Eddings v. Oklahoma


No. 80-5727 Argued: November 2, 1981 --- Decided: January 19, 1982
JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Monty Lee Eddings was convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to death. Because this sentence was imposed without "the type of individualized consideration of mitigating factors . . . required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in capital cases," Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 606 (1978) (opinion of BURGER, C.J.), we reverse.


On April 4, 1977, Eddings, a 16-year-old youth, and several younger companions ran away from their Missouri homes. They traveled in a car owned by Eddings' brother, and drove [p106] without destination or purpose in a southwesterly direction, eventually reaching the Oklahoma Turnpike. Eddings had in the car a shotgun and several rifles he had taken from his father. After he momentarily lost control of the car, he was signalled to pull over by Officer Crabtree of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Eddings did so, and when the officer approached the car, Eddings stuck a loaded shotgun out of the window and fired, killing the officer.

Because Eddings was a juvenile, the State moved to have him certified to stand trial as an adult. Finding that there was prosecutive merit to the complaint and that Eddings was not amenable to rehabilitation within the juvenile system, the trial court granted the motion. The ruling was affirmed on appeal. In re M. E., 584 P.2d 1340 (Okla.Crim.App.), cert. denied sub nom. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 436 U.S. 921 (1978). Eddings was then charged with murder in the first degree, and the District Court of Creek County found him guilty upon his plea of nolo contendere.

The Oklahoma death penalty statute provides in pertinent part:

Upon conviction . . . of guilt of a defendant of murder in the first degree, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing proceeding to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. . . . In the sentencing proceeding, evidence may be presented as to any mitigating circumstances or as to any of the aggravating circumstances enumerated in this act.

Okla.Stat., Tit. 21, § 701.10 (1980) (emphasis added). Section 701.12 lists seven separate aggravating circumstances; the statute nowhere defines what is meant by "any mitigating circumstances."

At the sentencing hearing, the State alleged three of the aggravating circumstances enumerated in the statute: that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, that the crime was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing [p107] a lawful arrest, and that there was a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society. §§ 701.12(4), (5), and (7).

In mitigation, Eddings presented substantial evidence at the hearing of his troubled youth. The testimony of his supervising Juvenile Officer indicated that Eddings had been raised without proper guidance. His parents were divorced when he was 5 years old, and until he was 14, Eddings lived with his mother without rules or supervision. App. 109. There is the suggestion that Eddings' mother was an alcoholic, and possibly a prostitute. Id. at 110-111. By the time Eddings was 14, he no longer could be controlled, and his mother sent him to live with his father. But neither could the father control the boy. Attempts to reason and talk gave way to physical punishment. The Juvenile Officer testified that Eddings was frightened and bitter, that his father overreacted and used excessive physical punishment:

Mr. Eddings found the only thing that he thought was effectful with the boy was actual punishment, or physical violence -- hitting with a strap or something like this. [n1]

Id. at 121.

Testimony from other witnesses indicated that Eddings was emotionally disturbed in general and at the time of the crime, and that his mental and emotional development were at a level several years below his age. Id. at 134, 149, and 173. A state psychologist stated that Eddings had a sociopathic or antisocial personality and that approximately 30% of youths suffering from such a disorder grew out of it as they aged. Id. at 137 and 139. A sociologist specializing in juvenile offenders testified that Eddings was treatable. Id. at 149. A psychiatrist testified that Eddings could be rehabilitated by intensive therapy over a 15- to 20-year period. [p108] Id. at 181. He testified further that Eddings "did pull the trigger, he did kill someone, but I don't even think he knew that he was doing it." [n2] The psychiatrist suggested that, if treated, Eddings would no longer pose a serious threat to society. Id. at 180-181.

At the conclusion of all the evidence, the trial judge weighed the evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. He found that the State had proved each of the three alleged aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. [n3] Turning to the evidence of mitigating circumstances, the judge found that Eddings' youth was a mitigating factor of great weight:

I have given very serious consideration to the youth of the Defendant when this particular [p109] crime was committed. Should I fail to do this, I think I would not be carrying out my duty.

Id. a 188-189. But he would not consider in mitigation the circumstances of Eddings' unhappy upbringing and emotional disturbance:

[T]he Court cannot be persuaded entirely by the . . . fact that the youth was sixteen years old when this heinous crime was committed. Nor can the Court, in following the law, in my opinion, consider the fact of this young man's violent background.

