Order Code RS20620
July 6, 2000
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Capital Punishment: Summary of Supreme Court
Decisions During the 1999-00 Term
Paul Starett Wallace, Jr.
Specialist in American Public Law
American Law Division
With the exception of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williams v. Taylor,1 the Court
did not find any serious reversible error in the lower courts’ opinions reviewed during the
1999-2000 term that relate to capital punishment. In Ramdass v. Angelone,2 it was
decided that a habeas corpus petitioner could not obtain relief from his death sentence
on the ground that the state courts should have taken a less technical approach to
determining whether he was entitled to have the penalty phase jury instructed that he
would be ineligible for parole if the jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment.
The state courts reasoned that because judgment had not been entered on one of the
petitioner’s convictions, he did not have three “strikes” for purposes of the state’s parole
ineligibility law. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision on June 12, 2000, reasoning
that the entry of a judgment of conviction upon a jury’s guilty verdict in another case was
not a forgone conclusion in view of the possibility of post-trial motions. In Weeks v.
Angelone,3 the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denying the
petitioner’s appeal of a death penalty sentence and federal habeas corpus petition,
deciding that the jury instructions were constitutionally adequate. In Williams v. Taylor,4
it was generally recognized that a defendant is barred from proceeding with federal
habeas corpus claims which were not developed in the state habeas corpus petition,
however, the Court allowed an evidentiary hearing on two claims due to the petitioner’s
diligence in pursuing them.
120 S. Ct. 1479 (2000).
Slip Op. No. 99-7000 (U.S. June 12, 2000).
120 S. Ct. 727 (2000).
120 S. Ct. 1479 (2000).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Decisions During the 1999-00 Term
The three capital punishment decisions which were decided during the 1999-00 Term
involved issues concerning (1) the standard of review applicable in habeas corpus cases,
(2) the adequacy of jury instructions, and (3) diligence in developing a claim in a state
habeas corpus petition. With the Court’s approval of a narrow view of the rules
governing a capital defendant’s right to have his penalty-phase jury informed of his parole
ineligibility, there appear to be two distinct trends which the Court continues to follow:
(1) it did not break any new ground insofar as capital punishment sentencing procedures
are concerned and (2) instead of preeminence at the federal level, it gives considerable
recognition to the traditional powers of the state to regulate crime.
Ramdass v. Angelone.5 Following his release from prison for a 1988 robbery,
Ramdass participated in a number of crimes, including the armed robbery of a Pizza Hut,
the armed robbery of a Domino’s restaurant, and the murder of Mohammed Kayani, a
convenience store clerk.
Ramdass was found guilty in the Pizza Hut robbery on December 15, 1992, and a
final judgment was entered by the trial court on January 22, 1993. A jury also found
Ramdass guilty in the Domino’s robbery on January 7, 1993.
Before judgment was entered in the Domino case, Ramdass was found guilty by a
jury in the murder of Mohammed Kayani. On January 30, 1993, the jury recommended
that the petitioner, Ramdass be sentenced to death. On February 18, 1993, Ramdass
conviction in the Domino’s robbery became final with the entry of the final judgment by
the trial court.
During the subsequent hearing to decide if the jury’s death sentence recommendation
should be entered, Ramdass argued that the Pizza Hut and Domino’s convictions made
him ineligible for parole under Virginia’s three strikes law and the jury should have been
informed by the trial judge. During the jury deliberation, they (jury) asked the trial judge
whether Ramdass would be eligible for parole if sentenced to life. Relying on the thensettled Virginia law that parole is not an appropriate factor for the jury to consider, the
court informed the jury that they were not to be concerned with what may happen
afterwards. The next day, the jury returned its verdict recommending the death sentence.
Rejecting Ramdass’ argument, the trial court entered the death sentence
recommendation. On direct appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the death
sentence. Ramdass appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In view of its decision in Simmons v. South Carolina,6 in which the Court held that
juries had to be informed of parole ineligibility, the Court granted Ramdass’ petition for
certiorari and remanded the case for reconsideration.
