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Bell v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

January 8, 2015

FREDERICK BELL
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: GRENADA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 01/22/2013. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JOSEPH H. LOPER, JR.

VACATED AND REMANDED.

FOR APPELLANT: GEORGE T. HOLMES, GLENN S. SWARTZFAGER, OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER.

FOR APPELLEE: ELLIOTT GEORGE FLAGGS, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL.

DICKINSON, P.J., LAMAR, KITCHENS, AND KING, JJ., CONCUR. PIERCE, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY WALLER, C.J., RANDOLPH, P.J., AND CHANDLER, J. PIERCE, JUSTICE, DISSENTING. WALLER, C.J., RANDOLPH, P.J. AND CHANDLER, J., JOIN THIS OPINION.

OPINION

Page 189

NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY

COLEMAN, JUSTICE

¶1. A jury convicted Frederick Bell of capital murder and sentenced him to death in 1993. He has since been declared mentally retarded and, therefore, his death sentence is unconstitutional under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). The circuit court resentenced Bell to life without parole pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 99-19-107. Bell appeals, asserting that Section 99-19-107 does not apply to his case. We agree, and we vacate Bell's sentence and remand for resentencing.

Factual Background and Procedural History

¶2. Frederick Bell was convicted of capital murder in 1993. Bell v. State, 725 So.2d 836, 840-41 (¶ ¶ 1-2) (Miss. 1998). At the time, Mississippi Code Section 97-3-21 provided two sentences for capital murder -- death or life imprisonment.[1] The jury imposed the death penalty. Bell, 725 So.2d at 841 (¶ 3). Bell's conviction and death sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. Id. at 868 (¶ 117). In a successive petition for post-conviction relief, Bell requested a hearing on his allegation that he was mentally retarded. The Court recognized that Bell was entitled to a hearing under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002), which prohibited execution of the mentally retarded, and granted Bell's petition on that issue only. Bell v. State, 66 So.3d 90, 91 (¶ 1) (Miss. 2011). Doctors at the Mississippi State Hospital evaluated Bell and determined that he was mentally retarded within the meaning of Atkins. The State filed a motion for resentencing in circuit court and, over Bell's objection, the circuit court resentenced Bell to life without parole pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 99-19-107 and Foster v. State, 961 So.2d 670 (Miss. 2007). Bell appeals.

Analysis

¶3. Bell claims that his ineligibility for the death penalty entitled him to be resentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole because: (1) Atkins v. Virginia was not a wholesale declaration that the death penalty was unconstitutional, so Section 99-19-107 does not apply to his case; and (2) his due process rights were violated because the life without parole sentence was a retroactive imposition of changes by judicial interpretation of a criminal statute that were unexpected and indefensible. We review questions of law de novo. Jones v. State, 122 So.3d 698, 700 (¶ 4) (Miss. 2013); Goodin v. State, 102 So.3d 1102, 1111 (¶ 30) (Miss. 2012). The first issue is dispositive, so we will not address Bell's due process claim.

Whether Mississippi Code Section 99-19-107, requiring a sentence of life imprisonment without parole in the event the death penalty is held unconstitutional, applies to Bell's case.

¶4. Bell argues that the trial court erred by resentencing to him to life without parole under Mississippi Code Section 99-19-107, which provides:

In the event the death penalty is held to be unconstitutional by the Mississippi Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court, the court having jurisdiction over a person previously sentenced to death shall cause such person to be brought before the court and the court shall sentence such person to imprisonment for life, and such person shall not be eligible for parole.

Miss. Code Ann. § 99-19-107 (Rev. 2007). Bell contends that Section 99-19-107 applies only if there has been a " wholesale

Page 190

declaration that the death penalty . . . is unconstitutional." See Abram v. State, 606 So.2d 1015, 1039 (Miss. 1992). Because Atkins was not a wholesale declaration that the death penalty was unconstitutional, Bell maintains that Section 99-19-107 does not apply.

¶5. The State responds that the trial court's imposition of a life without parole sentence was proper under Foster v. State, in which the Court overruled Abram v. State and held that Section 99-19-107 provided " an alternative sentence for a person whose death sentence has been deemed unconstitutional." Foster, 961 So.2d at 672 (¶ 8) (emphasis added). As evidenced by the Court's own difficulty in settling on its meaning, further discussed below, we conclude that Section 99-19-107 is ambiguous. Also, due in part to the Court's indecisiveness regarding the meaning of Section 99-19-107, we hold that the doctrine of stare decisis does not apply to the Court's holding in Foster.

A. Historical Background of Section 99-19-107

¶6. The Legislature enacted Section 99-19-107 in 1977 in the wake of several United States Supreme Court opinions pertaining to the constitutionality of the death penalty as applied in particular circumstances. A brief review of that jurisprudence provides helpful context for today's analysis.

¶7. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court struck down Georgia's death penalty statute as violative of the Eighth Amendment because of the arbitrary and capricious way in which it was administered. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972). After Furman, the death penalty stood abolished in many states, including Mississippi. See Peterson v. State, 268 So.2d 335 (Miss. 1972). In response, the Mississippi Legislature amended the state's death penalty law to mandate the death penalty for certain crimes, including capital murder. See Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-21 (1975). Then, in 1976, the United States Supreme Court invalidated mandatory death statutes. Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976). The same day Woodson handed down, the Supreme Court also decided Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976), Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913 (1976), Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 96 S.Ct. 2950, 49 L.Ed.2d 929 (1976), and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 96 S.Ct. 3001, 49 L.Ed.2d 974 (1976), which explained that Furman did not abolish the death penalty or hold it unconstitutional, but sought to guard against arbitrariness and capriciousness in the imposition of the death penalty. See Gregg, 428 U.S. at 188-89.

¶8. In the wake of the above-described cases, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided Jackson v. State, 337 So.2d 1242 (Miss. 1976), in which the appellant had challenged the constitutionality of Mississippi Code Section 97-3-21. The Jackson Court held that the intent of the Legislature was to enact a death penalty statute that would satisfy Furman's constitutional requirements. Jackson, 337 So.2d at 1251. The Jackson Court construed Section 97-3-21 to mean that individuals convicted of capital murder would be sentenced to death only if the jury imposed a death sentence " after the defendant has been accorded a trial governed by procedures and guidelines designed to prevent the risk that the death penalty ...


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