Id. at 189 (emphasis added). Finding that the only mitigating circumstance was Eddings' youth, and finding further that this circumstance could not outweigh the aggravating circumstances present, the judge sentenced Eddings to death.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence of death. 616 P.2d 1159 (1980). It found that each of the aggravating circumstances alleged by the State had been present. [n4] It recited the mitigating evidence presented by Eddings in some detail, but, in the end, it agreed with the trial court that only the fact of Eddings' youth was properly considered as a mitigating circumstance:

[Eddings] also argues his mental state at the time of the murder. He stresses his family history in saying he was suffering from severe psychological and emotional disorders, and that the killing was, in actuality, an inevitable product of the way he was raised. There is no doubt that the petitioner has a personality disorder. But all the evidence tends to show that he knew the difference between right and wrong at the time he pulled the trigger, and that is the test of criminal responsibility [p110] in this State. For the same reason, the petitioner's family history is useful in explaining why he behaved the way he did, but it does not excuse his behavior.

Id. at 1170 (citation omitted).


In Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978), CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, writing for the plurality, stated the rule that we apply today: [n5]

[W]e conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer . . . 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.

Id. at 604 (emphasis in original). Recognizing "that the imposition of death by public authority is . . . profoundly different from all other penalties," the plurality held that the sentencer must be free to give "independent mitigating weight to aspects of the defendant's character and record and to circumstances of the offense proffered in mitigation. . . ." Id. at 605. Because the Ohio death penalty statute only permitted consideration of three mitigating circumstances, the Court found the statute to be invalid.

As THE CHIEF JUSTICE explained, the rule in Lockett is the product of a considerable history reflecting the law's effort to develop a system of capital punishment at once consistent and principled but also humane and sensible to the uniqueness of the individual. Since the early days of the common law, the legal system has struggled to accommodate these twin objectives. Thus, the common law began by treating all criminal homicides as capital offenses, with a [p111] mandatory sentence of death. Later it allowed exceptions, first through an exclusion for those entitled to claim benefit of clergy and then by limiting capital punishment to murders upon "malice prepensed." In this country, we attempted to soften the rigor of the system of mandatory death sentences we inherited from England, first by grading murder into different degrees of which only murder of the first degree was a capital offense and then by committing use of the death penalty to the absolute discretion of the jury. By the time of our decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), the country had moved so far from a mandatory system that the imposition of capital punishment frequently had become arbitrary and capricious.

Beginning with Furman, the Court has attempted to provide standards for a constitutional death penalty that would serve both goals of measured, consistent application and fairness to the accused. Thus, in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), the principal opinion held that the danger of an arbitrary and capricious death penalty could be met "by a carefully drafted statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance." Id. at 195. By its requirement that the jury find one of the aggravating circumstances listed in the death penalty statute, and by its direction to the jury to consider "any mitigating circumstances," the Georgia statute properly confined and directed the jury's attention to the circumstances of the particular crime and to "the characteristics of the person who committed the crime. . . ." Id. at 197. [n6]

Similarly, in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976), the plurality held that mandatory death sentencing was not a permissible response to the problem of arbitrary [p112] jury discretion. As the history of capital punishment had shown, such an approach to the problem of discretion could not succeed while the Eighth Amendment required that the individual be given his due:

the fundamental respect for humanity underlying the Eighth Amendment . . . requires consideration of the character and record of the individual offender and the circumstances of the particular offense as a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death.

Id. at 304. [n7] See Roberts (Harry) v. Louisiana, 431 U.S. 633 (1977); Roberts (Stanislaus) v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976).

Thus, the rule in Lockett followed from the earlier decisions of the Court and from the Court's insistence that capital punishment be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all. By requiring that the sentencer be permitted to focus "on the characteristics of the person who committed the crime," Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 197, the rule in Lockett recognizes that

justice . . . requires . . . that there be taken into account the circumstances of the offense, together with the character and propensities of the offender.

Pennsylvania v. Ashe, 302 U.S. 51, 55 (1937). By holding that the sentencer in capital cases must be permitted to consider any relevant mitigating factor, the rule in Lockett recognizes that a consistency produced by ignoring individual differences is a false consistency.


We now apply the rule in Lockett to the circumstances of this case. The trial judge stated that, "in following the law," [p113] he could not "consider the fact of this young man's violent background." App. 189. There is no dispute that, by "violent background," the trial judge was referring to the mitigating evidence of Eddings' family history. [n8] From this statement, it is clear that the trial judge did not evaluate the evidence in mitigation and find it wanting as a matter of fact; rather, he found that, as a matter of law, he was unable even to consider the evidence.