Slip Op. No. 99-7000 (U.S. June 12, 2000).
512 U.S. 154 (1994).
On remand, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed Ramdass’ death sentence,
concluding that the murder conviction did not count as Ramdass’ third conviction because
final judgment had not been entered in the Domino’s robbery case by the time of his
sentencing hearing. Therefore, the 1988 robbery conviction did not apply as one of the
strikes under the three strikes law. Ramdass appealed and the Supreme Court denied his
petition for a writ of certiorari.
After an unsuccessful round of post conviction proceedings in the Virginia courts,
Ramdass sought habeas corpus relief in federal court. He argued once more that the
Virginia Supreme Court erred in not applying Simmons. The District Court granted relief.7
The Court of Appeals reversed.8 When Ramdass filed a third petition for a writ of
certiorari, the Supreme Court stayed his execution9 and granted certiorari.10 Ramdass
contends he was entitled to a jury instruction of parole ineligibility under the Virginia
three-strikes law. Rejecting the contention, the Court, in an opinion written by Justice
Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas, affirmed
Ramdass’ death sentence.
The Court held that contrary to the petitioner’s claim, the entry of the judgment of
conviction in the petitioner’s other case was not a forgone conclusion and represented
more than a ministerial act.11 The time between the receipt of a jury’s guilty verdict and
the entry of a judgment of guilty is the time for defendants to file post-trial motions to set
aside the verdict, and such motions “are an essential part of Virginia criminal law
practice.”12 At the time of the penalty phase proceedings in the instant case, the time for
filing post-trial motions in the other case had not expired and the petitioner had not
represented that he was not going to file such motions.13 Therefore, because final
judgment had not been entered in the Domino’s robbery case when Ramdass was
sentenced for Kayani’s murder, he was not parole ineligible. The Court refused to extend
Simmons to cover situations in which it appears that defendants will end up being parole
ineligible, even if not ineligible at the moment of sentencing.14
Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion appears to take a broader view of Simmons.
She stated that, unlike the situation under Virginia law in Ramdass, “[w]here all that
stands between a defendant and a parole ineligibility under state law is a purely ministerial
act, Simmons entitles the defendant to inform the jury of that ineligibility, either by
28 F. Supp.2d 343 (E.D. Va. 1998).
187 F.3d at 407.
528 U.S. 1015 (1999).
528 U.S. 1068 (2000).
Slip Op. at 16-17.
Id.. at 17.
Id.. at 18.
Id.. at 13.
argument or instruction, even if he is not technically ‘parole ineligible’ at the moment of
Dissenting, Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, argued
that it was not fair to allow the state to rely on the criminal acts in another case to
demonstrate the petitioner’s future dangerousness while at the same time preventing the
petitioner from relying on those same acts to demonstrate his ineligibility for parole.16 The
dissent also stated that the plurality mischaracterized the holding in Simmons and the
plurality’s ruling will permit states to use legal technicalities in order to avoid the
application of the constitutional due process principle in Simmons.17
Weeks v. Angelone. The petitioner (Weeks), was charged with shooting and killing
a state trooper. After his conviction, the jury entered into a 2-day penalty phase in which
the prosecution put on evidence of aggravating circumstances and the defense presented
mitigating evidence. After deliberating for four hours, the jury asked the judge whether
they had to sentence Weeks to death if they found him guilty of only one of the
aggravating circumstances. The judge referred the jury to their instructions, and the
defense objected. After two more hours of deliberation, the jury sentenced Weeks to
The petitioner appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court for state habeas corpus relief.
This court affirmed the sentence and conviction, and denied the habeas petition as
untimely. The petitioner’s federal habeas was denied by the United States District Court.
The Fourth Circuit also denied his appeal of the sentence and dismissed his federal habeas
The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and
joined by Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, affirmed the Fourth Circuit.
