A Missouri law allowing judges to impose a death sentence after a jury deadlocks on punishment does not violate defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights, the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled.
In a split ruling July 16, the court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Craig Michael Wood.
Wood was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2014 abduction, rape and killing of 10-year-old Hailey Owens in Springfield. During the penalty phase of his trial, a Greene County jury unanimously found several aggravating factors that qualified Wood for the death penalty, including that the act involved “torture and depravity.”
The jury deadlocked on whether there were mitigating factors that outweighed those aggravators. After considering the evidence, Judge Thomas E. Mountjoy ruled that the mitigating factors were not enough to outweigh the facts and aggravating factors, and he sentenced Wood to death.
Under section 565.030 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, a judge can impose a death sentence when a jury is unable to agree on punishment.
In his appeal, Wood claimed the statute violates his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it allows the judge to impose a death sentence when a jury has deadlocked on punishment.
Wood argued that the court must reexamine its case law in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida.
He claimed Hurst prohibits Missouri’s death penalty by allowing the circuit court to find the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. He also argued that the weighing step is a factual finding constitutionally entrusted to the jury.
In a 4-3 split, the Supreme Court disagreed. Judge Zel M. Fischer said Hurst does not hold that the decision of whether mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors, or that death is an appropriate sentence, are factual elements that must be found by a jury.
Fischer said there is a difference between determining whether a defendant is eligible for a death sentence and selecting the defendant’s punishment.
The eligibility decision is based on factual findings that the defendant has a conviction for which the death penalty is a proportionate punishment and the existence of an aggravating circumstance, he said.
The selection determination is “fundamentally different from the eligibility decision,” Fischer said, noting that it is a discretionary judgment.
Additionally, Fischer said the Supreme Court has held in prior cases that the jury’s weighing of aggravating and mitigating evidence is not subject to proof beyond a reasonable doubt because it is not a factual finding that increases the potential range of punishment.
To the extent that a prior decision in its 2003 case State v. Whitfield presumes the weighing step is a factual finding reserved for the jury, it should no longer be followed, he said.
Fischer was joined by Paul C. Wilson, W. Brent Powell and Mary R. Russell.
In the dissent, Judge Laura Denvir Stith agreed that the jury made three factual determinations required by the statute and that the statute allowed Mountjoy to determine whether to impose a death sentence.
She disagreed, however, with the principal opinion’s holding that the statute does not require a factual determination in weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors.
“It does,” she said. “It requires the jury to weigh and balance the evidence supporting mitigation with the evidence in aggravation — a weighing and balancing each of our jurors is called on to make every day in our courts.”
Chief Justice George W. Draper III concurred with Stith. Judge Patricia Breckenridge also concurred with Stith’s holding that weighing the mitigating factors with the aggravating factors is a factual determination for the jury.
Breckenridge concurred with the principal opinion on other matters before the court, including the proportionality of the death sentence and whether various evidence and victim impact statements were properly admitted.
Rosemary E. Percival, a public defender in Kansas City, represented Wood. She did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The Attorney General’s Office represented the state. A spokesman declined to comment on the ruling.
The case is State v. Wood, SC96924.