Supreme Court of the United States
SAMUEL A. LEWIS,
Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, et al.
JIMMIE WAYNE JEFFERS
Decided June 27, 1990
Justice O’Connor, For the Court
|Topic: Criminal Procedure*||Court vote: 5–4|
Click any Justice for detailJoining O'Connor opinion: Justice KENNEDY Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice WHITE
|Citation: 497 U.S. 764||Docket: 89–189||Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez|
* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database
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Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents issues pertaining to federal court review of a state court's determination that an offense was committed "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner," Ariz.Rev.Stat. § 13-703(F)(6) (1989).
The relevant facts are undisputed. The evidence at trial showed that, in May, 1976, police arrested respondent Jimmie Wayne Jeffers and his girlfriend, Penelope Cheney, on state-law charges of possession of narcotics and receipt of stolen property. Respondent posted bond for Cheney, but was unable to post bond for himself, and remained in custody at the Pima County Jail. While in jail, respondent received reports that Cheney had been cooperating with police by providing the police with information about respondent and certain heroin transactions. Respondent wrote a note to another jail inmate offering him money if he would kill Cheney. The detention officer who was supposed to deliver the note read it and seized it.
In October, 1976, respondent was released from jail on bond pending appeal of his convictions. About a week later, he met Doris Van Der Veer and began living with her at a motel in Tucson. Respondent subsequently invited Cheney to the motel in order to provide her with some heroin.
On the day of the murder, respondent told Van Der Veer that Cheney was coming over and that they wished to be alone. When Cheney arrived, respondent introduced her to Van Der Veer, who then excused herself. After about two and a half hours, Van Der Veer returned to the motel room and knocked on the door. Respondent admitted her, pointed a gun at her, and ordered her to sit in a chair and be quiet.
Upon entering the motel room, Van Der Veer saw Cheney lying unconscious on the bed. Cheney appeared cyanotic. Respondent injected a fluid into Cheney's hand and told Van Der Veer that he had "given her enough shit to kill a horse, and this bitch won't die." Van Der Veer noticed foam coming from Cheney's mouth, which she recognized from her training as a nurse to be a sign of heroin overdose. Van Der Veer checked Cheney's condition and determined that she was still alive. Van Der Veer asked respondent if he was going to help Cheney, to which he responded, "No, I'm going to kill her."
Respondent then removed the belt from around Cheney's waist and began to choke her with it. He soon discarded the belt and choked her with his bare hands. Van Der Veer urged him to stop, saying Cheney would probably die anyway, but respondent replied, "No, I've seen her this way before, and she's come out of it."
After strangling Cheney, respondent instructed Van Der Veer to check Cheney's pulse. Van Der Veer found no pulse and reported that Cheney was dead. Respondent then ordered Van Der Veer to inject more heroin into Cheney and to choke her while he took pictures. Van Der Veer complied. Respondent told Van Der Veer that he did this to have proof that she was an accomplice. Respondent then beat Cheney with his hands several times, calling her a "bitch" and a "dirty snitch" and stating, as each blow landed, that "[t]his one is for [naming several names]." Respondent then dragged the body off the bed and placed it in the shower stall. After three days, when the body began to smell, respondent and Van Der Veer wrapped the body in newspaper and plastic garbage bags, placed it in a sleeping bag, and transported it to a secluded area, where they buried it in a shallow grave.
A jury convicted respondent of the first-degree murder of Cheney. After a sentencing hearing, the trial court found two aggravating circumstances and no mitigating factors. In accordance with the Arizona death penalty statute, Ariz.Rev.Stat. § 13-454 (Supp.1973) (currently Ariz.Rev. Stat. § 13-703 (1989)), respondent was sentenced to death. App. 5-10.
On direct review of his conviction and sentence, the Arizona Supreme Court, following this Court's decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586 (1978), vacated respondent's death sentence and remanded for resentencing. See State v. Watson, 120 Ariz. 441, 586 P.2d 1253 (1978) (requiring the trial court to consider nonstatutory mitigating factors), cert. denied, 440 U.S. 924 (1979). At the second sentencing hearing, the trial court again found two aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt: that respondent had created a grave risk of death to another person (Van Der Veer) in the commission of the murder and that respondent committed the murder in an especially heinous, cruel, and depraved manner. See Ariz.Rev.Stat. § 13-703(F)(3) and (6) (1989). [ Footnote 1 ] The court found no mitigating factors, and thereupon resentenced respondent to death. [ Footnote 2 ] App. 11-16.
On direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the convictions and sentences. State v. Jeffers, 135 Ariz. 404, 661 P.2d 1105, cert. denied, 464 U.S. 865 (1983). With regard to respondent's death sentence, the court stated that, under Arizona law,
this court independently reviews the facts that the trial court found established the presence or absence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and we determine for ourselves if the latter outweigh the former when we find both to be present.
135 Ariz. at 428, 661 P.2d at 1129 (citations omitted). Applying this standard, the court reversed the trial court's finding that respondent "knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person... in addition to the victim of the offense," Ariz.Rev. Stat. § 13-703(F)(3) (1989).
The court then reviewed the trial court's finding that respondent committed the offense in an "especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner," § 13-703(F)(6). The court noted that it had interpreted and applied this provision in light of the dictionary definitions of the words used:
The element of cruelty involves the pain and the mental and physical distress visited upon the victims. Heinous and depraved involve the mental state and attitude of the perpetrator as reflected in his words and actions. 'Heinous' means 'hatefully or shockingly evil; grossly bad;' 'cruel' means 'disposed to inflict pain esp. in a wanton, insensate or vindictive manner; sadistic;' and 'depraved' means 'marked by debasement, corruption, perversion or deterioration.'
135 Ariz. at 429, 661 P.2d at 1130 (citations omitted).
Independently reviewing the evidence, the court concluded that the State had failed to prove t he element of cruelty beyond a reasonable doubt:
There was no evidence that the victim suffered any pain. It appears from the record that, after the injection of heroin, the victim lost consciousness and never regained it before she died. Therefore, the victim experienced no pain or mental suffering and the murder was not 'cruel' for purposes of A.R.S. § 13-703(F)(6).
Id. at 429, 661 P.2d at 1130.
The court found, however, that
the events surrounding the murder itself support the trial court's finding that the murder was 'especially heinous... and depraved.'
Id. at 430, 661 P.2d at 1131. The court noted that it had recently delineated factors to be considered in determining whether the offense was committed in a heinous or depraved manner, and that the infliction of gratuitous violence on the victim was one factor. See ibid. (citing State v. Gretzler, 135 Ariz. 42, 659 P.2d 1, cert. denied, 461 U.S. 971 (1983), and State v. Ceja, 126 Ariz. 35, 612 P.2d 491 (1980)). The court then observed that, in the instant case,
the defendant climbed on top of the dead victim and hit her in the face several times, which eventually resulted in additional wounds and bleeding.
135 Ariz. at 430, 661 P.2d at 1131. The court further noted that the apparent relish with which the defendant commits the murder was another factor. Ibid. (citing State v. Bishop, 127 Ariz. 531, 622 P.2d 478 (1980)). Finding that
while Jeffers was beating the victim he called her 'a bitch and a dirty snitch' and with each striking blow said, 'This one is for so and so [naming several names],'
the court concluded:
This evidences the relish with which [respondent] committed the murder. In light of these prior decisions and the Gretzler considerations, we find that the remarks made by [respondent], while at the same time beating his victim, establish that the offense was committed in an especially heinous and depraved manner.
135 Ariz. at 430, 661 P.2d at 1131.
The court then rejected respondent's contention that the "especially heinous, cruel or depraved" aggravating circumstance, as construed and applied by the court, was unconstitutionally broad. Relying on its decision in State v. Gretzler, supra, the court held that
[e]ach element -cruel, heinous, and depraved -has been narrowly defined and construed... to meet constitutional standards.
135 Ariz. at 430, 661 P.2d at 1131. The court explained:
We have been insistent that the murder be especially cruel or especially depraved before [§ 13-703(F)(6)] would apply. We have clearly defined the terms, and have delineated factors to guide us in determining if the crime was indeed committed in such a manner.... Further, the case law reveals that § (F)(6) is not applicable to any and all murders; this court has narrowly limited its applicability to cases which stand apart from the norm.
Ibid. (citations omitted).
Finally, based on its own review of the evidence, the court affirmed the trial court's determinations that no mitigating factors existed that were sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, and that the factors in mitigation did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances. Id. at 431-432, 661 P.2d at 1132-1133. The court concluded that respondent's death sentence was not disproportionate to the sentence imposed in similar cases, and that
[w]e have reviewed the entire record pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-4035 and found no fundamental error. In our independent determination, we found one aggravating factor -that the offense was committed in an especially heinous and depraved manner -and no mitigating factors sufficiently substantial to call for leniency.
