WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a condemned killer can gain his wish and be put to death without having his case appealed.
But this 7-2 ruling has only minimal impact, since Arkansas is the only state which does not require that a death sentence automatically be reviewed by its highest state court.
On Dec. 28, 1987, Ronald Gene Simmons went on a rampage in Russellville, Ark., randomly shooting and killing two persons and wounding three others. When police searched his home, they found 14 members of his family, all murdered.
After he was convicted and sentenced to death for the crimes, Simmons issued a sworn statement saying that "it is my wish and my desire that absolutely no action by anybody be taken to appeal or in any way change this sentence. It is further respectfully requested that this sentence be carried out expeditiously."
The trial judge held a hearing and concluded that Simmons had made a "knowing and intelligent waiver" of his right to appeal. The state supreme court reviewed this judgment and agreed.
Among 37 states that authorize the death penalty, 36 of them, including California, require the state supreme court to review the appropriateness of the sentence. Arkansas is the exception.
However, before Simmons could be executed on March 16, 1989, another Death Row inmate, Jonas Whitmore, filed an appeal, contending that the Constitution requires a review of a death sentence by the state's courts of appeal. The Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed.
Last summer, the high court issued a stay of execution and agreed to consider the issue.
Tuesday's decision lifts the stay and Arkansas officials will be free to schedule a new execution date as soon as they officially receive word of the court's ruling.
"We are free to execute Mr. Simmons as long as he wishes to be executed," James Lee, a spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Steve Clark, said after learning of Tuesday's ruling.
Writing for the high court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said an inmate such as Whitmore had no legal standing to appeal on behalf of Simmons.
To gain legal standing in a federal court, the plaintiff has to show that he has or will suffer some actual injury unless the court acts. Lawyers for Whitmore contended that the murders committed by Simmons were so horrible that their client might look better by comparison if the state supreme court had to review both cases.
This "alleged injury is too speculative" to give Whitmore standing before the court, Rehnquist wrote in Whitmore vs. Arkansas, 88-7146. Because this conclusion disposed of the case, the court did not rule directly on whether Simmons had an unrevocable constitutional right to have his death sentence reviewed.
Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan Jr., who maintain the death penalty is unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment," dissented. They argued that the Constitution requires that a state's highest court review a death sentence to make sure that no one is wrongly or unjustly executed.