The Court of Criminal Appeals took the same approach. It found that the evidence in mitigation was not relevant because it did not tend to provide a legal excuse from criminal responsibility. Thus, the court conceded that Eddings had a "personality disorder," but cast this evidence aside on the basis that "he knew the difference between right and wrong . . . , and that is the test of criminal responsibility." 616 P.2d at 1170. Similarly, the evidence of Eddings' family history was "useful in explaining" his behavior, but it did not "excuse" the behavior. From these statements, it appears that the Court of Criminal Appeals also considered only that evidence to be mitigating which would tend to support a legal excuse from criminal liability.

We find that the limitations placed by these courts upon the mitigating evidence they would consider violated the rule in Lockett. [n9] Just as the State may not, by statute, preclude [p114] the sentencer from considering any mitigating factor, neither may the sentencer refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence. In this instance, it was as if the trial judge had instructed a jury to disregard the mitigating evidence Eddings proffered on his behalf. The sentencer, and the Court of Criminal Appeals on review, may [p115] determine the weight to be given relevant mitigating evidence. But they may not give it no weight by excluding such evidence from their consideration. [n10]

Nor do we doubt that the evidence Eddings offered was relevant mitigating evidence. Eddings was a youth of 16 years at the time of the murder. Evidence of a difficult family history and of emotional disturbance is typically introduced by defendants in mitigation. See McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 187-188, 193 (1971). In some cases, such evidence properly may be given little weight. But when the defendant was 16 years old at the time of the offense, there can be no doubt that evidence of a turbulent family history, of beatings by a harsh father, and of severe emotional disturbance is particularly relevant.

The trial judge recognized that youth must be considered a relevant mitigating factor. But youth is more than a chronological fact. It is a time and condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage. [n11] Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that minors, especially in their earlier years, generally [p116] are less mature and responsible than adults. [n12] Particularly "during the formative years of childhood and adolescence, minors often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment" expected of adults. Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622, 635 (1979).

Even the normal 16-year-old customarily lacks the maturity of an adult. In this case, Eddings was not a normal 16-year-old; he had been deprived of the care, concern, and paternal attention that children deserve. On the contrary, it is not disputed that he was a juvenile with serious emotional problems, and had been raised in a neglectful, sometimes even violent, family background. In addition, there was testimony that Eddings' mental and emotional development were at a level several years below his chronological age. All of this does not suggest an absence of responsibility for the crime of murder, deliberately committed in this case. Rather, it is to say that, just as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight, so must the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly considered in sentencing.

We are not unaware of the extent to which minors engage increasingly in violent crime. [n13] Nor do we suggest an absence of legal responsibility where crime is committed by a minor. We are concerned here only with the manner of the imposition of the ultimate penalty: the death sentence imposed for the crime of murder upon an emotionally disturbed youth with a disturbed child's immaturity. [p117]

On remand, the state courts must consider all relevant mitigating evidence and weigh it against the evidence of the aggravating circumstances. We do not weigh the evidence for them. Accordingly, the judgment is reversed to the extent that it sustains the imposition of the death penalty, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

1. There was evidence that, immediately after the shooting, Eddings said: "I would rather have shot an Officer than go back to where I live." App. 93.

2. The psychiatrist suggested that, at the time of the murder, Eddings was, in his own mind ,shooting his stepfather -- a policeman who had been married to his mother for a brief period when Eddings was seven. The psychiatrist stated:

I think that, given the circumstances and the facts of his life, and the facts of his arrested development, he acted as a seven year old seeking revenge and rebellion; and the act -- he did pull the trigger, he did kill someone, but I don't even think he knew that he was doing it.

Id. at 172.

3. The trial judge found first that the crime was "heinous, atrocious, and cruel" because "designed to inflict a high degree of pain . . . in utter indifference to the lights of Patrolman Crabtree." Id.. at 187. Second, the judge found that the crime was "committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution." Id. at 187-188. The evidence was sufficient to indicate that, at the time of the offense, Eddings did not wish to be returned to Missouri, and that, in stopping the car, the officer's intent was to make a lawful arrest. Finally, the trial judge found that Eddings posed a continuing threat of violence to society. There was evidence that, at one point on the day of the murder, after Eddings had been taken to the county jail, he told two officers that "if he was loose . . . he would shoot" them all. Id. at 77. There was also evidence that, at another time, when an officer refused to turn off the light in Eddings' cell, Eddings became angry and threatened the officer: "Now I have shot one of you people, and I'll get you too if you don't turn this light out." Id. at 10. Based on these two "spontaneous utterances," id. at 188, the trial judge found a strong likelihood that Eddings would again commit a criminal act of violence if released.

4. We understand the Court of Criminal Appeals to hold that the murder of a police officer in the performance of his duties is "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" under the Oklahoma statute. See Roberts v. Louisiana, 431 U.S. 633, 636 (1977). However, we doubt that the trial judge's understanding and application of this aggravating circumstance conformed to that degree of certainty required by our decision in Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420 (1980). See n. 3, supra.

