Tuesday, May 31, 2011

State ex rel. Taylor v. Steele[1]

Opinion handed down May 31, 2011
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

Michael Anthony Taylor pled guilty in 1991 to kidnapping, rape, and first-degree-murder of a young girl. On two occasions he was sentenced to death by a judge. After multiple attempts in both state and federal court to have his sentence overturned, Taylor sought a writ of habeas corpus from the Supreme Court of Missouri. On appeal, Taylor argued that because of subsequent United States Supreme Court decisions, his death sentence was imposed unlawfully by a judge, rather than by a jury, and that his sentence violated his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed, finding that Taylor was not entitled to jury sentencing because he had made a conscious and strategic decision to be sentenced by a judge believing it gave him the best chance of avoiding the death penalty.

I. Facts and Holding

In 1991, Michael Anthony Taylor pled guilty to the 1989 kidnapping, rape, and first-degree-murder of 15-year-old Ann Harrison.[2] During proceedings, Taylor testified to his understanding that he had no expectation of receiving a plea bargain and that the State would be seeking the death penalty.[3] Taylor requested sentencing by the trial judge rather than a jury, believing it would provide him a better chance of avoiding the death penalty.[4] The trial judge found that the statutory requirements had been established and subsequently sentenced Taylor to death.[5]

Taylor filed a post-conviction motion alleging that the trial judge had been under the influence of alcohol.[6] Taylor’s claim was denied and he appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri.[7] In 1993, the court vacated his sentence and remanded his case for a new penalty hearing, imposition of sentence, and entry of judgment.[8] On remand, Taylor filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that he had only consented to be sentenced by the original trial judge.[9] The court denied his motion and did not grant permission for Taylor to be sentenced by a jury rather than the new judge.[10] After determining that the mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances the judge reinstated the death penalty.[11] Once again, Taylor appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri seeking mandatory proportionality review, a review of the decision overruling his motion to withdraw his plea, and a post-conviction motion for the second sentencing procedure.[12] The court determined that Taylor was sufficiently informed of and understood the consequences of his plea, and that he voluntarily entered his plea.[13] The court also established that there was no error in refusing to allow him to withdraw his plea after his case was remanded.[14] Concluding that there were no reversible errors in his second case, Taylor’s death sentence was affirmed in 1996.[15]

After unsuccessfully seeking relief in the federal courts, Taylor returned to the Supreme Court of Missouri in the instant case seeking a writ of habeas corpus based upon two arguments.[16] First, Taylor argued that after the Supreme Court of Missouri had affirmed his sentence in 1996, subsequent case law indicated that a death sentence could only be imposed by a jury.[17] Taylor maintained that these decisions should be applied retroactively to his case and, therefore, a jury should sentence him because he never waived that right when he entered his guilty plea in 1991.[18] Second, Taylor motioned for retroactive proportionality review arguing that his death sentence violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the United States Constitution because similarly situated defendants had been given lesser sentences of life imprisonment.[19] The Supreme Court of Missouri held that Taylor was not entitled to habeas relief and reaffirmed his sentence.[20]

II. Legal Background

The United States Supreme Court first addressed the constitutionality of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment in Furman v. Georgia.[21] Decided by a plurality, the Court invalidated all state capital punishment schemes because they failed to provide the jury with any guidance in determining whether to impose the death penalty, resulting in arbitrary application in violation of the Eighth Amendment.[22] Since Furman, in order to reduce the risk of arbitrary application, the Court requires a bifurcated trial with separate proceedings to determine guilt and whether the death penalty should be imposed.[23] In order for a defendant to be death-eligible the existence of at least one statutory aggravating factor must be found during sentencing proceedings.[24] This prevents arbitrary application by narrowing the class of criminals eligible for death.[25] During sentencing proceedings, the defendant is allowed to submit mitigating evidence that otherwise would not be admissible during the determination of guilt.[26]

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the United States Supreme Court held that under the Sixth Amendment a defendant may not be “expose[d]...to a penalty exceeding the maximum he would receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone.”[27] Furthermore, the Court held that “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”[28] The Court applied Apprendi to death penalty cases in Ring v. Arizona, holding that under the Sixth Amendment capital murder defendants are entitled to have a jury find the aggravating factors relevant to the imposition of the death penalty.[29]

In State v. Whitfield, the Supreme Court of Missouri applied Ring retroactively and set aside the defendant’s death penalty sentence after determining that under Ring a defendant was entitled to have a jury make the “factual determinations on which his eligibility for the death sentence was predicated.”[30] In Whitfield, the trial judge determined that the factual conditions were present to impose the death penalty after the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder but was unable to reach a verdict in the punishment phase of the trial, thus violating the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to jury sentencing as outlined in Ring.[31]

