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FELTROP v. MISSOURI , 501 U.S. 1262 (1991)

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U.S. Supreme Court

FELTROP v. MISSOURI , 501 U.S. 1262 (1991)

. 501 U.S. 1262 115 L.Ed.2d 1081

Ralph Cecil FELTROP, petitioner,
No. 90-7928

Supreme Court of the United States

June 28, 1991

On petition for writ of

certiorari to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, dissenting.

In Clemons v. Mississippi, ___ U.S. ___, 110 S.Ct. 1441, 108 L.Ed.2d 725 (1990), this Court held that, once a defendant is sentenced to death by an erroneously instructed jury, a reviewing court can resentence the defendant to death only if it clearly and expressly engages in either harmless-error analysis or reweighing of permissible aggravating and mitigating circumstances. See id., at ___, ___, 110 S.Ct., at 1444, 1451. It is conceded that the petitioner in this case was sentenced to death by an erroneously instructed jury. Nonetheless, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that the trial court's summary denial of petitioner's motion to set aside the jury sentence constituted a constitutionally adequate resentencing. Because Clemons does not permit us to infer from the trial court's silence that it engaged in the requisite reweighing or harmless-error analysis, I would grant the petition for certiorari.


Petitioner was convicted of capital murder. At the conclusion of the penalty phase of his trial, the jury determined that the murder " 'involved depravity of mind and that as a result thereof it was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.' " 803 S.W.2d 1, 14 ( Mo. en banc 1991). On the basis of this single aggravating factor, the jury sentenced petitioner to death. Id., at 6. Petitioner thereafter filed a motion to reduce his sentence, arguing, inter alia, that the " depravity of mind" aggravating factor was unconstitutionally vague under this Court's precedents. The trial court denied the motion, stating from the bench that it " 'has listened attentively to [petitioner's argument] and has recalled the testimony and the evidence in this cause, and the Court will overrule the Motion for Reduction of Sentence.' " Id., at 16.

The Missouri Supreme court affirmed. The court acknowledged that the "depravity of mind" aggravating factor was uncon-

Page 501 U.S. 1262, 1263

stitutionally vague under this Court's decision in godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 64 L.Ed.2d 398 (1980). See 803 S.W.2d, at 14. See generally Shell v. Mississippis, ___ U.S. ___, 11 S.Ct. 313d 1 (1990), (per curiam ); clemons v. Mississippi, ___ U.S. ___, 110 S. Ct. at 1441, 108 L.Ed.2d 725 (1990); Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U.S. 356, 108 S.Ct. 1853, 100 L.Ed.2d 372 (1988). It also acknowledged that the trial court had erred in not instructing the jury to apply the limiting construction fashioned by the the Missouri supreme Court in order to save the "depravity of mind" factor from unconstitutionality. See 803 S.W.2d, at 14, citing State v. Preston, 673 S.W.2d 1, 11 (Mo. en banc), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 893, 105 s.Ct. 269, 83 L.Ed.2d 205 (1984).* Nonetheless, relying on Walton v. Arizona, ___ U.S. ___, 110 S.Ct. 3047, 111 L.Ed.2d 511 (1990), the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that the trial court's summary denial of petitioner's postsentence motin sufficed to cure any error in the jury's sentencing verdict. In Walton, this Court hled that, where the death sentence is imposed by a trial judge, the trial judge need not expressly state that he has relied upon a constitutionally necessary limiting construciton, because "[t]rial judges are presumed to know the law and to apply it in making their deicison."Id., at ___, 110 S.Ct. at 3057. The Missouri Supreme Court in this case reasoned that it could likewise "presum[e] that the trial judge knew and applied the relevant factors ennunciated in State v. Preston when he evaluated and rules on [petitioner's] motion for reduction of sentence." 803 S.W.2d, at 16.

In my view, the Missouri Supreme Court's reliance on Walton was clearly misplaced. As used in Walton, the "presumption" that a trial court has followed the law stands only for the proposition that error cannot be inferred where a trial court, acting as the initial sentencer, fails expressly to articulate its reliance on a limiting construction of what would otherwise be an unconstitutional aggravating factor. However, this presumption is clearly rebutted when, as here, the trial court erroneously instructs a sentencing jury by omitting any reference to the necessary limiting construction. Under such circumstances, the question is no longer [501 U.S. 1262, 1264]

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