Barefoot v. Estelle

United States Supreme Court

463 U.S. 880 (1983)

Nature of Case

Whether it is unconstitutional, according to the 8th and 14th Amendments, for psychiatrists to make predictions of dangerousness during capital sentencing hearings.

Facts of Case

On November 14, 1978, Thomas A. Barefoot was convicted of the capital murder of a police officer in a Texas state court. A separate sentencing hearing was then held with the same jury. Under Texas law, the jury is asked to consider two issues: whether the act was “committed deliberately and with reasonable expectation that the death of the deceased or another would result” and whether “there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.” The State introduced the defendant’s unlawful reputation and prior convictions as evidence. The State presented two psychiatric expert witnesses, John Holbrook and James Grigson. The psychiatrists never evaluated the defendant and responded to hypothetical questions. Both experts testified that the defendant was a “sociopath” and likely to commit future acts of violence. Dr. Grigson testified that if Barefoot were in a community or prison setting, there was a “one hundred percent and absolute” chance that Barefoot would commit future acts of violence. The jury answered both of the questions presented in the affirmative which required the imposition of the death penalty.

Barefoot appealed the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on the grounds that the testimony given by the psychiatrists violated his 8th and 14th Amendment rights.  The court rejected his argument and upheld his conviction and death sentence.  His application for habeas corpus was also denied by the same court.  Barefoot filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. The district court stayed his execution pending action on the petition, but the petition was denied and his stay of execution was vacated. The district court then granted the petitioner’s motion to proceed informa pauperis and issued a certificate of probable cause. Another motion for a stay of execution and a petition for habeas corpus were denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Barefoot then petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to stay his execution pending consideration of his appeal of the denial of his petition for habeas corpus. The appellate court denied the petition for the stay of execution.  Barefoot then filed the petition with the appellate court justice who referred the matter to the Court. The Court stayed the petitioner’s execution and treated the application as a writ of certiorari and the United States Supreme Court granted cert.



Did the District Court err in rejecting the petition for habeas corpus, which asserted psychiatric prediction of dangerousness is unconstitutional? Did the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit err in denying a stay of execution pending the appeal of the District Court’s decision?



In a 6 to 3 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the District Court did not err in denying petitioner’s habeas corpus petition and the Court of Appeals did not err in refusing to stay the petitioner’s death sentence.  The Court held that while “the Court of Appeals moved swiftly to deny the stay, this does not mean that its treatment of the merits was cursory or inadequate.” The Court held that the District Court did not err in its denial of the habeas corpus petition, because there is no merit to petitioner’s argument that psychiatrists, individually and as a group, are incompetent to predict with an acceptable degree of reliability that a particular criminal will commit other crimes in the future, and so represent a danger to the community.” The Court found that psychiatric testimony concerning future dangerousness is constitutional and is admissible during the sentencing hearing for a capital crime. Writing for the majority, Justice White asserted that “the suggestion that no psychiatrist’s testimony may be presented with respect to a defendant’s future dangerousness is somewhat like asking us to disinvent the wheel.”


Writing for the majority, Justice White maintained that psychiatric testimony concerning risk for dangerousness is similar to any other evidence and the adversary process should be able to “uncover, recognize, and take due account of its shortcomings” through the use of cross-examination, testimony of opposing experts, and jury deliberation.