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April 23, 2012

Effective account of Ring's (limited) impact a decade later

The Lincoln Journal Star has this effective new article concerning the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling about capital sentencing procedures in Ring v. Arizona.  The piece is headlined "Death-penalty ruling still resonates 10 years later," and here are excerpts:

It has been nearly 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Arizona case, prompting then-Gov. Mike Johanns to call Nebraska lawmakers into a special session to change how the state sentences people in capital cases.  But the verdict is still out on the overall effect of the case known as Ring v. Arizona.

"I think Ring has had a significant effect on the death penalty, but the impact has not been as broad as some predicted," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The June 2002 ruling said that juries, not judges, must have the final say in who gets the death penalty.  In Nebraska, only judges had handed down death sentences since state lawmakers decided in the 1970s there was the potential of bias by juries.  The ruling also forced changes in death penalty laws in Arizona, Montana, Idaho and Colorado, because those states also left it to judges to determine if a killer should be executed.

And it wasn't long after that lawyers began questioning whether Ring would apply retroactively to death row inmates sentenced by judges.  Lower courts were divided.  The Nebraska Supreme Court was among those to rule that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was not retroactive.  U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bataillon of Omaha ruled that is was.... The high court eventually ruled in Schriro v. Summerlin that Ring would not be retroactive, overturning a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals....

Said Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center: "Many death row inmates received no relief." Overall, he said, juries are not automatically more lenient than judges.

"And at least in Arizona, it has taken some time for the defense bar to adapt to the kind of sentencing presentation that works best with juries," he said. "It is a special skill. In the long run, the requirement of a unanimous jury for a death sentence -- which is what most states employ -- gives the defendant better odds of avoiding the death penalty. Individual jurors may be reluctant to impose death, knowing how many mistakes have been made in convictions in recent years."...

In Nebraska, jurors decide only whether aggravating factors exist.  That could include things such as whether the killing was especially heinous or whether it was committed for money.  Aggravating factors are supposed to be weighed against mitigating factors, which could include a defendant's background.  A three-judge panel then decides if the death penalty is warranted if aggravating factors are found by the jury....

Meanwhile, Ring still is resonating in the courts.  Last year in Florida, for example, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez declared Florida's death penalty violated Ring because jurors are not required to make findings beyond a reasonable doubt on the aggravating factors that can result in a sentence of death.  "Even though it has been 10 years, the legal issues surrounding Ring have not been settled," Dieter said.

April 23, 2012 at 09:57 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Contrary to this article, Ring does not say that "juries, not judge, must have the final say in who gets the death penalty." Justice Scalia's concurring opinion clearly and correctly says that the final decision of who receives the death penalty, after the jury has found the existence of at least one aggravating factor, may be left to judges.

Justice Breyer erroneously believed that Ring was about jury sentencing. Again, as I've said many times, Apprendi/Blakely/Ring are not about sentencing but they are about who convicts people of crimes. The Sixth Amendment says that only juries can convict people of a crime, and that murder simpliciter plus an aggravating factor is a greater offense than noncapital first degree murder.

The implications of the Sixth Amendment line are far-reaching and we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the ultimate reach of Ring.

bruce

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Apr 23, 2012 11:49:10 PM

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