OCTOBER TERM, 1991
ESPINOSA v. FLORIDA
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA
No. 91-7390. Decided June 29, 1992
During the penalty phase of a capital murder trial in Florida, a jury is asked to recommend whether a defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment in a verdict that does not include specific findings of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The court itself must then weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine what the sentence will be, and it must issue a written statement of the circumstances found and weighed if the sentence is death. In petitioner Espinosa's case, the jury was instructed, inter alia, that it could find as an aggravating factor that the murder was "especially wicked, evil, atrocious or cruel." It recommended that the trial court impose death, and finding four aggravating and two mitigating factors, the court did so. On appeal, the State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting Espinosa's argument that the instruction in question was vague and left the jury with insufficient guidance when to find the existence of the aggravating factor.
Held: If a weighing State requires a trial court to pay deference to a jury's sentencing recommendation in determining the appropriate sentence, the jury's consideration of an invalid aggravating circumstance unconstitutionally infects the court's sentencing determination. Instructions more specific and elaborate than the one given in the instant case have been found unconstitutionally vague, and the weighing of an invalid aggravating circumstance violates the Eighth Amendment. The State incorrectly argues that there was no need to instruct the jury with the specificity required by this Court's cases because Florida juries are not the sentencers. While a trial court in Florida is not bound by a jury's recommendation, it is required to give "great weight" to it. It must be presumed that the jury in this case weighed the invalid instruction in making its recommendation and that the trial court followed state law and gave deference to that recommendation. Thus, the trial court indirectly weighed the invalid aggravating factor itself, creating the same potential for arbitrariness as the direct weighing of such a factor.
Certiorari granted; 589 So. 2d 887, reversed and remanded.cralaw
Under Florida law, after a defendant is found guilty of a capital felony, a separate sentencing proceeding is conducted to determine whether the sentence should be life imprisonment or death. Fla. Stat. § 921.141(1) (1991). At the close of a hearing at which the prosecution and the defense may present evidence and argument in favor of and against the death penalty, ibid., the trial judge charges the jurors to consider "[w]hether sufficient aggravating circumstances exist," "[w]hether sufficient mitigating circumstances exist which outweigh the aggravating circumstances," and "[b]ased on these considerations, whether the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment or death." § 921.141(2). The verdict does not include specific findings of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but states only the jury's sentencing recommendation. "Notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury," the trial court itself must then "weig[h] the aggravating and mitigating circumstances" to determine finally whether the sentence will be life or death. § 921.141(3). If the trial court fixes punishment at death, the court must issue a written statement of the circumstances found and weighed. Ibid.
A Florida jury found petitioner Henry Jose Espinosa guilty of first-degree murder. At the close of the evidence in the penalty hearing, the trial court instructed the jury on aggravating factors. One of the instructions informed the jury that it was entitled to find as an aggravating factor that the murder of which it had found Espinosa guilty was "especially wicked, evil, atrocious or cruel." See § 921.141(h). The jury recommended that the trial court impose death, and the court, finding four aggravating and two mitigating factors, did so. On appeal to the Supreme Court of Florida, petitioner argued that the "wicked, evil, atrocious or cruel" instruction was vague and therefore left the jury with insufficient guidance when to find the existence of the aggravating factor. The court rejected this argument and affirmed, say-cralaw