5. Because we decide this case on the basis of Locket v. Ohio, we do not reach the question of whether -- in light of contemporary standards -- the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of a defendant who was 16 at the time of the offense. Cf. Bell v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 637 (1978).


[T]he jury's attention is focused on the characteristics of the person who committed the crime: . . . are there any special facts about this defendant that mitigate against imposing capital punishment (e.g., his youth, the extent of his cooperation with the police, his emotional state at the time of the crime).

28 U.S. at 197.


A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind. It treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings. . . .

428 U.S. at 304.

8. Brief for Respondent 55 ("the inference that can be drawn is that the court did not consider petitioner's juvenile record and family life to be a mitigating circumstance"); Tr. of Oral Arg. 36 ("the trial court did not consider the fact of his family background as a mitigating circumstance. . . . [T]he violent background, which I assume he meant was . . . [that Eddings] was subject to some slapping around and some beating by his father") (argument of respondent).

9. Eddings argued to the Court of Criminal Appeals that imposition of the death penalty in the particular circumstances of his case, and in light of the mitigating factors present, was excessive punishment under the Eighth Amendment. But he did not specifically argue that the trial judge erred in refusing to consider relevant mitigating circumstances in the process of sentencing. In rejecting his claim of excessive punishment, the court examined the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and held that Eddings' family history and emotional disorder were not mitigating circumstances that ought to be weighed in the balance. The court's holding that these factors were irrelevant to an inquiry into excessiveness was also a holding that they need not have been considered by the sentencer in imposing capital punishment. Similarly, Eddings' argument in his petition for certiorari that imposition of the death penalty was excessive on the facts of this case comprises the argument that the sentencer erred in refusing to consider relevant mitigating circumstances proffered by him at the sentencing hearing. In short, although neither the opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals nor Eddings' petition for certiorari spoke to our decision in Lockett by name, the question of whether the decisions below were consistent with our decision in Lockett is properly before us. Our jurisdiction does not depend on citation to book and verse. See, e.g., New York ex rel. Bryant v. Zimmerman, 278 U.S. 63, 67 (1928).

Although Eddings' petition for certiorari did not expressly present the Lockett issue, his brief in this Court argued it, and the State responded to the argument. Brief for Petitioner 64-67; Brief for Respondent 55-57. The dissenting opinion of THE CHIEF JUSTICE, post at 120, n. 1, states that the courts below were not afforded the opportunity to consider this issue. The fact is, however, that, in his petition to the Court of Criminal Appeals for a rehearing, Eddings specifically presented the issue, and at some considerable length. See Petition for Re-Hearing and Supporting Brief in No. C-78-325, p. 10 ("This Court, by its interpretation of mitigating circumstances, has effectively limited the scope of mitigation, and that limitation renders the Oklahoma death penalty statute unconstitutional"). The Court of Criminal Appeals denied the petition, stating that it had given it full consideration and had been "fully advised in the premises." See Rule 1.18, Rules of the Court of Criminal Appeals (1980) (court will entertain new arguments upon a petition for rehearing). Cf. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 476 (1975). See also Wood v. Georgia, 450 U.S. 261, 265, n. 5 (1981); Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 631, n. 6 (1980); Vachon v. New Hampshire, 414 U.S. 478, 479, n. 3 (1974).

10. We note that the Oklahoma death penalty statute permits the defendant to present evidence "as to any mitigating circumstances." Okla.Stat., Tit. 21, § 701.10 (1980). Lockett requires the sentencer to listen.

11. "Adolescents everywhere, from every walk of life, are often dangerous to themselves and to others." The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, Task Force Report: Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime 41 (1967).

[A]dolescents, particularly in the early and middle teen years, are more vulnerable, more impulsive, and less self-disciplined than adults. Crimes committed by youths may be just as harmful to victims as those committed by older persons, but they deserve less punishment because adolescents may have less capacity to control their conduct and to think in long-range terms than adults. Moreover, youth crime, as such, is not exclusively the offender's fault; offenses by the young also represent a failure of family, school, and the social system, which share responsibility for the development of America's youth.

Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Sentencing Policy Toward Young Offenders, Confronting Youth Crime 7 (1978).

12. As Justice Frankfurter stated, "[c]hildren have a very special place in life which law should reflect." May v. Anderson, 345 U.S. 528, 536 (1953) (concurring opinion). And indeed the law does reflect this special place. Every State in the country makes some separate provision for juvenile offenders. See In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 14 (1967).

13. See, e.g., National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, Task Force Report on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 3 (1976).