Id. at 432, 661 P.2d at 1133.
Respondent then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, alleging, among other claims, that Arizona's interpretation of its "especially heinous... or depraved" aggravating circumstance was unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. The District Court reiterated that, under Arizona law,
[a] murder that is especially heinous and depraved includes the infliction of gratuitous violence upon the victim and the indication that the defendant committed the crime with relish.
627 F.Supp. 1334, 1360 (Ariz.1986) (citations omitted). The District Court then noted:
The evidence in this case indicates that the victim, Penny, had either taken or was injected by Jeffers with such a sufficiently large dose of heroin that she lost consciousness. Even after she lost consciousness, Jeffers injected her with more heroin. When this did not kill her, he attempted to strangle her with a belt, and finally accomplished his intended purpose by strangulation with his hands. He then required the eyewitness, at gunpoint, to perform the same acts on the corpse while he took pictures. He then climbed on top of the corpse and inflicted blows to the face. While striking the corpse, he stated that each blow was for one of the persons that Jeffers believed Penny to have been responsible for their arrest due to narcotic trafficking activities with Jeffers. He then pulled the corpse across the floor to the shower, where it remained for three days.
Ibid. Based on these facts, the court rejected respondent's vagueness and overbreadth challenge to the "especially heinous... or depraved" aggravating circumstance. Ibid.
A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated respondent's death sentence on the ground that the "especially heinous... or depraved" circumstance was unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. Jeffers v. Ricketts, 832 F.2d 476, 482-486 (1987). As an initial matter, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance was not unconstitutionally vague on its face. Id. at 482 (citing Chaney v. Lewis, 801 F.2d 1191, 1194-1196 (CA9 1986), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1023 (1987)).
The Court of Appeals then held, however, that
[w]hile Chaney establishes that the Arizona statute is not void on its face and is capable of constitutional application, it naturally does not answer the question whether the Arizona statute was constitutionally applied to Jeffers in this case.
832 F.2d at 482. Reviewing a number of Arizona Supreme Court cases defining and applying the "especially heinous... or depraved" circumstance, the Court of Appeals compared the facts of those cases to the facts of this case, and concluded that "the standard of heinousness and depravity delineated in prior Arizona cases cannot be applied in a principled manner to Jeffers." Id. at 485. The Court of Appeals therefore struck down respondent's death sentence as arbitrary:
To apply the standard of especial heinousness and depravity to Jeffers' case when the facts do not permit it is arbitrary or capricious, and is therefore an unconstitutional application of the standard.... Arizona's existing standard... cannot be extended to Jeffers' case without losing its ability to distinguish in a principled manner between those it condemns to death and those it does not.
Id. at 486 (citing Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, 446 U. S. 428 (1980)). The dissenting member of the panel maintained that
the majority [was] doing little more than second-guessing the Arizona Supreme Court's interpretation of facts that quite reasonably fit within the statutory definition of aggravating circumstances.
832 F.2d at 487.
We granted certiorari, 493 U.S. 889 (1989), and now reverse.
Petitioners contend that this case presents the question whether a federal court may make a de novo review of the evidence supporting a state court's finding of a facially constitutional aggravating circumstance. Respondent maintains that this case presents only the question whether the Court of Appeals correctly held that Arizona's construction of the subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance in this case contravened this Court's decisions in Godfrey v. Georgia, supra, and Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U. S. 356 (1988). We begin our analysis with respondent's contention.
Our capital punishment doctrine is rooted in the principle that
[t]he Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be... wantonly and... freakishly imposed.
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 428 U. S. 188 (1976) (joint opinion) (quoting Furman v. Georgia, 408 U. S. 238, 408 U. S. 310 (1972) (Stewart, J., concurring)); see also Furman, supra, at 408 U. S. 313 (WHITE, J., concurring) (invalidating capital punishment statute where "there is no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which [the death penalty] is imposed from the many cases in which it is not"). Accordingly,
where discretion is afforded a sentencing body on a matter so grave as the determination of whether a human life should be taken or spared, that discretion must be suitably directed and limited so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.
Gregg, 428 U.S. at 428 U. S. 189.
