Death Penalty Rulings Raise Issues For Lawmakers

 

The Colorado Legislature will convene a special session July 8 in order to bring state law into line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the authority of judges to impose sentencing in death penalty cases. At least four other states directly affected by the decision may have to hold special sessions as well.

"We need to make sure we have a defensible and constitutionally dependable statute," Colorado Gov. Bill Owens told reporters after deciding to call lawmakers back to Denver. "I think debate on the issue will be good and I think it will ultimately result in a better death penalty statute."

The court ruled in a 7-2 decision on June 24 that juries, not judges, must decide whether "aggravating factors" in murder cases warrant a death sentence.

The decision struck down laws in five states Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska where judges make the final determination on sentencing. There are 169 inmates on death row in those states, and the ruling paved the way for many of them to file lawsuits seeking to have their sentences overturned.

Bob Cooper, a spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Alan G. Lance, said state prosecutors expect nearly all of the 22 inmates currently on Idaho's death row to file appeals based on the court's opinion. But he said the ruling in the end would likely apply to only six.

"The question is ... what happens in cases now pending before the trial court? If a capital case is going to go to trial, or if there's been a verdict and it's going to go to sentencing, it is not clear at this point what the proper procedure is," Cooper said.

Ohio Northern University Law Professor Victor Streib agrees. But he said it may take months of deliberations on the part of legislatures to clear up questions about how pending and future capital punishment cases should be handled.

"You gotta start by passing a statute. It's going to take some legislation carefully drafted to address these jury (sentencing) questions. And I think that's at least six months or a year (of time). And there's a whole in-between period where we don't know what to do because (the court said) we can't do business as usual," said Streib, a leading expert on juvenile capital punishment cases.

Besides the five states directly affected, five others Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, Florida and Missouri - may have to revisit their capital punishment laws as well. These states allow juries to recommend or advise in sentencing, but still leave the final call to the judges if they disagree. A total of 701 inmates are on death row in these states.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters the decision would likely affect less than a dozen of his state's death row inmates. "Our estimation is that it will impact a small number of cases where judges overturned juries," Bush said.

The ruling on sentencing was the second major death penalty opinion handed down by the court this month that will force states to rewrite provisions of their capital punishment laws. The court issued an opinion June 20 barring execution of the mentally retarded.

That opinion brought an end to the practice in 20 states, including five Alabama, Delaware, Idaho, Montana and Nevada also affected by the court's most recent decision on sentencing.

While the court rulings may have sent shockwaves through the nation's judicial system, they are not expected to have an immediate impact on the nation's death row population, which now stands at 3,701. Although hundreds of inmates are likely to have their sentences commuted to life or receive new trials because of the decisions, it could take years for the legal wrangling over the cases to play out.

 
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