North Carolina's unanimity requirement, which prevents the jury from considering, in deciding whether to impose the death penalty, any mitigating factor that the jury does not unanimously find, violates the Constitution by preventing the sentencer from considering all mitigating evidence.
Petitioner, Dock McKoy, Jr. was convicted in a North Carolina court of first-degree murder. In the trial's sentencing phase, the jury made a binding recommendation of death after finding unanimously, as required by instructions given both orally and in a written verdict form: (1) the existence of two statutory aggravating circumstances; (2) the existence of two of eight possible mitigating circumstances; (3) that the mitigating circumstances found were insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstances found; and (4) that the aggravating circumstances found were sufficiently substantial to call for the imposition of the death penalty when considered with the mitigating circumstances found. The petitioner appealed, claiming that the unanimity requirement in North Carolina's capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The petitioner asserted that the requirement prevented the jury from considering any mitigating factor that the jury did not unanimously find in deciding whether to impose the death penalty. The State Supreme Court rejected petitioner’s challenge to his sentence emphasizing that Issue Four in North Carolina's scheme allowed the jury to recommend life imprisonment if it felt that the aggravating circumstances did not call for the death penalty even if it had found several aggravating circumstances and no mitigating ones.
Is the unanimity requirement in North Carolina’s capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional?
The Court held that the unanimity requirement in North Carolina's capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the requirement impermissibly limited the jurors' consideration of mitigating evidence by allowing one holdout juror to prevent the others from giving effect to evidence that might have called for a sentence less than death. Mitigating circumstances not unanimously found to be present by the jury did not become irrelevant to mitigation merely because one or more jurors either did not believe that the circumstance had been proved as a factual matter or did not think that the circumstance, though proved, mitigated the offense. The requirement was not acceptable as a standard of proof intended to ensure the reliability of mitigating evidence because it was a barrier to the constitutional requirement that the states allow consideration of mitigating evidence in capital cases.