WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court has dealt a significant setback to 121 death-row inmates in five states who were hoping the justices would apply a 2002 ruling in a way that would invalidate their death sentences.
Instead, by a 5-to-4 vote, the nation's highest court Thursday declined to retroactively apply a new legal precedent concerning capital sentencing hearings.
The decision in an Arizona death-penalty case called Schriro v. Summerlin means that the inmates are not automatically entitled to new sentencing hearings.
"So many aspects of the death penalty are arbitrary," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in a statement, "and in this case, the court is saying that constitutional rights can be deprived and you can be executed depending simply on the date you filed your appeal."
At issue was a 2002 Supreme Court ruling requiring juries, rather than judges, make the final decision on whether a convicted murderer should receive a death sentence or a long prison term.
The court had said that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial extends to the sentencing phase of a capital murder case. Unless a defendant waived that Sixth Amendment right, a death sentence meted out by a judge rather than a jury would violate the Constitution, the high court said.
That ruling reversed the death sentence of Arizona inmate Timothy Ring, and it prompted many states to rewrite their capital sentencing procedures to ensure that juries, not judges, make the ultimate sentencing decision in death-penalty cases.
But the court left unresolved a deeper question in the 2002 case. If Mr. Ring's sentence had been handed down through procedures that violated a core constitutional principle, what about the 121 other death-row inmates in various states sentenced under similar procedures? Should their sentences be reversed too?
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the right to a jury trial is fundamental in the US criminal justice system. "But it does not follow that, when a criminal defendant has had a full trial and one round of appeals in which the state faithfully applied the Constitution as we understood it at that time, he may nevertheless continue to litigate his claims indefinitely in hopes that we will one day have a change of heart," he writes.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer says that when judges rather than juries conduct capital sentencing hearings, there is a greater risk of the death penalty being improperly imposed. "I believe that the risk is one that the law need not, and should not tolerate," he says.
Since that greater risk applied in past cases, the court should apply its new rule retroactively, Justice Breyer says.
The case has immediate implications for 86 death-row inmates in Arizona, 14 in Idaho, 12 in Nevada, five in Nebraska, and four in Montana.
For the inmates themselves, it brings them one step closer to the death chamber. For the states that prosecuted those inmates, it means not having to grapple with the logistics and expense of resentencing a portion of their death-row populations.
State officials complain that the judicial sentencing methods invalidated by the high court in 2002 were developed as a direct result of earlier Supreme Court rulings requiring special sentencing procedures in capital cases. These officials said the justices were putting the states in an impossible position of enforcing their murder statutes by repeatedly moving the goal posts in death-penalty cases.
The decision comes in the case of Arizona death-row inmate Warren Wesley Summerlin. He was convicted of raping and bludgeoning to death a bill collector, Brenna Bailey, who came to his home in April 1981. Her body was discovered the next day wrapped in a bedsheet in the trunk of her car. Mr. Summerlin's wife identified the bedsheet as having come from the Summerlin home.
The jury found Mr. Summerlin guilty of murder, and then under Arizona law, it was up to the trial judge to determine whether special circumstances existed to justify the extraordinary punishment of death. The judge found there were no mitigating circumstances, and two aggravating circumstances. He determined that Summerlin had a prior felony conviction and that he had committed the murder in an especially cruel way. (Ms. Bailey's skull had been crushed.) The judge then concluded that death was an appropriate sentence.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.