This principle requires a State to
channel the sentencer's discretion by 'clear and objective standards' that provide 'specific and detailed guidance,' and that 'make rationally reviewable the process for imposing a sentence of death.'
Godfrey, supra, 446 U.S. at 446 U. S. 428 (footnotes omitted). A State's definitions of its aggravating circumstances -those circumstances that make a criminal defendant "eligible" for the death penalty - therefore play a significant role in channeling the sentencer's discretion. The Court in Gregg, for example, held that Georgia's "outrageously or wantonly vile" aggravating circumstance, Ga.Code Ann. § 27-2534.1(b)(7) (Supp.1975) ("outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim"), was not unconstitutionally vague because the Georgia courts could give it a narrowing construction. See 428 U.S. at 428 U. S. 201 (joint opinion) (Although "arguabl[y]... any murder involves depravity of mind or an aggravating battery," there was "no reason to assume that the Supreme Court of Georgia will adopt such an open-ended construction"); see also Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U. S. 242, 428 U. S. 255 (1976) (joint opinion) (upholding Florida's "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" aggravating circumstance, Fla.Stat.Ann. § 921.141(5)(h) (Supp.1976-1977), on the ground that the Supreme Court of Florida had restricted the circumstance to include only " the conscienceless or pitiless crime which is unnecessarily torturous to the victim'").
In Godfrey v. Georgia, supra, however, a plurality of the Court held that, although the Georgia Supreme Court had adopted a narrowing construction of Georgia's subsection (b)(7) aggravating circumstance, the death sentence at issue could not stand because no evidence existed that the state courts had applied the narrowing construction to the facts of that case. 446 U.S. at 446 U. S. 432 ("The circumstances of this case... do not satisfy the criteria laid out by the Georgia Supreme Court itself" in the cases adopting the narrowing construction). Because the Georgia courts had not applied the narrowing construction, the plurality considered whether the Georgia Supreme Court, in affirming the death sentence, had nevertheless applied a constitutional construction of the subsection (b)(7) aggravating circumstance. Id. at 446 U. S. 432 -433. The plurality concluded that the State court had not, because "[t]here is no principled way to distinguish this case, in which the death penalty was imposed, from the many cases in which it was not." Id. at 446 U. S. 433.
We have reiterated the general principle that aggravating circumstances must be construed to permit the sentencer to make a principled distinction between those who deserve the death penalty and those who do not. See Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 468 U. S. 460 (1984) ("If a State has determined that death should be an available penalty for certain crimes, then it must administer that penalty in a way that can rationally distinguish between those individuals for whom death is an appropriate sanction and those for whom it is not"); Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 462 U. S. 877 (1983) ("[A]n aggravating circumstance must genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder") (footnote omitted); see also Barclay v. Florida, 463 U. S. 939, 463 U. S. 960 (1983) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment) ("A constant theme of our cases -from Gregg and Proffitt through Godfrey, Eddings, and, most recently, Zant -has been emphasis on procedural protections that are intended to ensure that the death penalty will be imposed in a consistent, rational manner"); Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U. S. 231, 484 U. S. 244 -246 (1988).
Indeed, in Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U. S. 356 (1988), we applied the teachings of Godfrey to hold that the Oklahoma courts had not construed Oklahoma's "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance in a manner sufficient "to cure the unfettered discretion of the jury and to satisfy the commands of the Eighth Amendment." 486 U.S. at 486 U. S. 364. We concluded that the Oklahoma court's
conclusion that on th[e] facts [of the case] the jury's verdict that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel was supportable did not cure the constitutional infirmity of the aggravating circumstance.
Respondent's reliance on Godfrey and Cartwright, however, does not yield the result he seeks. Unlike in Godfrey, there is no dispute in this case that the Arizona Supreme Court applied its narrowing construction of Arizona's subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance to the facts of respondent's case. See State v. Jeffers, 135 Ariz. at 429-430, 661 P.2d at 1130-1131. More important, the Court of Appeals noted that the subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance, as interpreted by the Arizona courts, was not unconstitutionally vague on its face. See 832 F.2d at 482 (citing Chaney v. Lewis, 801 F.2d at 1194-1196).
The Arizona Supreme Court appears to have sufficiently channeled sentencing discretion to prevent arbitrary and capricious capital sentencing decisions. The court has defined each of the factors set forth in section 13-703(F)(6). These definitions have been applied consistently.
