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Zant v. Stephens

462 U.S. 862, 103 S. Ct. 2733, 77 L. Ed. 2d 235 (1983)

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Zant v. Stephens

United States Supreme Court

462 U.S. 862, 103 S. Ct. 2733, 77 L. Ed. 2d 235 (1983)

Facts

Stephens (defendant) was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by a jury. Stephens and an accomplice were burglarizing a home when the homeowner’s father, Roy Asbell, interrupted the burglary. Stephens and the accomplice beat and robbed Asbell. Then, they drove him a short distance and killed Asbell by shooting him at point-blank range. During the sentencing phase of trial, the state offered evidence of Stephens’s eight prior convictions, which included one count of murder among other serious felonies. The judge instructed the jury that it may consider any of three statutory aggravating factors: (1) the defendant’s prior record of conviction for a capital felony or the defendant’s substantial history of serious assaultive criminal convictions; (2) whether the offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman; and (3) whether the defendant escaped from custody or confinement. The judge further instructed that only if the jury found that an aggravating circumstance had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt could it impose a sentence of death. The jury found the first and third aggravating circumstances were proved. The jury indicated that the first circumstance was proved twice by both a finding of a prior conviction of a capital felony and a finding of Stephens’s substantial history of convictions. During an appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the substantial-history factor was unconstitutionally vague. On its own motion, the Georgia Supreme Court considered whether the invalidation of the substantial-history factor made Stephens’s death sentence unjust. The finding of the two other aggravating circumstances were sufficient to leave the sentence undisturbed. The court of appeals found that the death sentence might be improper because of the invalidated circumstance. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Stevens, J.)

Dissent (Marshall, J.)

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