WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, easing restrictions on the death penalty, ruled Wednesday that a murder accomplice can be sentenced to die without a jury finding that he intended to kill--so long as a state trial or appellate court does make such a determination.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, said that while a finding of intent to kill is required in such cases, the Constitution does not mandate that the jury itself must reach that conclusion.
"The decision of whether a particular punishment--even the death penalty--is appropriate in any given case is not one that we have ever required to be made by a jury," Justice Byron R. White wrote for the court.
In dissent, Justice Harry A. Blackmun said the ruling "threatens a retreat" from the constitutional safeguards on capital sentencing, allowing appellate courts to make critical findings "on a paper record" when such determinations are better left to juries directly involved in a case. The decision, Blackmun said, undermines the "sense of responsibility" that juries must take in capital cases.
Review in California
Authorities in California said they will promptly review the decision to see whether it could affect the dozens of capital cases in that state, where a California Supreme Court ruling on intent to kill has created a furor.
"We will review the decision closely," said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Edward O'Brien, who coordinates death penalty cases for California. "We'll be looking to see whether it could provide an additional basis to uphold death judgments in a number of cases that will be coming before the court."
The Supreme Court made its decision (Cabana vs. Bullock, 84-1236) in a test of the scope of a 1982 ruling by the justices in a case involving the felony murder rule, a long-established criminal law doctrine that permits a defendant to be charged with murder if he participates in a felony in which someone is killed--even if the defendant did not do the killing.
The 1982 decision ruled out the death penalty for accomplices who did not intend that a killing take place or that lethal force be used in commission of the felony.
In its decision Wednesday, the court rejected the contention that the jury must specifically find intent to kill in such cases. That determination, White wrote, "is one that a trial judge or an appellate court is fully competent to make."
"If a person sentenced to death in fact killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill, the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment) is not violated by his or her execution regardless of who makes the determination of the requisite culpability," White said.
The court, partly overturning a ruling by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, held that Mississippi authorities must be given a new opportunity in state court to impose the death sentence on an accomplice in a beating death in Jackson, Miss., in 1978.
Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens joined Blackmun in dissenting.
The justices' 1982 ruling served as the basis for a December, 1983, decision by the California Supreme Court that required prosecutors to prove and jurors to find that a killing was intentional before the death sentence may be imposed in a felony murder case.
Since then, trial judges have instructed jurors that they must find that a killing was intentional before sentencing a defendant to die.
But the state Supreme Court, in the meantime, has reversed 14 death sentences in cases tried before the 1983 ruling, citing the failure of a jury finding of intent to kill. The attorney general's office has said that up to 45 death sentences may be reversed because of the decision.
In all, the state justices have reversed 52 of the 55 death sentences it has reviewed since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1977.