WASHINGTON — With no fanfare, the Supreme Court this summer granted a last-minute reprieve to a man who had spent the last 17 years on death row in Pennsylvania. Convicted of stabbing a tavern owner to death and setting him on fire, Ronald Rompilla had run out of appeals when the high court stepped in.
By the narrowest of margins -- 5 to 4 -- the court vacated the death penalty and returned the case for resentencing. It marked the third time since 2000 that a loose coalition of liberal and swing-vote justices has struck down death-penalty cases because of poor work by defense lawyers.
Of broader importance, the court in the Rompilla case overturned a lower ruling written by U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- the same man who appears likely to replace one of those swing voters on the Supreme Court early next year.
The Rompilla case, many observers say, is clear evidence that Alito -- nominated to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- would help to reverse the court's recent trend toward leniency in death-penalty cases.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Alito and the death penalty -- An article in Sunday's Section A on an appellate court ruling by Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the case of a man convicted of murder said the crime took place in January 1998. It occurred in January 1988.
For conservatives, the big question about Alito is whether he will live up to their hopes -- or disappoint them, as happened with O'Connor and Justice David H. Souter. It was Souter who wrote the opinion reprieving Rompilla, and it was O'Connor who provided the crucial fifth vote to see it done.
"It would be a real move backward to the court to retreat in this area," said Terri L. Mascherin, chairwoman of the American Bar Assn.'s Death Penalty Representation Project.
But supporters of the death penalty, including Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said Alito would be just the ticket to turn the court to the right.
"The Rompilla case gives us a few clues about the change we can expect," he said. "We will probably have a more consistent jurisprudence, sticking more closely to principles of law."
There never was much question about Rompilla's guilt.
Now 57, he spent much of a night in January 1998 drinking at the Cozy Corner Cafe in Allentown, Pa. After closing time, he sneaked back in through a bathroom window and attacked owner James Scanlon, beating and stabbing him repeatedly and burning him as he died.
The victim's son, Timothy, discovered his father's body in a pool of blood. Rompilla was found with loot from the owner's wallet and the bar's cash register. He was arrested, tried and convicted of capital murder.
At the sentencing phase of his trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Rompilla had struck before.
They told the jury how he had been convicted of burglarizing another bar, where he assaulted the owner with a knife and raped her. They said he never should have been "put out on the street" without help and rehabilitation.
His defense lawyers called only a small knot of family members to the stand to beg for mercy. Their testimony, when later transcribed, was 20 pages long. Darlene, his wife, wept, saying: "We want Ron alive even if it's in jail; we want him alive." Their 14-year-old son, Aaron, said it would not be right for his father to die. Asked if he wanted to say more, the boy simply cried.
The jury sentenced Rompilla to death. But there was one bit of evidence that they never heard -- and thereupon hung the appeals.
His two defense lawyers, working in the local public defender's office, never pulled the records from the earlier conviction. Had they done so, they would have learned that their client was mentally ill, had been severely abused and neglected as a child, and had long misunderstood right from wrong.
He grew up the sixth of nine children in a home with an often absent and alcoholic mother. The house was filthy and smelled of urine. His father drank too, and his parents fought. Sometimes his father locked him in a small wire mesh dog pen filled with excrement. Other times he was made to sleep in the attic with no heat.
He went to school in rags, and it was determined that as an adult he had not progressed beyond the third-grade level in math and spelling. He left school after the ninth grade. He led a "nomadic existence" before his first arrests.
Prison mental health exams showed signs that Rompilla suffered from "schizophrenia, paranoia and neurosis." He was an alcoholic. And he had tendencies that, obvious in hindsight, were "very violent."
The state appellate courts affirmed the death sentence. The case next was appealed to a federal district judge who, citing poor defense work, ordered Rompilla released unless local prosecutors would agree to a life sentence or hold a new sentencing hearing.
Then the case came to Alito and two other judges on a panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January 2004, they voted 2-1 to overturn the district judge and keep the death sentence intact. Alito, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and federal prosecutor in Newark, N.J., wrote the majority opinion.