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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.
After a trial for first degree murder in the Circuit Court of Citrus County, Florida, a jury found Gardner guilty, and after a separate sentencing hearing required by Florida law, the jury recommended a life sentence, finding that mitigating circumstances outweighed aggravating circumstances. However, the trial judge thereafter entered a judgment sentencing Gardner to death, relying in part on a presentence investigation report, a confidential portion of which was neither disclosed to nor requested by Gardner or his counsel. The trial judge found that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and that such aggravating circumstance outweighed "the mitigating circumstance, to wit: none." Affirming the conviction and sentence without specifically discussing Gardner’s contention that the trial judge had erred in considering the presentencing report, including the confidential portion, the Supreme Court of Florida merely recited the trial judge's finding and stated that the record (which did not include the confidential portion of the presentence report) had been carefully reviewed.
Was the sentencing procedure done on Gardner’s case proper?
The Court vacated Gardner’s sentence. The Court concluded that the sentencing procedure did not satisfy the constitutional command that no person should be deprived of life without due process of law. Gardner argued that the sentencing court had erred in considering the PSR, including the confidential portion. The Court held that if the confidential information was the basis for the death sentence, the interest in reliability plainly outweighed the state's interest in preserving the availability of comparable information in other cases. The Court held that even if it were permissible to withhold a portion of the report from Gardner, 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.