Subsequent to Whitfield, the United States Supreme Court held in Blakely v. Washington that the Sixth Amendment right to jury sentencing applies even where a defendant pleads guilty and that “every defendant has the right to insist that the prosecutor prove to a jury all facts legally essential to the punishment.”[32] In Blakely, the trial judge had enhanced the defendant’s sentence beyond the State’s recommendation after determining that he had acted with deliberate cruelty towards the victim.[33] The Court determined the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated because the facts supporting the trial court’s finding had neither been admitted to by the defendant nor found by a jury.[34] The Court also noted “nothing prevents a defendant from waiving his Apprendi rights,” and that “[w]hen a defendant pleads guilty, the State is free to seek judicial sentence enhancements so long as the defendant either stipulates to the relevant facts or consents to judicial fact-finding.”[35]

In Halbert v. Michigan, the United States Supreme Court found that a Michigan state law restricting a criminal defendant’s right to counsel on appeal violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the United States Constitution.[36] Under the law, defendants who pleaded guilty or nolo contendere could appeal only with permission of the court, and indigent defendants would be provided with counsel only in certain situations.[37] The indigent defendant in Halbert was informed of the circumstances under which counsel would be appointed, but he was not expressly informed that counsel would not be provided in absence of those circumstances.[38] Subsequently, the defendant’s request for appellate counsel was denied.[39] The Court rejected the state’s argument that by entering a plea of nolo contendere the defendant had waived his right to appointed appellate counsel.[40] “At the time [the defendant] entered his plea, [he], in common with other defendants convicted on their pleas, had no recognized right to appointed appellate counsel he could elect to forgo.”[41] The Court noted that the defendant had not been informed “simply and directly” of his subsequent limited access to appointed appellate counsel.[42]

In the state of Missouri, defendants are eligible for the death penalty only after they have been found guilty of first-degree murder.[43] If the defendant waives his or her right to a jury trial, the judge is authorized to consider whether the evidence has established beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of an enumerated aggravating circumstance.[44] Both judge and jury are instructed to consider all evidence presented during the trial and penalty phases to determine whether a sentence of death is justified.[45] If the jury is the trier of fact, then it “shall not be instructed upon any specific evidence which may be in aggravation or mitigation of punishment, but shall be instructed that each juror shall consider any evidence which he considers to be aggravating or mitigating.”[46]

III. Instant Decision

The court determined that Taylor was not entitled to Sixth Amendment jury sentencing because he had waived that right when he pled guilty and agreed to be sentenced by a judge in 1991.[47] The court believed that later Sixth Amendment jury sentencing cases relied on by Taylor did not invalidate his waiver of jury sentencing.[48] “When determining whether a defendant has the requisite understanding to render an ‘affirmative knowing, voluntary and intelligent waiver,’ courts do not require a defendant to know if the source of the right being waived is the constitution or a statute.”[49] Instead, it is important to assess whether the defendant understood the consequences of giving up a specific right.[50] The court found the record demonstrated that Taylor understood the consequences of his plea – that a plea of not-guilty would afford him sentencing by a jury, while a plea of guilty would result in sentencing by a judge.[51] The record also demonstrated that Taylor was aware the judge would be considering the death penalty as recommended by the State.[52] Because Taylor voluntarily waived his right to jury sentencing by pleading guilty with full knowledge of the consequences thereof, his waiver of jury sentencing was not invalidated by subsequent Sixth Amendment case law.

In support of his writ, Taylor pointed to various United States Supreme Court cases decided since his most recent appeal. In Halbert v. Michigan, the United States Supreme Court found that the trial court failed to adequately inform the defendant of his rights by not “simply and directly” explaining the consequences of a plea. [53] The Supreme Court of Missouri found that Halbert did not apply because Taylor had been “simply and directly” informed of the consequences of his decision to waive his right to a jury trial.[54] Furthermore, “[u]nlike the defendant in Halbert, who was alleged to have impliedly waived a right to his detriment, Taylor clearly and unequivocally rejected his opportunity to have his case heard by a jury to obtain his desired judge sentencing.”[55]

The court further distinguished Taylor’s case from several subsequently-decided Sixth Amendment cases on which Taylor relied: Apprendi v. New Jersey, Ring v. Arizona, and Blakely v. Washington. “Nothing in Ring or its progeny extends Sixth Amendment jury sentencing protections to defendants who strategically plead guilty and purposefully waive jury sentencing…[a]nd Blakely expressly recognize[d] that defendants can acquiesce to having their sentences imposed by a judge, rather than by a jury, and thereby waive their rights to having a jury find the facts essential for a sentence.”[56] The court found that Apprendi, Ring, and Blakely did not apply because Taylor knowingly and strategically entered a plea of guilty based on the belief that the trial judge would hand down a less severe sentence than a jury.[57] While the Supreme Court of Missouri in State v. Whitfield retroactively applied Ring, this was because the judge had abrogated the function of the jury after the jury reached a deadlock.[58] In contrast, Taylor had pled guilty to all counts, thus admitting to all factual allegations made by the State, including any necessary prerequisites for the death penalty.[59]

Additionally, the court found no case law that compelled retroactive application of Ring and subsequent cases to invalidate Taylor’s waiver.[60] The court noted that the United States Supreme Court had held that “Ring announced a new procedural rule that does not apply retroactively to cases already final on direct review.”[61] Lastly, the court denied Taylor’s second argument that his death sentence was disproportionate to other similarly situated defendants that were given life sentences, stating that it would not engage in retrospective proportionality review of death sentences.[62]

