The right to a fair jury trial is guaranteed by the United States Constitution. And the importance of this courtroom process should not be minimized, particularly in capital cases. This was the message of the US Supreme Court yesterday, when it overturned the death penalty for convicted Mississippi murderer Bobby Caldwell.
The 5-to-3 decision likely will have more impact on court procedures used in death-penalty cases than on the future of capital punishment.
There are today more than 1,500 prisoners on death row nationwide. And despite thrusts for abolition from civil libertarians and others, recent Supreme Court rulings have done little to limit the use of capital punishment.
In yesterday's decision, however, the court said its prime concern was that the prosecution had misled the sentencing jury about its role in deciding whether the defendant should be executed.
A state prosecutor had, in effect, played down the jurors' important responsibility by telling them that their sentence would be automatically reviewed by an appellate court.
Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority, held that Mr. Caldwell's sentence was arrived at by a jury misled about the importance of death-penalty decision. This, in turn, violated the defendant's constitution protections, he wrote.
``This court has always premised its capital-punishment decisions on the assumption that a capital sentencing jury recognizes the gravity of its task and proceeds with appropriate awareness of its truly awesome responsibility.''
Two years ago, in a 5-to-4 ruling, the court upheld a California law mandating that sentencing jurors choosing between life imprisonment and the death penalty be reminded of the governor's authority to pardon or commute life sentences.
Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, voting with the majority in the Caldwell case, said juries will still be allowed to receive ``nonmisleading and accurate'' information regarding their role in sentencing.
But she added that in the case just decided, the prosecutor's remarks ``were impermissible, because they were inaccurate and misleading in a manner that diminished the jury's sense of responsibility.''