Stringer v. Black, 503 U.S. 222 (1992)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 90-6616. Argued December 9, 1991—Decided March 9, 1992

After finding petitioner Stringer guilty of capital murder, a Mississippi jury, in the sentencing phase of the case, found that there were three statutory aggravating factors. These included the factor the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel," which had not been otherwise defined in the trial court's instructions. Stringer was sentenced to death, the sentence was affirmed by the State Supreme Court on direct review, and postconviction relief was denied in the state courts. The Federal District Court then denied Stringer habeas corpus relief, rejecting his contention that the "heinous, atrocious or cruel" aggravating factor was so vague as to render the sentence arbitrary, in violation of the Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed, holding that Stringer was not entitled to rely on Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738, or Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U. S. 356, in his habeas corpus proceedings because those decisions, which were issued after his sentence became final, announced a "new rule" as defined in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288.

Held: In a federal habeas corpus proceeding, a petitioner whose death sentence became final before Maynard and Clemons were decided is not foreclosed by Teague from relying on those cases. Pp. 227-237. (a) When a petitioner seeks federal habeas relief based on a principle announced after a final judgment, Teague requires a federal court to determine, first, whether the decision in question announced a new rule, i. e., was not dictated by precedent existing when the judgment became final. If the answer is yes and neither of two exceptions apply, the decision is not available to the petitioner. Second, if the decision did not announce a new rule, it is necessary to inquire whether granting the relief sought would create a new rule because the prior decision is applied in a novel setting, thereby extending the precedent. See Butler v. McKellar, 494 U. S. 407, 414-415. Pp. 227-228. (b) For purposes of Teague, Maynard did not announce a new rule. Its invalidation of Oklahoma's "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance was controlled by Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, in which the Court held that Georgia's aggravating circumstance that the killing was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible and

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