Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sixth Circuit reverses rare Michigan (federal) death sentence

In United States v. Gabrion, Nos. 02-1386/1461/1570 (Aug. 3, 2011), an appeal of a federal capital prosecution resulting in a death sentence, the court addressed a plethora of issues relating to both the guilt and sentencing phases of the defendant’s trial. The court rejected most of the arguments but reversed the death sentence and remanded for resentencing for two reasons.

First, the court held that the district court erred when it “ruled that Michigan’s longstanding policy against the death penalty could not be mentioned or admitted as a mitigating factor, or discussed with the jury in final argument during the penalty phase of the trial.” This ruling, the court held, was “inconsistent with the language of the [Federal Death Penalty] Act requiring the factfinder to consider ‘any mitigating factor’ and ‘any information relevant to a mitigating factor.’ 18 U.S.C. § 3592(a); id. § 3593(c) .” The court noted that this language “plainly includes information about Michigan’s policy against the death penalty and an argument based on the absence of proportionality in punishment when life or death is made to turn on chance.”

Second, the court found that the district court should have informed the jury that “in order to impose death they need to find ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ the element of the death sentence that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. . . . [A] jury’s finding that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors is an element of the death penalty and must be found beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard constitutionally required for all other findings of fact and mixed questions of law and fact.”


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