The Court ruled that because the judge gave the same jury instructions regarding
consideration of mitigating circumstances that the Court had previously upheld in
Buchanan v. Angelone,18 the jury was adequately instructed.19
Upon concluding that the jury instructions were adequate, the Supreme Court then
considered whether the Constitution required anything more and concluded that it did
not.20 The Court noted that the jury’s failure to ask another question after receiving the
judge’s response, the jury’s deliberation for two additional hours, and the jury’s affirmance
in open court of the sentence indicated that at most a slight possibility existed that the jury
had kept itself from considering mitigating evidence.21
Id.. at 3 (Justice O’Connor concurring in judgment).
Id.. at 1 (Justice Stevens dissenting)
Id.. at 26-27.
522 U.S. 269 (1998).
120 S. Ct. at 731-32.
120 S. Ct. at 732-33.
Id.. at 733-34.
Deciding that the Virginia Supreme Court’s affirmance of the petitioner’s conviction
and sentence was not contrary to nor an unreasonable application of Supreme Court
decisions, the Court denied the federal habeas petition.22
Justice Stevens, with whom Justices Ginsburg, and Breyer joined and with whom
Justice Souter joined in part, dissented, concluding that the text of the instructions, the
judge’s response to the jury’s questions, the jury’s verdict form, and the court reporter’s
notation in the transcription of the jury polling (a majority of the jury members were in
tears) demonstrated that the jury did not want to sentence Weeks to the death penalty but
felt that it was their duty under the law to do so.23
Williams v. Taylor. In 1993, Williams and a friend, Jeffrey Cruse, robbed, kidnaped
and murdered Morris Keller, Jr. and his wife, Mary Elizabeth. They also raped Mary
Elizabeth during the robbery.
Cruse testified against Williams and Williams was sentenced to death. After his
conviction and sentence were upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court, Williams petitioned
for state habeas corpus relief, alleging that the state had improperly failed to inform him
of a plea agreement it had with Cruse.
The Virginia Supreme Court dismissed Williams’ state habeas corpus petition and
Williams subsequently filed a federal habeas corpus petition alleging the plea agreement
claim as well as three new claims. The district court agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing
on two of Williams new claims.
However, after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals directed the district court to
apply the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which except for a
few, narrow exceptions, barred the presentation of claims in federal habeas corpus petition
that were not developed in a state petition, the district court revoked its decision and
dismissed Williams petition.
The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s order and Williams appealed.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Kennedy, affirmed in
part and reversed in part the decision of the district court and the Fourth Circuit. The
Court agreeing that, under the AEDPA, a defendant may bring new claims in his federal
habeas corpus petition that were not developed in his state petition as long as the
defendant is diligent in pursuing the claims, reversed the Fourth Circuit’s determination
that Williams had failed to show the necessary diligence in two of the new claims.24
The Court noted that Williams had failed to prove that he exercised diligence in order
to preserve his first claim in his federal habeas corpus petition, that the state’s failure to
Id.. at 734.
Id.. at 739-40.
120 S. Ct. at 1491.
disclose Cruse’s psychiatric report violated Brady v. Maryland.25 The Court in noting
that Williams’ state habeas corpus counsel had possession of a transcript that referred to
the report, decided that Williams attorney was put on notice of the existence of the
The Court then determined that Williams had shown that he was diligent in
attempting to develop the facts regarding his second and third new claims, revealing that
a juror was biased and that the prosecutor knew and concealed the bias.27 Concluding that
a juror failed to state that she had been married to one of the state’s witnesses who was
the deputy sheriff, that the state prosecutor represented her in the divorce, that the
prosecutor did not disclose this information and the petitioner tried unsuccessfully to
investigate the jury, the Court held that no facts had existed which would have put
Williams on notice regarding possible bias and prosecutorial misconduct.28 Therefore, the
Court remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on Williams’ juror bias and
prosecutorial misconduct claims.29
373 U.S. 83 (1963).
120 S. Ct. at 1492.
Id.. at 1492-93.
Id.. at 1492.
Id.. at 1494.
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