Walton v. Arizona
Decided on June 27, 1990; 497 US 639


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (death penalty), 6th Amendment, 8th Amendment, 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Can an aggravating factor in determining the validity of a death sentence be found by a judge, as Arizona law specifies, or does the Sixth Amendment's jury trial guarantee, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, require that the aggravating factor determination be entrusted to a jury?

A. Background:

At an Arizona bar, on March 2, 1986, Jeffery Walton (Petitioner) and his two accomplices robbed Thomas Powell at gunpoint and forced him into their car. Walton shot and left Powell to die in the desert. After Walton was arrested a week later, he led the police to Powell's body. The medical examiner revealed that Powell did not die instantly from the gunshot; rather, he had been blinded and rendered unconscious, and only died six days later from dehydration, starvation, and pneumonia.

Walton was found guilty of first-degree murder at a jury trial in Arizona court and the judge ordered a death sentence. His sentencing was based on two aggravating circumstances and insufficient mitigating circumstances. Per state law, the burden to establish aggravating circumstances is with the prosecution. The burden to establish mitigating circumstances is with the defendant.

On appeal, the Arizona State Supreme Court upheld his sentence. The court determined that the sentence was proportional to sentences imposed in similar cases.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Timothy K. Ford argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Denise I. Young. Paul J. McMurdie, Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General, and Jessica Gifford Funkhouser.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
An amicus brief urging reversal was filed for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., by John A. Powell, Michael Laurence, Welsh S. White, and Randy Hertz.
Amicus briefs urging affirmance were filed for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., by Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania; Robert A. Graci, Chief Deputy Attorney General; Mary Benefield Seiverling, Deputy Attorney General; John J. Kelly, Chief State's Attorney of Connecticut; Robert Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida; James T. Jones, Attorney General of Idaho; Neil F. Hartigan, Attorney General of Illinois; Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas; Frederic J. Cowan, Attorney General of Kentucky; Michael C. Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi; William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri; Marc Racicot, Attorney General of Montana; Brian McKay, Attorney General of Nevada; John P. Arnold, Attorney General of New Hampshire; Hal Stratton, Attorney General of New Mexico; Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina; Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., Attorney General of Ohio; Robert H. Henry, Attorney General of Oklahoma; Roger A. Tellinghuisen, Attorney General of South Dakota; Kenneth O. Eikenberry, Attorney General of Washington; and Joseph B. Meyer, Attorney General of Wyoming.

“Arizona's capital sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment. The Constitution does not require that every finding of fact underlying a sentencing decision be made by a jury rather than by a judge… Arizona's aggravating factors are standards to guide the making of the choice between verdicts of death and life imprisonment rather than 'elements of the offense,' the judge's finding of any particular aggravating circumstance, as construed by the State Supreme Court, furnishes sufficient guidance to the sentencer to satisfy the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments… Walton's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights have not been violated by placing on him the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the existence of mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, since Arizona's method of allocating the burdens of proof does not lessen the State's burden to prove the existence of aggravating circumstances… The statute neither precludes the court from considering any type of mitigating evidence nor automatically imposes a death sentence for certain types of murder.”

Held: The judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court is affirmed.

[Editor's Note: As a result of the decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), Arizona revamped its capital sentencing system. In Arizona, a jury now determines both the subsidiary aggravating findings and imposes capital punishment.]
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • White, B. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  •  Kennedy, A. Con (Joined parts III and IV of majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Blackmun’s dissent)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Brennan's dissent)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Blackmun dissent)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined Brennan and Blackmun dissents)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.