Tennessee Death Penalty Aggravating Circumstance Cases

Protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution require an individualized sentence. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 49 L. Ed. 2d 859, 96 S. Ct. 2909 (1976). In a capital case, the sentences must be determined based upon "the circumstances of each individual homicide and each individual defendant." Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 258, 96 S. Ct. 2960, 49 L. Ed. 2d 913 (1976). In Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1140, 102 S. Ct. 3368 (1982), the United States Supreme Court set aside the death penalty of an accomplice who did not fire the fatal shot, ruling that the "focus must be on individual culpability . . . ." Id. at 797. The court ruled that the constitution prohibits capital punishment when the defendant does not kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place or that lethal force be employed. Id. Later, however, in Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137, 95 L. Ed. 2d 127, 107 S. Ct. 1676 (1987), the high court relaxed the implications of the Enmund decision, ruling that "major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life," was the test by which to determine whether two defendants, who were part of the crime of felony murder but did not personally cause the deaths of the victims, should be sentenced to death. In that case, the two defendants helped their father and his cell mate escape from prison. They stopped a passing vehicle and abducted the occupants. While the two defendants left to get water, their father and his cell mate murdered each of the occupants. the majority in Tison ruled as follows: Similarly, we hold that the reckless disregard for human life explicit in knowingly engaging in criminal activities known to carry a grave risk of death represents a high culpable mental state, a mental state that may be taken into account in making a capital sentencing judgment when that conduct causes its natural, though also not inevitable, lethal result. Rather, we simply hold that major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, is sufficient to satisfy the Enmund culpability requirement. 481 U.S. at 157-158; see State v. Bigbee, 885 S.W.2d 797, 817 (Tenn. 1994) (Reid, J., concurring) (citing Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. at 137, 107 S. Ct. at 1676; Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. at 797, 102 S. Ct. at 3377; State v. Branam, 855 S.W.2d 563, 570-571 (Tenn. 1993); State v. Middlebrooks, 840 S.W.2d 317, 338 (Tenn. 1992)). In Owens v. State, 13 S.W.3d 742, 1999 Tenn, a panel of this court ruled that an aggravating circumstance "may be applied vicariously to a defendant even if he was not the actor responsible for the particular aggravating circumstance." Slip op. at 28. Owens, who received the death penalty at her trial, had hired several men to kill her husband, had supplied them with helpful information, had kept their sons away from their father during the commission of the crime, and then had allowed them to discover the body. Death was the result of at least 21 blows to the head with a tire iron. Application of the "heinous, atrocious and cruel" aggravating circumstance was upheld even though the defendant was unaware of the method utilized to kill the victim. See Tenn. Code Ann. 39-2-203(i)(5) (1982) (repealed 1989).