Arave v. Creech, 507 U.S. 463 (1993)

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

No. 91-1160. Argued November 10, 1992—Decided March 30, 1993

After respondent Creech pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for the brutal slaying of a fellow Idaho prison inmate, the state trial judge sentenced him to death based, in part, on the statutory aggravating circumstance that "[b]y the murder, or circumstances surrounding its commission, the defendant exhibited utter disregard for human life." In affirming, the Idaho Supreme Court, among other things, rejected Creech's argument that this aggravating circumstance is unconstitution-ally vague and reaffirmed the limiting construction it had placed on the statutory language in State v. Osborn, 102 Idaho 405, 418-419, 631 P. 2d 187, 200-201, whereby, inter alia, " 'the phrase "utter disregard" . . . is meant to be reflective of . . . the cold-blooded, pitiless slayer.' " Although the Federal District Court denied habeas corpus relief, the Court of Appeals found the "utter disregard" circumstance facially invalid, holding, among other things, that the circumstance is unconstitutionally vague and that the Osborn narrowing construction is inadequate to cure the defect under this Court's precedents.

Held: 1. In light of the consistent narrowing definition given the "utter disregard" circumstance by the Idaho Supreme Court, the circumstance, on its face, meets constitutional standards. Pp. 470-478. (a) To satisfy the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, a capital sentencing scheme must channel the sentencer's discretion by " 'clear and objective standards' " that provide specific and detailed guidance and make rationally reviewable the death sentencing process. See, e. g., Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U. S. 764, 774. In order to decide whether a particular aggravating circumstance meets these requirements, a federal court must determine whether the statutory language defining the circumstance is itself too vague to guide the sentencer; if so, whether the state courts have further defined the vague terms; and, if so, whether those definitions are constitutionally sufficient, i. e., whether they provide some guidance. Walton v. Arizona, 497 U. S. 639, 654. However, it is not necessary to decide here whether the statutory phrase "utter disregard for human life" itself passes constitutional muster. The Idaho Supreme Court has adopted a limiting construction, and that construction meets constitutional requirements. Pp. 470-471.


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