St. Mary's Law Journal


The United States Supreme Court has never explained the Eighth Amendment’s impact in noncapital cases involving a mentally retarded or brain-injured defendant. The Court has not provided guidance to legislatures or lower courts concerning the acceptable balancing of aggravating and mitigating factors and the role that mitigating factors must play in the sentencing decision. A definitive gap exists between the protections afforded to a criminal defendant facing a life sentence as opposed to those confronted with the death penalty. The Court requires sentencing procedures to consider aggravating and mitigating factors, including mental retardation and brain damage, when imposing a death sentence. The sentencing procedures, however, have no such requirement for a life sentence. The Court has held that death is too excessive a punishment if an inmate is mentally retarded. Nevertheless, the Court must evaluate whether the non-consideration of either mental retardation or brain injury in noncapital cases complies with the Eighth Amendment. The legal community does not know with certainty what the acceptable degree of proportionality might be in life imprisonment cases. In Texas, if the death penalty has been ruled out, Texas’s statutory scheme gives no consideration to a defendant’s right to have a jury consider the mitigating circumstances of their history for life imprisonment sentences. Such an omission runs afoul of Supreme Court precedents in death penalty cases. The existence of these mitigating factors should warrant the sentencing authority the ability to consider them before handing down a life sentence. No present authority exists as to whether complete uniformity is constitutionally permissible for life sentences. Similarly, Texas courts have never held that automatic life sentences violate the Eighth Amendment. Therefore, the Court must articulate the proper degree of scrutiny necessary when evaluating the constitutionality of the Eighth Amendment to life sentences.


St. Mary's University School of Law