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BURR v. FLORIDA - 474 U.S. 879 (1985)

U.S. Supreme Court

BURR v. FLORIDA , 474 U.S. 879 (1985)

474 U.S. 879

Charlie L. BURR
No. 84-6982

Supreme Court of the United States

October 7, 1985

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Florida.

The petition for writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

This petition presents the question whether the sentencing jury in a capital case may be prohibited from taking into account its own nagging doubts about the defendant's guilt as it considers whether the defendant deserves to die. The Supreme Court of Florida has squarely resolved that question in the affirmative, despite the clear message of Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978), and Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), that a capital defendant is entitled to have the jury consider "any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death." Lockett, supra, 438 U.S., at 604. [ Burr v. Florida 474 U.S. 879 (1985) ][879-Continued.]

Even if I accepted the prevailing view that the death penalty can constitutionally be imposed under certain conditions, I would grant certiorari in this case to consider the grave constitutional question it presents. Today's decision lets stand a ruling that clearly "creates the risk that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty." Lockett, supra, at 605 (opinion of BURGER, C.J.), quoted in Eddings, supra, 455 U.S., at 118 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring).


Petitioner, Charlie Burr, was charged with the murder of a convenience-store clerk during a robbery of the store. At trial, the State's key witness was Burr's girlfriend, Domita Williams, who testified that she had been waiting for Burr outside the store when she heard a shot and then saw Burr come out. The State provided some circumstantial evidence in corroboration. The following day, however, Williams took the stand for the defense and recanted her testimony of the previous day. This time she swore that she had not been with Burr at all on the morning of the murder, and recited a different account of her actions that morning . The defense produced witnesses to support this testimony, including an eyewitness who placed Williams elsewhere at the time of the murder. The defense attempted to establish that Williams' first testimony had been the product of coercion by the prosecutor; the State, in turn, attempted to show that her second testimony was contrived out of fear of petitioner. Without

Page 474 U.S. 879 , 880

Williams' first testimony, the State would not have had a case, for while the State introduced evidence implicating Burr in similar robberies of other convenience stores, it adduced no other evidence directly linking Burr with this crime. The jury returned a verdict of guilty.

At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel devoted his entire closing argument to the inconclusive nature of the evidence against Burr. Counsel drove home to the jury the fact of Domita Williams' recantation, repeatedly exhorting each juror to "ask yourself . . ., is it possible that I'm recommending death for an innocent person?" Suggesting that the guilty verdict might have been based on the evidence of the other robberies, he admonished the jury, "if you go back and recommend death . . . and Mr. Burr is eventually electrocuted and put to death, then it's going to be a little too late for the truth to come out. . . ." He concluded, "don't make a recommendation where a man is going to die when he may not have even committed the crime."

The jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment. The trial judge, however, overrode this recommendation and sentenced petitioner to death, having identified three aggravating circumstances and nothing in mitigation. Petitioner deduced, and argued on appeal, that the jury's recommendation of life had been based, legitimately, on residual doubt of Burr's guilt. The Florida Supreme Court rejected this argument, concluding that "a 'convicted defendant cannot be "a little bit guilty." ' " 466 So.2d 1051, 1054 (1985), quoting Buford v. State, 403 So.2d 943, 953 (Fla.1981), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1164 (1982).


Implicit in the Florida Supreme Court's decision is an assumption about the equation of finality and truth that transgresses law and intuition alike. For our legal system is no pretender to absolute truth. In two important ways, the factfinding process falls short of that ideal. First, the beacon of the truth-seeking process in criminal cases is not absolute certainty, but the "reasonable doubt" standard, which has eluded definition by the courts for centuries. See 9 J. Wigmore, Evidence 2497 ( J. Chadbourn rev. 1981). Attempts at such a definition typically, and often erroneously, include phrases such as "substantial doubt, not a trivial doubt," Holland v. United States, 209 F.2d 516, 522 (CA10), aff'd, 348 U.S. 121 (1954), and "substantial, . . . real doubt," Taylor [474 U.S. 879 , 881]

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