ANDERSON, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
Adam Lee Pinkton pled guilty to capital murder in the Circuit Court of Bolivar County and was sentenced to die. Mississippi's capital murder statute requires, as a prerequisite to the imposition of the death penalty, a specific written finding by the jury relating to the defendant's actions and intent. Pinkton's appeal presents us with the question of whether the law requires such a finding in the sentencing phase of a bifurcated trial, even where the defendant pled guilty in the first phase. We hold that it does, and we reverse.
At the time of his offense, Adam Lee Pinkton was twenty-one years of age, unemployed, lacking any place to stay *fn1, and depressed over his generally bleak prospects. He resorted to desperate measures. On December 30, 1983, he broke into the house of his sister's boyfriend and took a .12 gauge shotgun and three shells. He then set out on foot for the nearby hamlet of Deeson, where the Deeson Cash Store was located. While en route, he fired the shotgun into the air to see whether it was working. This attracted the attention of Jerry Gomillia, an acquaintance; Pinkton warned Gomillia not to tell anyone that he had the gun. Just outside the store, he encountered two other friends, Robert Lewis and James Selby. He informed Lewis of his intent to rob the store. He told Selby that he intended to shoot the store's owner, but Selby seems to have assumed that this was said in jest.
Inside the store were the proprietor, Louis Coats, and his son Henry. The store normally closed at 6:15 p.m., but on that particular day (a Friday) business was slow, and at about 6 o'clock Henry suggested that they close the store a few minutes early and go home. Since the regular closing time was only a few minutes off anyway, Louis Coats elected to stay and keep the store open - a seemingly unremarkable decision which would have tragic consequences.
The last paying customer left the store about 6:10. Shortly afterwards, Henry Coats saw Adam Lee Pinkton approaching the store with a shotgun. This caused him no particular alarm, since the elder Coats also functioned as a pawnbroker and frequently accepted such articles. Moreover, the Coatses knew and trusted Pinkton; indeed, at one time he had worked at the store.
Pinkton asked Henry whether Mr. Coats would be interested in the gun and received a favorable response. But as Louis Coats approached for a closer look, Pinkton abruptly turned the gun on the two and ordered them to raise their hands and go to the back of the store. Henry turned around to comply; Mr. Coats was behind the counter at the time. Suddenly, Pinkton fired the shotgun directly at the storekeeper. Louis Coats died instantly as the blast tore away the top of his head; Pinkton then turned toward Henry, who had dropped to the floor, and fired again, wounding the young man's hand and grazing his head. Having run out of shells, he then beat Henry with the butt of the shotgun until he grew fatigued. Henry then was able to push him off, and ran to the back of the store seeking a weapon of his own. At this juncture, Pinkton fled the premises, leaving the shotgun behind and taking no money. He crossed the road onto an adjacent field and climbed into a barn. From that vantage point he watched as police quickly converged upon the store in answer to Henry's call. Pinkton then made his way to his sister's property, where he hid in the outhouse. Inevitably, Bolivar County authorities came to his sister's place in search of him, and he saw their approach. Apparently deciding that further flight would be futile, he came out of the outhouse and gave himself up, spontaneously telling a deputy that he had killed Coats. Some three hours after being taken into custody, Pinkton gave the county authorities a detailed confession in which he said that he had set out to kill both Coats and his son, adding that he had been drinking that day. The trial judge found that this confession had been freely and voluntarily given, and it was received as evidence in the sentencing phase of the trial.
On April 2, 1984, Pinkton appeared in the Circuit Court of Bolivar County and entered a plea of guilty to the charge of capital murder. The trial judge conducted a hearing on the plea, found that it was knowingly and intelligently made, and accepted it. The sentencing phase of the bifurcated trial commenced a week later. During this phase of the trial, Pinkton argued that he acted in self-defense since Coats had been reaching for a gun behind the counter. This story did not convince the jury, which at the close of its deliberations, announced that it had found the following aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt:
1. The capital murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in an attempt to commit the crime of armed robbery.
2. The capital offense was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment. *fn2
3. The capital offense was committed for pecuniary gain.
4. The capital offense was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest.
The jury further found beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances (which were not enumerated) and that Adam Pinkton must therefore suffer death for his crime.
As in any case involving the ultimate sanction of law, we approach this appeal with enhanced awareness of our awesome responsibility. It has been truly said that
[t]he penalty of death differs from all other forms of criminal punishment, not in degree but in kind. It is unique in its total irrevocability. (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 306, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 2760, 33 L.Ed.2d 346, 388 (1972), Stewart, J., concurring.)
Because of the terrible character of this penalty, we have long taken a different approach in reviewing capital cases. In such matters, we employ a higher level of scrutiny. Jones v. State, 461 So. 2d 686, 690 (Miss. 1984). "What may be harmless error in a case with less at stake becomes reversible error when the penalty is death." Irving v. State, 361 So. 2d 1360, 1363 (Miss. 1978). When a defendant's life is in the balance, patience with the normal imperfections of the criminal justice system ceases to be a virtue. See also, e.g. Billiot v. State, 454 So. 2d 445, 455 (Miss. 1984); Neal v. State, 451 So. 2d 743, 750 (Miss. 1984); Williams v. State, 445 So. 2d 798, 810-11 (Miss. 1984); Laney v. State, 421 So. 2d 1216, 1217 (Miss. 1982).
The law most crucial to this appeal is a part of our revised death penalty statute - specifically, Mississippi Code Annotated, Section 99-19-101 (7) (Supp. 1984). That subsection reads:
7. In order to return and impose a sentence of death the jury must make a written finding of one ...