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Law School Case Brief

Lockett v. Ohio - 438 U.S. 586, 98 S. Ct. 2954 (1978)


The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencing court, in all but the rarest kind of capital case, not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.


The Ohio death penalty statute provided that once a defendant was found guilty of aggravated murder with at least one of seven specified aggravating circumstances, the death penalty must be imposed unless, considering "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history, character, and condition of the offender," the sentencing judge would determine that at least one of the following circumstances was established by a preponderance of the evidence: (i) the victim induced or facilitated the offense; (ii) it was unlikely that the offense would have been committed but for the fact that the offender was under duress, coercion, or strong provocation; or (iii) the offense was primarily the product of the offender's psychosis or mental deficiency. Defendant, whose conviction of aggravated murder with specifications that it was committed to escape apprehension for, and while committing or attempting to commit, aggravated robbery, and whose sentence to death were affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court, petitioned the United States Supreme Court, challenging the validity of her conviction and attacking the constitutionality of the death penalty statute on the ground, inter alia, that it did not give the sentencing judge a full opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances in capital cases as required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


Was the Ohio death penalty statute unconstitutional because it does not give the sentencing judge a full opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances in capital cases?




The Court held that the Ohio death penalty statute, Ohio Rev Code Ann. § 2929.04(B) (1975), violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment because it did not permit the sentencer to consider a necessary range of mitigating factors, including the defendant's character, age, record, or the circumstances of the offense. According to the Court, the statute was unconstitutionally narrow where it imposed a mandatory death sentence based on a finding that the victim did not induce the offense, that the defendant did not act under duress or coercion, and that the crime was not the product of the victim's mental deficiency. Under § 2929.04(B), the Court could not consider, as constitutionally required, that defendant had not intended to kill the victim and that she played minor role in the crime, unless the circumstances pertained to the three mitigating factors.

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