In her dissent, Judge Stith disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the factual record, arguing instead that Taylor did not affirmatively waive his right to jury sentencing.[63] Judge Stith also believed that Taylor was entitled to retroactive application of Apprendi because he was similarly situated to the defendant in Whitfield: in both cases the determination whether an aggravating factor was present was decided by the judge and not by the jury, resulting in a violation of the Equal Protection clause.[64] While she noted there was a factual distinction between the two defendants, she felt they were in the same position in all legally relevant respects.[65]

IV. Comment

While ultimately the Supreme Court of Missouri ruled against Taylor, it is difficult to determine the exact scope of this case because it involves the interaction of three distinct rights. First, there is the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial to determine guilt or innocence. Second, there is the Apprendi right to have a jury determine the existence of an aggravating factor, which makes the defendant death-eligible. Third, in the state of Missouri there is the statutory right to have a jury determine whether a death sentence should be imposed by weighing mitigating and aggravating factors, unless the defendant pleads guilty, in which the judge performs case sentencing. While the court was effective in distinguishing the instant case from previous Sixth Amendment cases, several questions emerge as to what impact Taylor will have on future cases.

Does the holding in Taylor announce a general rule that if a defendant pleads guilty, and that plea admits to facts necessary to find an aggravating factor, that this always function as a waiver of a defendant’s Apprendi right? If so, should a defendant who pleads guilty still be allowed to be sentenced by a jury? On one hand, by allowing a defendant to plead guilty and still receive jury sentencing, the state will essentially be required to try the case anyway in order to establish the existence of the aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, if a defendant is denied jury sentencing, he is also being denied the opportunity that a jury hear a powerful mitigating factor, personal responsibility and responsibility for his crime.

Taylor also raises the question of what subsequent courts should do when faced with a capital defendant who wishes to plead guilty? Under Halbert, it seems clear that the court has a duty to simply and directly inform the defendant that a plea of guilty could function as waiver of all three rights. Failure to do so could result in the sentence being vacated on appeal or in federal court. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court of Missouri correctly applied Halbert. The court was careful to distinguish Taylor from Halbert on the basis that Taylor made a strategic decision to be sentenced by a judge instead of a jury. While this may be sufficient to survive constitutional scrutiny in federal court, the court failed to provide any specific instruction in this regard to subsequent courts.

There is also a question whether Taylor narrows the scope of the court’s decision in Whitfield. While the United States Supreme Court ruled that the decision in Ring was of a procedural nature only and therefore would not be applied retroactively, the Supreme Court of Missouri decided in Whitfield that failure to observe a defendant’s Apprendi rights could be retroactively corrected. The court distinguished Taylor from Whitfield on the basis that the defendant in Whitfield chose to be sentenced by a jury, yet was denied that right by the judge, while Taylor strategically chose to be sentenced by a judge. This is a compelling argument, but the court failed to explain the proper application of Whitfield for future courts. Does the decision in Taylor mean that Whitfield retroactive application of Apprendi may only be used when a defendant pleads not guilty but is denied sentencing by a jury; or does it mean that Apprendi will not be retroactively applied in situations where the defendant made a strategic choice to be sentenced by a judge?

-Andrew C. Hooper

[1] No. SC 90925 (Mo. May 31, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=46883. The West Reporter citation is State ex rel.Taylor v. Steele, 341 S.W.3d 634 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 2.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.006.2 (2000))
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 3.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 4.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 5.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 6.
[19] Id. (citing U.S. Const. amend. XIV).
[20] Id. at 32.
[21] Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 239 (1972).
[22] Id. at 309-310.
[23] Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 191 (1976).
[24] Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 876 (1983).
[25] Id.
[26] Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 606 (1978).
[27] 530 U.S. 466, 483 (2000).
[28] Id. at 490.
[29] Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 609 (2002).
[30] 107 S.W.3d 253, 256 (2003) (en banc).
[31] Id. at 261-62.
[32] 542 U.S. 296, 305-06, 313 (2004).
[33] Id. at 300.
[34] Id. at 303-06.
[35] Id. at 310.
[36] Halbert v. Michigan, 545 U.S. 605, 610 (2005).
[37] Id. at 609-610.
[38] Id. at 643.
[39] Id. at 615-616.
[40] Id. at 623.
[41] Id.
[42] Id. at 624.
[43] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 562.032 (2000).
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] State ex rel. Taylor, No. SC 90925, slip op. at 11.
[48] Id. at 21-22.
[49] Id. at 22.
[50] Id.
[51] Id. at 11.
[52] Id.
[53] Id. at 23-24.
[54] Id. at 24.
[55] Id. at 24-25.
[56] Id. at 25-26.
[57] Id. at 26.
[58] Id.
[59] Id.
[60] Id. at 27.
[61] Id. (quoting Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 358 (2004)).
[62] Id. at 31.
[63] State ex rel. Taylor, No. SC 90925, slip op. at 36-40 (Stith, J., dissenting).
[64] Id. at 18-25.
[65] Id.