States Struggle with Death-Penalty Process


Nine months have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only juries - not judges- can decide whether somebody deserves to be executed. Lawmakers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, all of which reserved the decision to judges alone, wasted no time passing legislation that brought their sentencing process into line with the ruling.

But the fate of nearly 150 inmates on death row in these five states when the ruling in Ring v Arizona came down is still uncertain. Legal experts say Ring is not automatically retroactive.

Timothy Stuart Ring was convicted of killing an armored car driver during a 1994 robbery in Phoenix. He challenged his death sentence on grounds that his constitutional right to a jury was violated when a judge held a separate hearing on his punishment after the jury that convicted him was dismissed.

The Supreme Court said processes in which juries determined a defendant's guilt or innocence and judges decided the punishment violate a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. But it did not say whether the decision opens new grounds for appeal to death row inmates who had exhausted all other recourse.

Lawyers and advocates for the inmates in limbo argue that they are entitled to have their sentences reduced to life in prison or at least to be re-sentenced by a jury. But some state legislators, prosecutors and judges are fighting to narrowly apply the ruling, saying any inmate basing an appeal solely on Ring must show that their verdict would have been different had they been sentenced by a jury.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed with that argument last month in ruling that 90 inmates on death row who had exhausted appeals when Ring was decided were not affected by the ruling. It did not address the rights of 27 other death row inmates who have other appeals pending.

The Attorney General of Montana has also argued that Ring does not apply to that state's six death row inmates, all of whom have exhausted other appeals. Nebraska authorities take a similar stance with regard to their state's seven death row inhabitants.

Arizona, Montana and Idaho where 21 inmates were sentenced to die by judges fall under the jurisdiction of the liberal-leaning 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which may soon try to clear up the legal confusion.

The court heard arguments last fall from an Arizona death row inmate who had run out of other appeals. A decision is expected soon, and will likely determine whether or not the Ring ruling applies retroactively.

In Colorado, the state Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision last month ordering life prison sentences for two of the three death row inmates sentenced to death by three-judge panels prior to the Ring decision. The third inmate is also expected to receive life without chance of parole.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) said the state high court's decision was disappointing. Because of the "heinous nature of these crimes, any jury would have imposed the death penalty in these cases," he said.

Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar said he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state high court ruling that overturned the two death sentences.

"These two defendants abducted, tortured, raped and murdered two girls. Justice demands that we exhaust all reasonable efforts to see that they receive the appropriate sentences for their crimes," Salazar said.


Related Stories