Chaney, supra, at 1195 (citations and quotations omitted).
Even had the Court of Appeals not so held, we resolved any doubt about the matter in Walton v. Arizona, ante, p. 497 U. S. 639, where we upheld, against a vagueness challenge, the precise aggravating circumstance at issue in this case. See ante at 497 U. S. 652 -655. Our holding in Walton, which disposes of respondent's claim that Arizona has not construed its subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance in a constitutionally narrow manner, bears repeating here:
Recognizing that the proper degree of definition of an aggravating factor of this nature is not susceptible of mathematical precision, we conclude that the definition given to the 'especially cruel' provision by the Arizona Supreme Court is constitutionally sufficient because it gives meaningful guidance to the sentencer. Nor can we fault the state court's statement that a crime is committed in an especially 'depraved' manner when the perpetrator 'relishes the murder, evidencing debasement or perversion,' or 'shows an indifference to the suffering of the victim and evidences a sense of pleasure' in the killing.
Ante at 497 U. S. 655 (citation omitted). Walton therefore squarely forecloses any argument that Arizona's subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance, as construed by the Arizona Supreme Court, fails to
channel the sentencer's discretion by 'clear and objective standards' that provide 'specific and detailed guidance,' and that 'make rationally reviewable the process for imposing a sentence of death.'
Godfrey, 446 U.S. at 446 U. S. 428 (footnotes omitted).
The dissent's suggestion that our reliance on Walton is misplaced is without merit. We granted certiorari in Walton to decide
[w]hether Arizona's 'especially heinous, cruel or depraved' aggravating circumstance, as interpreted by the Arizona courts, fails to channel the sentencer's discretion as required by the Eighth Amendment,
Brief for Petitioner in Walton v. Arizona, O.T.1989, No. 7351, p. i, and our judgment in that case plainly rested on a negative answer to that question. See ante at 497 U. S. 652 -656; ante at 497 U. S. 674 (SCALIA, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); see also ante at 497 U. S. 692 -699 (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting) (discussing vagueness of the state courts' construction of the "especially heinous... or depraved" aggravating circumstance). We decline the dissent's apparent invitation to reconsider arguments addressed and rejected in a decision announced only today.
In light of the Court of Appeals' rejection of respondent's facial challenge, respondent defends the decision below on the ground that, even if Arizona has adopted a constitutionally narrow construction of its subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance, and even if the Arizona Supreme Court applied that narrowing construction to the facts of his case, the aggravating circumstance may nevertheless be vague "as applied" to him. We rejected an identical claim in Walton, however, and the conclusion we reached in Walton applies with equal force in this case:
Walton nevertheless contends that the heinous, cruel, or depraved factor has been applied in an arbitrary manner, and that, as applied, does not distinguish his case from cases in which the death sentence has not been imposed. In effect, Walton challenges the proportionality review of the Arizona Supreme Court as erroneous, and asks us to overturn it. This we decline to do, for we have just concluded that the challenged factor has been construed by the Arizona courts in a manner that furnishes sufficient guidance to the sentencer. This being so, proportionality review is not constitutionally required, and we lawfully may presume that [Walton's] death sentence was not 'wantonly and freakishly' imposed -and thus that the sentence is not disproportionate within any recognized meaning of the Eighth Amendment. McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U. S. 279, 481 U. S. 306, 481 U. S. 308 (1987); Pulley v. Harris, 465 U. S. 37, 465 U. S. 43 (1984). Furthermore, the Arizona Supreme Court plainly undertook its proportionality review in good faith, and found that Walton's sentence was proportional to the sentences imposed in cases similar to his. The Constitution does not require us to look behind that conclusion.
Ante at 497 U. S. 655 -656.
Our decision in Walton thus makes clear that, if a State has adopted a constitutionally narrow construction of a facially vague aggravating circumstance, and if the State has applied that construction to the facts of the particular case, then the "fundamental constitutional requirement" of "channeling and limiting... the sentencer's discretion in imposing the death penalty," Cartwright, 486 U.S. at 486 U. S. 362, has been satisfied. Apart from its analysis of Arizona's subsection (F)(6) cases to determine whether the aggravating circumstance was facially valid - i.e., whether the Arizona courts had given a sufficiently narrow limiting construction to the circumstance -the Court of Appeals in this case therefore erred in conducting a de novo, case-by-case comparison of the facts of those cases with the facts of the instant case. See McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U. S. 279, 481 U. S. 306 -307 (1987) ("[A]bsent a showing that the Georgia capital punishment system operates in an arbitrary and capricious manner, McCleskey cannot prove a constitutional violation by demonstrating that other defendants who may be similarly situated did not receive the death penalty").
