limits prescribed by the legislature. As long as the judge stayed within those limits, his sentencing discretion was essentially unreviewable and the possibility of error was remote, if, indeed, it existed at all. In the intervening years there have been two constitutional developments which require us to scrutinize a State’s capital-sentencing procedures more closely than was necessary in 1949.
First, five Members of the Court have now expressly recognized that death is a different kind of punishment from any other which may be imposed in this country. From the point of view of the defendant, it is different in both its severity and its finality. From the point of view of society, the action of the sovereign in taking the life of one of its citizens also differs dramatically from any other legitimate state action. It is of vital importance to the defendant and to the community that any decision to impose the death sentence be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice or emotion.
Second, it is now clear that the sentencing process, as well as the trial itself, must satisfy the requirements of the Due Process Clause. Even though the defendant has no substantive right to a particular sentence within the range authorized by statute, the sentencing is a critical stage of the criminal proceeding at which he is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel. The defendant has a legitimate interest in the character of the procedure which leads to the imposition of sentence even if he may have no right to object to a particular result of the sentencing process.
In the light of these developments we consider the justifications offered by the State for a capital-sentencing procedure which permits a trial judge to impose the death sentence on the basis of confidential information which is not disclosed to the defendant or his counsel.
The State first argues that an assurance of confidentiality to potential sources of information is essential to enable investigators to obtain relevant but sensitive disclosures from persons unwilling to comment publicly about a defendant’s background or character. The availability of such information, it is argued, provides the person who prepares the report with greater detail on which to base a sentencing recommendation and, in turn, provides the judge with a better basis for his sentencing decision. But consideration must be given to the quality, as well as the quantity, of the information on which the sentencing judge may rely. Assurances of secrecy are conducive to the transmission of confidences which may bear no closer relation to fact than the average rumor or item of gossip, and may imply a pledge not to attempt independent verification of the information received. The risk that some of the information accepted in confidence may be erroneous, or may be misinterpreted, by the investigator or by the sentencing judge, is manifest.
If, as the State argues, it is important to use such information in the sentencing process, we must assume that in some cases it will be decisive in the judge’s choice between a life sentence and a death sentence. If it tends to tip the scales in favor of life, presumably the information would be favorable and there would be no reason why it should not be disclosed. On the other hand, if it is the basis for a death sentence, the interest in reliability plainly outweighs the State’s interest in preserving the availability of comparable information in other cases.
The State also suggests that full disclosure of the presentence report will unnecessarily delay the proceeding. We think the likelihood of significant delay is overstated because we must presume that reports prepared by professional probation officers, as the Florida procedure requires, are generally reliable. In those cases in which the accuracy of a report is contested, the trial judge can avoid delay by disregarding the disputed material. Or if the disputed matter is of critical importance, the time invested in ascertaining the truth would surely be well spent if it makes the difference between life and death.
The State further urges that full disclosure of presentence reports, which often include psychiatric and psychological evaluations, will occasionally disrupt the process of rehabilitation. The argument, if valid, would hardly justify withholding the report from defense counsel. Moreover, whatever force that argument may have in noncapital cases, it has absolutely no merit in a case in which the judge has decided to sentence the defendant to death. Indeed, the extinction of all possibility of rehabilitation is one of the aspects of the death sentence that makes it different in kind from any other sentence a State may legitimately impose.
Finally, Florida argues that trial judges can be trusted to exercise their discretion in a responsible manner, even though they may base their decisions on secret information. However acceptable that argument might have been before Furman v. Georgia, it is now clearly foreclosed. Moreover, the argument rests on the erroneous premise that the participation of counsel is superfluous to the process of evaluating the relevance and significance of aggravating and mitigating facts. Our belief that debate between adversaries is often essential to the truth-seeking function of trials requires us also to recognize the importance of giving counsel an opportunity to comment on facts which may influence the sentencing decision in capital cases.
Even if it were permissible to withhold a portion of the report from a defendant, and even from defense counsel, pursuant to an express finding of good cause for nondisclosure, it would nevertheless be necessary to make the full report a part of the record to be reviewed on appeal. Since the State must administer its capital-sentencing procedures with an even hand, it is important that the record on appeal disclose to the reviewing court the considerations which motivated the death sentence in every case in which it is imposed. Without full disclosure of the basis for the death sentence, the Florida capital-sentencing procedure would be subject to the defects which resulted in the holding of unconstitutionality in Furman v. Georgia. In this particular case, the only explanation for the lack of disclosure is the failure of defense counsel to request access to the full report. That failure cannot justify the submission of a less complete record to the reviewing court than the record on which the trial judge based his decision to sentence petitioner to death.
Nor do we regard this omission by counsel as an effective waiver of the constitutional error in the record. There are five reasons for this conclusion. First, the State does not urge that the objection has been waived. Second, the Florida Supreme Court has held that it has a duty to consider “the total record,” when it reviews a death sentence. Third, since two members of that court expressly considered this point on the appeal in this case, we presume that the entire court passed on the question. Fourth, there is no basis for presuming that the defendant himself made a knowing and intelligent waiver, or that counsel could possibly have made a tactical decision not to examine the full report. Fifth, since the judge found, in disagreement with the jury, that the evidence did not establish any mitigating circumstance, and since the presentence report was the only item considered by the judge but not by the jury, the full review of the factual basis for the judge’s rejection of the advisory verdict is plainly required. For if the jury, rather than the judge, correctly assessed the petitioner’s veracity, the death sentence rests on an erroneous factual predicate.
We conclude that petitioner was denied due process of law when the death sentence was imposed, at least in part, on the basis of information which he had no opportunity to deny or explain.
There remains only the question of what disposition is now proper. Petitioner’s conviction, of course, is not tainted by the error in the sentencing procedure. The State argues that we should merely remand the case to the Florida Supreme Court with directions to have the entire presentence report made a part of the record to enable that court to complete its reviewing function. That procedure, however, could not fully correct the error. For it is possible that full disclosure, followed by explanation or argument by defense counsel, would have caused the trial judge to accept the jury’s advisory verdict. Accordingly, the death sentence is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Florida Supreme Court with directions to order further proceedings at the trial court level not inconsistent with this opinion.
Vacated and remanded.
Last Modified: 08/21/2019