Does Vague Terminology Give Enough Guidance to a Jury to Decide That Aggravating Circumstances Exist to Give Death Penalty ?
In Maynard v. Cartwright (486 US 356) the vagueness issue was that the terms "heinous," "atrocious" and "cruel" did not on their face offer sufficient guidance to a jury deciding whether aggravating circumstances existed to impose the death penalty.
While the case involved a vagueness claim under an Eighth Amendment capital punishment issue, the criticism of the terminology used applies equally to any terminology too vague to inform and thus constitutionally imprecise--which is the issue in this case:
"First, the language of the Oklahoma aggravating circumstance at issue--'especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel'--gave no more guidance than the 'outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman' language that the jury returned in its verdict in Godfrey.
The State's contention that the addition of the word 'especially' somehow guides the jury's discretion, even if the term 'heinous' does not, is untenable.
To say that something is 'especially heinous' merely suggests that the individual jurors should determine that the murder is more than just 'heinous,' whatever that means, and an ordinary person could honestly believe that every unjustified, intentional taking of human life is 'especially heinous.'
Likewise, in Godfrey the addition of 'outrageously or wantonly' to the term 'vile' did not limit the overbreadth of the aggravating factor." (Maynard v. Cartwright, supra, at 364-365.)