Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania


Excerpt of entry for the Gonzaga Law Review's 2003 Notes Competition

Awarded "Highest Technical Score"

Footnotes have been omitted. Full text is available.

Excerpt: Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania: Life, Death, and Indecision


The Fifth Amendment states in part that "nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life of limb…" An important part of the Bill of Rights, the protection against double jeopardy has deep roots in the common law. The Pennsylvania Constitution contains the same protection which is interpreted under the same analysis as the Fifth Amendment. The meaning of double jeopardy continues to be developed to this day.

In Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court addressed a unique question of double jeopardy. A defendant, sentenced to life imprisonment in his first trial after the jury was unable to decide on a sentence, was convicted and sentenced to death after a retrial resulting from his successful appeal. In Sattazahn, the Court decided that the entry of a life sentence as a result of a hung-jury is not an acquittal a "finding" deserving of double jeopardy protection. The Court also declined to find any additional protection in the Due Process Clause. While the direct effects of this case may be limited, the result has clarified the situations of persons such as Sattazahn and demonstrated a degree of reluctance to extend the protection of the Double Jeopardy and Due Process Clauses.

Section II of this Note will examine a series of cases that made significant contributions to the relationship between the Double Jeopardy Clause and the practices of retrial and resentencing. These cases represent the bulk of the precedent relied upon by the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions in Sattazahn. Section III will present the facts, procedural history, and majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions in Sattazahn. Section IV will argue that the Court's decision correctly applied precedent in finding that the Double Jeopardy Clause did not prohibit seeking a death sentence on retrial when the defendant was never acquitted of the death penalty. Section IV will also explain why the dissent's arguments are not sufficient to support reversing Sattazahn's death sentence. Policy considerations and possible implications of the ruling will also be discussed.

I. Historical Background — Double Jeopardy Applied to Resentencing on Retrial

The Supreme Court has long held that double jeopardy does not bar retrial when a conviction is overturned on appeal. An acquittal, however, is significantly more final because the prosecution cannot normally appeal. Because of the level of finality given to an acquittal, many judicial decisions have centered on how an acquittal is defined or whether another form of "final" judgment is considered equal to an acquittal.

Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania represents the next significant case in this series, where the Court again tackled the issue of resentencing on retrial.

II. The Supreme Court's decision in Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania

A. Facts and Case History

David Allen Sattazahn was convicted of first degree murder and a number of other charges arising from a robbery that he and his accomplice, Jeffrey Hammer, had planned for several weeks. The murder occurred when the target of the robbery, restaurant manager Richard Boyer, threw his bank deposit bag off to the side and tried to flee the scene. Both Sattazahn and Hammer fired their handguns in Boyer's direction. Hammer fired his .41 caliber revolver over Boyer's head. Sattazahn fired his .22 caliber pistol, hitting Boyer five times—twice in the back, once in a shoulder, once in the face, and once in the back of the head.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged Sattazahn with first degree murder and a number of other charges and sought the death penalty. The jury convicted him of first degree murder and other charges and moved into the sentencing phase. Pennsylvania "presented evidence of one statutory aggravating circumstance: commission of the murder while in the perpetration of a felony." Sattazahn "presented as mitigating circumstances his lack of a significant history of prior criminal convictions and his age at the time of the crime." The jury deliberated for three and one-half hours before notifying the judge that they were "hopelessly deadlocked at 9 to 3 for life imprisonment." Sattazahn moved that the jury be discharged and a life sentence entered. Under Pennsylvania law, the trial judge was required to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment in the event of a hung jury during sentencing. "The trial judge… discharged the jury as hung" and entered the required life sentence. Sattazahn's total sentence on all charges was for life plus twelve to twenty-four years in prison. Sattazahn appealed his convictions to the Pennsylvania Superior Court which, based on an erroneous jury instruction, remanded for a new trial on charges including first degree murder.

On remand, Pennsylvania sought the death penalty again and set forth two aggravating circumstances: "commission of the killing while in the perpetration of a felony… and that the defendant had a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person." A motion to prevent Pennsylvania from seeking the death penalty was denied by the trial court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The second trial resulted in a conviction for first degree murder and the jury imposed the death penalty. Sattazahn then appealed directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, conducting an independent review of the evidence found the evidence "sufficient to support the jury's verdict." The court rejected Sattazahn's claims "based on the trial court's limitation upon the cross-examination of [co-felon] Hammer" and a jury charge "regarding 'inconsistent statements' given by Hammer and another witness." The court also reasoned that the failure of the jury to agree in Sattazahn's first trial did not bar imposition of the death penalty in his second trial because the jury's failure to reach a unanimous decision did not constitute "an acquittal on the merits" as required by Pennsylvania and federal constitutional law. Next, based on its own precedent, the court upheld the addition of the second aggravating factor and the admission of evidence of prior convictions to support it. Finally, the court cited its own precedent to reject Sattazahn's claim that his state law right to appeal had been violated. Having rejected all of Sattazahn's arguments, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence by a 4-3 vote. Sattazahn appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States which granted certiorari.

III. Analysis

Sattazahn presents two alternative approaches to applying the Double Jeopardy Clause. The majority contends that double jeopardy protection does not exist because primarily because Sattazahn was never "acquitted" of the death penalty. Justice Ginsburg's dissent admitted that there was no acquittal, focusing instead on "finality" and the risk and effects of a second trial resulting from an appeal.