In light of our rejection of respondent's constitutional challenge to Arizona's "especially heinous... or depraved" aggravating circumstance, see Walton, respondent's contention -that the Arizona Supreme Court's application of its narrowing construction to the facts of his case nevertheless failed to distinguish his case from cases in which the court did not find the aggravating circumstance -reduces, in essence, to a claim that the state court simply misapplied its own aggravating circumstance to the facts of his case. Because federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law, see, e.g., Pulley v. Harris, 465 U. S. 37, 465 U. S. 41 (1984); Rose v. Hodges, 423 U. S. 19, 423 U. S. 21 -22 (1975) (per curiam), federal habeas review of a state court's application of a constitutionally narrowed aggravating circumstance is limited, at most, to determining whether the state court's finding was so arbitrary or capricious as to constitute an independent due process or Eighth Amendment violation. Cf. Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U. S. 637, 416 U. S. 642 (1974) (absent a specific constitutional violation, federal habeas review of trial error is limited to whether the error "so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process").
In making such a determination, respect for a state court's findings of fact and application of its own law counsels against the sort of de novo review undertaken by the Court of Appeals in this case. Cf. 832 F.2d at 484 ("Illumined... by the case examples furnished by the Arizona Supreme Court, [the "especially heinous... or depraved" standard] seems to call for conduct or attitudes more shocking than those exhibited by Jeffers"). Where the issue is solely whether a state court has properly found the existence of a constitutionally narrowed aggravating circumstance, we have never required federal courts
to peer majestically over the [state] court's shoulder so that [they] might second-guess its interpretation of facts that quite reasonably -perhaps even quite plainly -fit within the statutory language.
Godfrey, 446 U.S. at 446 U. S. 450 (WHITE, J., dissenting) (footnote omitted). See Barclay, 463 U.S. at 463 U. S. 947 (plurality opinion) (review of state court findings of aggravating circumstances is "limited to the question whether they are so unprincipled or arbitrary as to somehow violate the United States Constitution"); id. at 463 U. S. 968 (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment) ("It is not our role to reexamine the trial court's findings of fact, which have been affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court. Assuming those facts to be true, there is no federal constitutional infirmity in these two findings of statutory aggravating circumstances").
Rather, in determining whether a state court's application of its constitutionally adequate aggravating circumstance was so erroneous as to raise an independent due process or Eighth Amendment violation, we think the more appropriate standard of review is the "rational factfinder" standard established in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (1979). We held in Jackson that, where a federal habeas corpus claimant alleges that his state conviction is unsupported by the evidence, federal courts must determine whether the conviction was obtained in violation of In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358 (1970), by asking
whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
443 U.S. at 443 U. S. 319 (citation omitted); see also id. at 324 ("We hold that, in a challenge to a state criminal conviction brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 -if the settled procedural prerequisites for such a claim have otherwise been satisfied -the applicant is entitled to habeas corpus relief if it is found that upon the record evidence adduced at trial no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt") (footnote omitted). The Court reasoned:
This familiar standard gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts. Once a defendant has been found guilty of the crime charged, the factfinder's role as weigher of the evidence is preserved through a legal conclusion that, upon judicial review, all of the evidence is to be considered in the light most favorable to the prosecution.
443 U.S. at 443 U. S. 319 (footnote omitted).
These considerations apply with equal force to federal habeas review of a state court's finding of aggravating circumstances. Although aggravating circumstances are not "elements" of any offense, see Walton, ante at 497 U. S. 648 -649 the standard of federal review for determining whether a state court has violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee against wholly arbitrary deprivations of liberty is equally applicable in safeguarding the Eighth Amendment's bedrock guarantee against the arbitrary or capricious imposition of the death penalty. Like findings of fact, state court findings of aggravating circumstances often require a sentencer to
resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts.
