Tuilaepa v. California, 512 U.S. 967 (1994)

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certiorari to the supreme court of california

No. 93-5131. Argued March 22, 1994—Decided June 30, 1994*

A defendant in California is eligible for the death penalty when a jury finds him guilty of first-degree murder and finds one or more of the special circumstances listed in Cal. Penal Code Ann. 190.2. The case then proceeds to the penalty phase, where the jury is instructed to consider numerous other factors listed in 190.3 in deciding whether to impose death. Petitioners Tuilaepa and Proctor were convicted of first-degree murder in separate cases. At the penalty phase of each trial, the jury was instructed to consider the relevant sentencing factors in 190.3. Both petitioners were sentenced to death, and the State Supreme Court affirmed. Here, they challenge the constitutionality of penalty-phase factor (a), which requires the sentencer to consider the "circumstances of the crime of which the defendant was convicted . . . and the existence of any special circumstances found to be true." Tuilaepa also challenges factor (b), which requires the sentencer to consider the "presence or absence of criminal activity [involving] the use or attempted use of force or violence or the express or implied threat to use force or violence," and factor (i), which requires the sentencer to consider the defendant's age at the time of the crime.

Held: The factors in question are not unconstitutionally vague under this Court's decisions construing the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Pp. 971-980. (a) The Court's vagueness review is quite deferential, and relies on the basic principle that a factor is not unconstitutional if it has some "common-sense core of meaning . . . that criminal juries should be capable of understanding." Jurek v. Texas, 428 U. S. 262, 279 (White, J., concurring in judgment). Petitioners' challenge to factor (a) is at some odds with settled principles, for the circumstances of the crime are a traditional subject for consideration by the sentencer, see, e. g., Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, 304 (plurality opinion), and factor (a) instructs the jury in understandable terms. Factor (b) is framed in conventional and understandable terms as well. Asking a jury to consider matters of historical fact is a permissible part of the sentencing process. Tuilaepa's challenge to factor (i) is also unusual in light of the

*Together with No. 93-5161, Proctor v. California, also on certiorari to the same court.


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