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Simmons v. South Carolina

512 U.S. 154, 114 S. Ct. 2187, 129 L. Ed. 2d 133 (1994)

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Simmons v. South Carolina

United States Supreme Court

512 U.S. 154, 114 S. Ct. 2187, 129 L. Ed. 2d 133 (1994)

Facts

Simmons (defendant) was found guilty of the murder of an elderly woman and sentenced to death. Due to prior convictions for several violent felonies (including two crimes against other elderly women), Simmons was ineligible for parole for any future violent offenses that he committed. Defense counsel was barred from making any mention of parole during jury selection and at trial. During the penalty phase of the trial, both sides agreed that Simmons posed a continuing danger to elderly women. The state argued that Simmons’s future dangerousness was an aggravating factor that called for harsher punishment and that the death penalty would be an act of self-defense on the part of the jury. Simmons’s counsel put forth evidence that Simmons posed a danger only to elderly women and that he would adapt well to prison if sentenced to life imprisonment. Defense counsel sought an instruction by the judge that Simmons was ineligible for parole and that life imprisonment meant prison for the rest of Simmons’s life to preempt potential beliefs by the jurors that Simmons would eventually be released on parole. The judge refused defense counsel’s request, stating that he might give an instruction clarifying that life imprisonment meant a full term of life in prison if the jury inquired about parole eligibility. However, when the jury inquired about the possibility of parole, the judge gave a vague clarifying instruction, stating that life imprisonment was to be understood in its plain and ordinary meaning. The judge did not explain that Simmons was ineligible for parole. The jury returned a death sentence 25 minutes after it received this clarifying instruction. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Blackmun, J.)

Concurrence (O’Connor, J.)

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