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Case Basics
Docket No. 
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Richmond, Virginia, argued the cause for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

Lonnie Weeks, Jr., was found guilty of capital murder in the death of Virginia State Trooper Jose Cavazos. During the penalty phase of his trial, the prosecution sought to prove two aggravating circumstances. Weeks' defense presented 10 witnesses in mitigation. During deliberations, the jurors sent the trial judge a note asking whether, if they believed Weeks guilty of at least one of the aggravating circumstances, it was their duty to issue the death penalty, or whether they must decide whether to issue the death penalty or a life sentence. In responding, the trial judge only referred the jury to their instructions, which stated: "If you find from the evidence that the Commonwealth has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, either of the two [aggravating circumstances], and as to that alternative, you are unanimous, then you may fix the punishment...at death, or if you believe from all the evidence that the death penalty is not justified, then you shall fix the punishment...at life imprisonment." The defense counsel objected, arguing for the judge to instruct the jury it could find one or both of the aggravating circumstances and still impose a life sentence. In finding one of the aggravating circumstances and after considering the evidence in mitigation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict fixing Weeks' punishment at death. On appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Weeks' presented 47 assignments of error, of which his assignment of error respecting the judge's answering the jury's question about mitigating circumstances was number 44. The court affirmed Weeks' conviction and sentence. Weeks' petition for federal habeas relief was ultimately denied.


Is the Constitution's due process requirement violated when a trial judge directs a capital jury's attention to a specific paragraph of a constitutionally sufficient instruction in response to a question regarding the proper consideration of mitigating circumstances?

Decision: 5 votes for Angelone, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 8: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

No. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Court held that the Constitution was not violated by the Virginia trial judge who, during a capital trial's penalty phase, directed the jury's attention to the allegedly ambiguous paragraph of the jury's instruction in response to the jury's question as to mitigating evidence. "Given that petitioner's jury was adequately instructed, and given that the trial judge responded to the jury's question by directing its attention to the precise paragraph of the constitutionally adequate instruction that answers its inquiry, the question becomes whether the Constitution requires anything more," wrote Chief Justice Rehnquist, "[w]e hold that it does not." Writing for the dissenting minority, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that "[t]he record in this case establishes, not just a 'reasonable likelihood' of jury confusion, but a virtual certainty that the jury did not realize that there were two distinct legal bases for concluding that a death sentence was not 'justified.'"

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WEEKS v. ANGELONE. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 25 August 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1999/1999_99_5746>.
WEEKS v. ANGELONE, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1999/1999_99_5746 (last visited August 25, 2015).
"WEEKS v. ANGELONE," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 25, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1999/1999_99_5746.