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Part of Va. Death Penalty Upheld

January 21, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court upheld a key provision of Virginia’s death penalty law today, ruling against the quadruple murderer who had challenged it.

The 6-3 decision said the state may continue to bar sentencing juries from getting specific instructions on factors pointing to life in prison, not death, as the appropriate punishment.

Had the justices voted the other way, Douglas MacArthur Buchanan would have won a new sentencing trial and similar proceedings might have been needed for many others among the more than 40 inmates on Virginia’s death row.

The provision at issue is believed to be unique among death penalty laws, but today’s ruling means other states are free to follow Virginia’s lead.

Buchanan was 19 when in 1987 he used a rifle to kill his father, Douglas; stepmother, Geraldine; and stepbrothers, Christopher, 10, and Joel, 13, in Naola, Va. He admitted to the Amherst County killings but said they had not been premeditated.

Like many states with the death penalty, Virginia allows sentencing jurors to consider various mitigating and aggravating factors when choosing a punishment for a convicted murderer. The law lists some of each type.

The jury that recommended a death sentence for Buchanan had been told specifically about the one listed aggravating factor Virginia prosecutors were pressing _ that his conduct was ``outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman.″

But the judge rejected a request by Buchanan’s lawyer that the jurors be told about three listed mitigating factors _ his youth, his lack of a criminal history and extreme emotional disturbance resulting from alleged abuse by his father and stepmother.

Buchanan’s lawyer had referred to all three mitigating factors during opening and closing arguments of the sentencing trial, and the judge told jurors to consider ``all the evidence″ in choosing between life and death.

The jury was told it was free to impose a life sentence even if it found the aggravating factor existed in Buchanan’s case.

The Virginia Supreme Court, a federal trial judge and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals all upheld Buchanan’s death sentence.

His Supreme Court appeal argued that the Virginia law unfairly stacked the deck against him. Today, the highest court disagreed.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court that the determining factor is whether there’s a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied its instructions in a way that allows consideration of all constitutionally relevant evidence. That likelihood exists in Buchanan’s case, the court concluded.

``This case calls on us to decide whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital jury be instructed on the concept of mitigating evidence generally, or on particular statutory mitigating factors. We hold that it does not,″ Rehnquist said.

The Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

``To uphold the instructions given here is to risk that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty,″ Breyer wrote for the three dissenters.

The case is Buchanan vs. Angelone, 96-8400.