On Monday, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Marlon Howell, a death row inmate from Mississippi. Howell's case argues that juries in Mississippi should be able to convict a capital murder defendant of a lesser crime (simple murder or manslaughter).
Howell was convicted in 2001 of the killing of a newspaper delivery man during a robbery. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that a state court cannot refuse to instruct a jury in a capital murder trial about lesser offenses (assuming the evidence warrants the lesser charge). The 1980 case out of Alabama addressed a law which prohibited juries from hearing instruction on lesser included offenses in some capital murder cases but not in others. Howell's Mississippi case is based on a court decision to deny the lesser charge instruction. The lower court's decision was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Prosecutors in Howell's case allege that the evidence in the case did not support the lesser charges and so the instructions were not required. As such, in Howell's case, jurors had two choices: (1) first degree murder or (2) not guilty. First degree murder by definition involves a murder. So, if a jury thinks the defendant is guilty of the murder, but perhaps not of first degree murder, they have to make the choice between letting the murderer back on the street or convicting him or her of first degree murder. The burden is on the prosecution to prove the charge; however, a jury who is convinced someone is a killer is not likely to given him or her a not guilty verdict simply because they don't like the option of first degree murder. Can someone explain to me how that is due process? Essentially, this jury of your peers is forced to give you a sentence that might carry a penalty of death, because they only other option is to set you free. Darn hard choice when you think someone killed someone else but you don't think it warrants such a strong conviction and penalty.
It should be interesting to see how the Supreme Court reconciles its precedent. My guess is that there will be some discussion of what the evidence supports. It depends though. The "liberal" four might get O'Connor to go along. She has talked about her frustrations with the justice system's approach to the death penalty and the dangerousness of ineffectiveness of counsel. She was also instrumental in the Ring decision a few years ago which required death sentence decisions to be made by a jury.
Mississippi death row case going before U.S. Supreme Court