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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Jeffrey A. Beard, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, et al.
George E. Banks
(argued the cause for Petitioners)
(argued the cause for Respondent)
Facts of the Case 

In 1982, George Banks was sentenced to death in Pennsylvania for the murder of 13 people. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the conviction, Banks unsuccessfully sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. Reversing the district court, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found Banks's death sentence unconstitutional. The court held that jury instructions during sentencing led jurors to believe they could not vote against the death penalty unless they all agreed on mitigating evidence (that is, evidence that would have inclined them to vote against the death penalty). This, the court reasoned, violated the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Mills v. Maryland (1988). The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision (in part) and remanded it. Pointing to its opinion in Teague v. Lane (1989) and the fact that Mills was decided after Banks's conviction, the Court reasoned that the appeals court did not consider whether Mills could be "retroactively" applied. The Third Circuit Court - reviewing its ruling - did not change its original opinion. It found that "Mills did not announce a new rule of constitutional law for retroactivity purposes" and that Banks's death sentence was unconstitutional.

  1. Does the Supreme Court's decision in Mills v. Maryland (1988) create a new rule of law that cannot be applied retroactively to award sentencing relief to a prisoner whose conviction became final before Mills was announced? 2. If Mills applies retroactively and a state supreme court rejects a Mills challenge because the jury was not told that it must unanimously agree on mitigating factors, is that decision consistent with Supreme Court precedent?
Decision: 5 votes for Beard, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision:

Ruling yes on the first question, the Court did not need to reach the second question. In a 5-to-4 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court found that the rule announced in Mills - that sentencing schemes could not prevent jurors from considering mitigating evidence that had not been accepted unanimously when deciding whether to apply the death penalty - was a new rule, because it was not compelled by previous Court decisions. As a new rule, it could only be applied retroactively if it was a "watershed rule[] of criminal procedure implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding." Finding that it was not a watershed rule, the Court found that it could not be applied retroactively and that Beards' conviction was therefore constitutional.

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BEARD v. BANKS. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
BEARD v. BANKS, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"BEARD v. BANKS," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,