9/24/2011

By Michael A. Goodwin, J.D. Candidate

On September 20th, the Maryland Court of Appeals denied a claim by death row inmate Jody Lee Miles for a new sentencing hearing on the grounds that his jury should have been instructed that the death sentence cannot be imposed unless every juror is persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances. [1] In the original trial, a jury in the circuit court for Queen Anne’s County convicted Miles of first degree felony murder and other offenses including robbery with a deadly weapon and use of a handgun with a crime of violence; the jury also imposed the death sentence. [2] The Maryland Court of appeals affirmed Miles’ conviction and sentence once in 2001 and the Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari in 2002.[3]

To formulate his argument, Miles primarily relied on the United States Supreme Court decision in Cunningham v. California, which he claims “rendered invalid – on Sixth Amendment grounds – every state capital sentencing procedure that does not require the jury…to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances.” The Court however found that Cunningham presented only the question of whether a California sentencing law, which placed “sentence-elevating factfinding” under the control of the judge, violated a defendant’s right to a fair trial under the sixth and fourteenth amendments.

The Supreme Court Decision more pertinent to Miles’ claim could have been Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decisionwhere the Court extended the principle that any fact that adds to the maximum penalty for a crime must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt to death penalty cases.[4] Unfortunately for Miles, he was sentenced in 1998, four years prior to the decision in Ring¸ which the Court has subsequently found does not apply retroactively.[5]  Additionally, even if Ring were applied, the Maryland Court of Appeals stated that Miles would not have been afforded any relief because all that Ring requires is that the jury find true beyond a reasonable doubt the facts which constitute an aggravating factor, not necessarily that they outweigh the mitigating circumstances.[6]

The Miles decision leaves Maryland’s standard for death penalty sentencing intact. A jury must only find beyond a preponderance of the evidence that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors to impose a death sentence.  The judges did entertain the idea that it may be better public policy to follow the practice of some other states and require a finding beyond a reasonable doubt in this “weighing” stage of sentencing, but ultimately found that a change of that nature and magnitude was the province of the legislature.[7]

The Maryland legislature would be well-served by taking a hard look at decision in Miles and asking whether the preponderance standard that is in place truly is the best public policy. The phase of sentencing in question is called the “weighing” stage for a reason; the jury is left to make a subjective determination of one set of factors as against another, and will naturally decide based on what they believe to be a preponderance of the evidence.  The jury instruction should serve to elevate that standard to the prevailing standard in a criminal case, beyond a reasonable doubt; particularly when a life is in the balance. While it could be argued that the jury has already found a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at this point in the trial so there is no need to apply that high standard of proof once again during sentencing, when the death sentence is a potential outcome, the highest possible standard should have to be met.