Jackson, 443 U.S. at 443 U. S. 319. See Ariz.Rev.Stat. § 13-703(F)(1989) (listing aggravating circumstances); cf. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) (1982 ed.) (federal courts in habeas corpus proceedings must generally accord a presumption of correctness to a state court's factual findings). The Arizona Supreme Court's narrowing construction of the subsection (F)(6) aggravating circumstance, for example, requires Arizona courts to determine whether the victim suffered physical pain or mental distress and to assess the mental state and attitude of the perpetrator as reflected by his words and actions. See, e.g., State v. Carriger, 143 Ariz. 142, 160, 692 P.2d 991, 1009 (1984) (discussing narrowing construction of "cruelty" and "heinous and depraved"), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1111 (1985). Even if a determination under Arizona's narrowing construction could be characterized as a "mixed" question of law and fact, cf. Sumner v. Mata, 455 U. S. 591, 455 U. S. 597 (1982) (per curiam) (declining to apply § 2254(d)'s presumption of correctness to mixed questions of law and fact), any such determination would nevertheless remain a question of state law, errors of which are not cognizable in federal habeas proceedings.
Moreover, a federal court should adhere to the Jackson standard even when reviewing the decision of a state appellate court that has independently reviewed the evidence, for the underlying question remains the same: If a State's aggravating circumstances adequately perform their constitutional function, then a state court's application of those circumstances raises, apart from due process and Eighth Amendment concerns, only a question of the proper application of state law. A state court's finding of an aggravating circumstance in a particular case -including a de novo finding by an appellate court that a particular offense is "especially heinous... or depraved" -is arbitrary or capricious if and only if no reasonable sentencer could have so concluded. Indeed, respondent agrees that
a state court's 'especially heinous... or depraved' finding, insofar as it is a matter of state law, is reviewable by the federal courts only under the 'rational factfinder' rule of Jackson v. Virginia.
Brief for Respondent 95-96 (emphasis added; footnote omitted).
Applying the Jackson standard in this case, we hold that a rational factfinder could have found that respondent both relished the crime and inflicted gratuitous violence on the victim. Given the evidence that,
while Jeffers was beating the [dead] victim he called her 'a bitch and a dirty snitch' and, with each striking blow, said, 'This one is for so and so. [naming several names],'
State v. Jeffers, 135 Ariz. at 430, 661 P.2d at 1131, we think that the Arizona Supreme Court's finding that respondent had relished the killing is one that a rational factfinder could have made. Moreover, the Arizona Supreme Court's finding that respondent had inflicted gratuitous violence is rationally supported by the evidence that respondent "climbed on top of the dead victim and hit her in the face several times which eventually resulted in additional wounds and bleeding," ibid. In light of the Arizona Supreme Court's narrowing construction of the "especially heinous... or depraved" aggravating circumstance, see State v. Gretzler, 135 Ariz. at 52-53, 659 P.2d at 11-12 (listing factors), the Arizona Supreme Court could reasonably have concluded that respondent committed the murder in an "especially heinous... or depraved manner."
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
[ Footnote 1 ]
Arizona Rev.Stat. § 13-703(F) provides:
F. Aggravating circumstances to be considered shall be the following 1. The defendant has been convicted of another offense in the United States for which under Arizona law a sentence of life imprisonment or death was imposable. 2. The defendant was previously convicted of a felony in the United States involving the use or threat of violence on another person. 3. In the commission of the offense the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person or persons in addition to the victim of the offense. 4. The defendant procured the commission of the offense by payment, or promise of payment, of anything of pecuniary value. 5. The defendant committed the offense as consideration for the receipt, or in expectation of the receipt, of anything of pecuniary value. 6. The defendant committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner. 7. The defendant committed the offense while in the custody of the state department of corrections, a law enforcement agency or county or city jail. 8. The defendant has been convicted of one or more homicides, as defined in § 13-1101, which were committed during the commission of the offense. 9. The defendant was an adult at the time the offense was committed or was tried as an adult and the victim was under fifteen years of age. 10. The murdered individual was an on duty peace officer who was killed in the course of performing his official duties and the defendant. knew, or should have known, that the victim was a peace officer.
[ Footnote 2 ]
Arizona Rev.Stat. § 13-703(E) provides:
E. In determining whether to impose a sentence of death or life imprisonment without possibility of release on any basis... the court shall take into account the aggravating and mitigating circumstances included in subsections F and G of this section and shall impose a sentence of death if the court finds one or more of the aggravating circumstances enumerated in subsection F of this section and that there are no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency.
Header photo: United States Supreme Court. Credit: Patrick McKay / Flickr - CC.