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Federal Court Tosses Out Scores of Death Sentences

Appellate ruling affects more than 100 inmates, mostly in Arizona, whose fates were determined by judges and not juries.

September 03, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned more than 100 death sentences in Arizona, Idaho and Montana because judges -- rather than juries -- had sent the inmates to death row.

"Fact-finding by a jury, rather than by a judge, is more likely to heighten the accuracy of capital sentencing proceedings," Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the majority in the 8-3 decision.

The ruling knocked out more death sentences "in one swoop" than any other court action since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

The decision by the San-Francisco-based court stemmed from a 2002 Supreme Court decision in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: "The right to trial by jury guaranteed by the 6th Amendment would be senselessly diminished," if a judge alone can decide whether a defendant is a murderer who should be executed.

In overturning that death sentence in Ring vs. Arizona, the Supreme Court reversed its own 1990 decision, Walton vs. Arizona, that had upheld the state sentencing procedure. However, the high court left open the issue of whether its new ruling should be applied retroactively to all inmates on Arizona's death row who had been sentenced under the state's capital punishment law, in which the role of the jury ended after voting on guilt or innocence.

Subsequently, dozens of inmates on Arizona's death row sought to have their death sentences overturned in light of Ring, setting the stage for Tuesday's ruling.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Legislature has rewritten its death sentencing law, and juries now decide whether the crime involved the relevant aggravating factors that would lead to a death sentence and whether those factors outweigh any mitigating circumstances.

Arizona said it would appeal Tuesday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys involved in the case disagreed over the impact if the 9th Circuit decision stands.

Dale Baich, who heads the death penalty unit in the federal public defender's office in Phoenix, said that about 90 inmates currently on Arizona's death row would have their sentences commuted to life.

But John P. Todd of the Arizona attorney general's office said inmates would have to go through new sentencing hearings with a jury.

In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that new procedural rulings do not void convictions, but that rulings hinging on a fundamental constitutional principle do apply to all cases.

In the Ring vs. Arizona case, the Supreme Court in 2002 reversed the sentence of Timothy Ring, accused in a murder conspiracy plot, because the jury did not find him guilty of the ultimate crime that put him on death row.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Supreme Court, in hearing another death row inmate's appeal, said that the Ring decision should not be applied retroactively because it "changed neither the underlying conduct that the state must prove to establish that a defendant's crime warrants death nor the state's burden of proof."

Rather, the state high court said, Ring merely "altered who decides whether any aggravating circumstances exist."

Thomas of the 9th Circuit disagreed. "By deciding that judges are not constitutionally permitted to decide whether defendants are eligible for the death penalty, the [U.S.] Supreme Court altered the fundamental principles applicable to capital murder trials," Thomas wrote.

The Ring decision defined "structural safeguards implicit in our concept of ordered liberty that are necessary to protect the fundamental fairness of capital murder trials," Thomas added. Consequently, the ruling meets the criteria needed for the decision to be made retroactive.

In addition to Arizona, the ruling may affect 15 death row inmates in Idaho and five in Montana. In the four other states in the 9th Circuit that have the death penalty -- California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- juries make the sentencing decisions.

Federal appeals courts in Denver and Atlanta previously have ruled that the Ring decision was not retroactive in cases coming from Colorado and Florida.

Tuesday's ruling came in a case involving Warren Summerlin, who has been on death row for more than 20 years.

He was convicted in the 1981 murder of Brenna Bailey, a finance company administrator who had gone to Summerlin's house to talk to him about money he owed. Her partially nude body was later found in the trunk of her car.

Nearly two years ago, a panel of 9th Circuit judges reversed Summerlin's death sentence, saying he was entitled to have it reconsidered because the judge who had imposed it was addicted to marijuana at the time. Judge Philip Marquardt earlier had pleaded guilty to a felony involving a conspiracy to possess marijuana and admitted being addicted to the drug. Eventually, he stepped down from the bench and was disbarred.

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