…Because the only statement made by the jury was that it was unable to reach a decision, the hung jury cannot be said to have acquitted Sattazahn of the death penalty. Because the judge had no discretion in entering a sentence of life imprisonment, that sentence cannot be considered an acquittal of the death penalty either.…

Sattazahn should not have expected that his retrial would be anything less than a retrial. In both trials, the prosecution pursued the death penalty for the robbery and murder of Richard Boyer. Because the prosecution pursued the same penalty in both trials, the fact that the jury in the second trial was able to make a decision cannot render the death sentence vindictive. At his first sentencing hearing, the state presented the single aggravating circumstance of felony murder. A reasonable jury could not fail to find that this circumstance existed since the same jury had already convicted him of both the felony (robbery) and the murder. This could indicate that the jury was not divided over whether the prosecution had proven its case, but was divided over whether Sattazahn had sufficiently proven mitigating circumstances. Sattazahn's first mitigating circumstance was only technically correct—he lacked a significant history of prior criminal convictions solely because he had not yet been convicted of crimes that he had already committed. Because those crimes were prosecuted after the first trial, by the time of the second, Sattazahn's first mitigating circumstance had been transformed by his guilt into an aggravating circumstance. The new jury, having a more detailed picture of the criminal, unanimously convicted him and sentenced him to death. Sattazahn should not have expected that a retrial on the merits could result in a more favorable sentence (except for desperate hopes for acquittal)—since the minimum sentence was life imprisonment. Justice Ginsburg's concerns about a second trial were misplaced because Sattazahn sought a new trial. The risk of retrial is simply a component of an appeal.

The Court, in paying close attention to Pennsylvania criminal procedure statutes, should have taken notice of the mandatory nature of death penalty proceedings. Pennsylvania law mandates death penalty proceedings following every first degree murder conviction. While Pennsylvania statutes are not above the Constitution, this particular mandate provides additional consistency and near-total protection against vindictive sentences. This rule also suggests that Sattazahn could have foreseen a second death penalty proceeding, since it was legally mandated following a first degree murder conviction.

IV. Conclusion

The Supreme Court of the United States declined to extend double jeopardy protection to Sattazahn because his life sentence imposed by default following a hung jury in sentencing did not constitute an acquittal or other favorable finding on the merits. By upholding Sattazahn's death sentence, the Court indicated that it was unwilling to expand at least some constitutional protections and that concerns over the effect of retrial on a defendant are misplaced when the defendant is responsible for the new trial. The Court clarified a novel legal question that could be faced by other individuals as well the federal and state governments.

The ruling in Sattazahn may encourage other jurisdictions to adopt similar statutory structures, encouraging efficient use of judicial resources and a more consistent application of the death penalty. Individuals who are sentenced to life imprisonment after their sentencing jury hangs will also be more aware of the risks they face in case of retrial. While the level of finality may be less than what they hoped for, at least their status will now be clear.

Simplified Citation List

U.S. CONST. amend. V.
PA. CONST. art. I, § 10.
PA. CONST. art. IV, § 9.
42 PA. CONS. STAT. § 9711

Commonwealth v. Sattazahn, 631 A.2d 597 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993).
Commonwealth v. Sattazahn, 763 A.2d 359 (Pa. 2000), aff'd, 123 S. Ct. 732 (2003).
Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 535 U.S. 926 (2002).
Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 123 S. Ct. 732 (2003).

Capital Case Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondent, Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 123 S. Ct. 732 (2003) (No. 01-7574).
Petitioner's Brief, Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 123 S. Ct. 732 (2003) (No. 01-7574).
Respondent's Brief, Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 123 S. Ct. 732 (2003) (No. 01-7574).

Stroud v. United States, 251 U.S. 15 (1919).
Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184 (1957).
North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711 (1969).
Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784 (1969).
Chaffin v. Stynchcombe, 412 U.S. 17 (1973).
United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564 (1977).
Arizona v. Washington, 434 U.S. 497 (1978).
Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1 (1978) (quoting Forman v. United States, 361 U.S. 416, 425 (1960) (citing United States v. Ball, 163 U.S. 662, 672 (1896))). "It is elementary in our law that a person can be tried a second time for an offense when his prior conviction for that same offense has been set aside by his appeal."
United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82 (1978). "[T]he Double Jeopardy Clause, which guards against Government oppression, does not relieve a defendant from the consequences of his voluntary choice."
Bullington v. Missouri, 451 U.S. 430 (1981).
Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203 (1984).
Richardson v. United States, 468 U.S. 317 (1984)
Smalis v. Pennsylvania, 476 U.S. 140 (1986).
Poland v. Arizona, 476 U.S. 147 (1986).

21 AM. JUR. 2D CRIMINAL LAW §§ 342, 413, 421 (2002) (explaining double jeopardy as related to sentencing, retrial, and increased punishment on retrial).

Anne Bowen Poulin, Double Jeopardy and Judicial Accountability: When is an Acquittal not an Acquittal?, 27 ARIZ. ST. L.J. 953 (1995).

Jennifer L. Czernecki, Recent Decision: The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution Does Not Bar the Death Penalty upon Retrial After the Trial Judge Grants a Life Sentence on Behalf of a Hung Jury: Commonwealth v. Sattazahn, 40 Duq. L. Rev. 127 (2001).

Philip Johnston, Double Jeopardy Reform Widened to Cover 30 Offences, Daily Telegraph (London), Nov. 22, 2002, at 12, available at 2002 WL 102262149.