Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-4624(e) does not create a general presumption in favor of the death penalty in the State of Kansas. Rather, the Kansas capital sentencing system is dominated by the presumption that life imprisonment is the appropriate sentence for a capital conviction. If the State fails to meet its burden to demonstrate the existence of an aggravating circumstance(s) beyond a reasonable doubt, a sentence of life imprisonment must be imposed. § 21-4624(e). If the State overcomes this hurdle, then it bears the additional burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that aggravating circumstances are not outweighed by mitigating circumstances. Significantly, although the defendant appropriately bears the burden of proffering mitigating circumstances--a burden of production--he never bears the burden of demonstrating that mitigating circumstances outweigh aggravating circumstances. Instead, the State always has the burden of demonstrating that mitigating evidence does not outweigh aggravating evidence. Absent the State's ability to meet that burden, the default is life imprisonment. Moreover, if the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision--in any respect--a sentence of life must be imposed. § 21-4624(c). This system does not create a presumption that death is the appropriate sentence for capital murder.
Defendant broke into the home of the victim and lay in wait for her to return. When the victim entered her home with her 19-month-old daughter, defendant killed the victim. The home was set on fire with the toddler inside, and the toddler burned to death. The jury convicted defendant of the capital murder of the toddler and sentenced him to death based upon a statute requiring capital punishment upon finding beyond reasonable doubt the existence of both aggravating and mitigating circumstances that are on equipoise. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed and made a remand since the statute’s weighing equation is facially unconstitutional.
Is the weighing equation provided by Kansas’ death penalty statute for the imposition of capital punishment by the jury, which required a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, constitutional?
The Court held that it had jurisdiction as the Kansas Supreme Court's determination that Kansas' death penalty statute was facially unconstitutional was final and binding on the lower state courts leaving the State without means to obtain further review and that decision clearly rested on the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, not on adequate and independent state grounds. Although prior caselaw did not discuss the equipoise issue explicitly, that issue was resolved by its holding. The Court held that Kansas' death penalty statute, Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-4624(e) (1995), was consistent with the Constitution as it directed imposition of the death penalty when the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigators did not outweigh aggravators, including where the aggravating circumstances and mitigating circumstances were in equipoise.