State judges may no longer make the key determination between life and death in capital-punishment cases without violating constitutional safeguards.
In the second major capital-punishment ruling in less than a week, the US Supreme Court has struck down the sentencing procedures used in Arizona death-penalty cases, saying it violates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a trial by jury.
The court, in a 7-to-2 decision, drew a parallel between the sentencing system of Arizona (and by extension eight states with similar systems), and the sentence-enhancement system that the high court struck down two years ago in a landmark case called Apprendi v. New Jersey.
The bottom line: A much anticipated revolution in criminal sentencing just became a lot more revolutionary.
Although the high court declined to extend its Apprendi reasoning to strike down minimum mandatory sentencing schemes in a related case also announced Monday, the court's ruling in the death-penalty case is expected to trigger a fresh barrage of appeals in state and federal courts nationwide.
Death-penalty opponents hailed the ruling as more evidence of an emerging national consensus against capital punishment. "Yet again, in less than a week, the Supreme Court has joined legislators and so many others in the country in rightly expressing this deep reservation about the way the death penalty is being implemented," says Brenda Bowser of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Opponents of this trend say it threatens to clog the already overburdened court system with new appeals and undermines consistency in sentencing laws.
"It's a betrayal of the American people's reliance on the Supreme Court," says Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "This was a settled question that the Supreme Court had squarely resolved. And what they are telling us is that we cannot rely on their precedents. They may change their mind tomorrow."
At the heart of it all is the Apprendi decision. In that case, the court declared for the first time that "any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt."
Dissenting justices at the time of the Apprendi decision raised concerns that its sweeping language would almost certainly invalidate the death-penalty sentencing procedures in Arizona and other states that authorize judges not juries to make the final decision on life or death.
Those predictions have now become reality.
What that means in terms of death-row inmates is that more than 770 death sentences might now be invalid because they were meted out by judges rather than by juries.
"Capital defendants, no less than non-capital defendants, we conclude, are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in their maximum punishment," writes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority in Ring v. Arizona.
Arizona officials had defended their capital-sentencing scheme by saying it was enacted as a result of Eighth Amendment concerns about the death penalty being unfairly administered.
But the high court stressed that the Sixth Amendment jury guarantee does apply to capital-punishment sentencing procedures in the same way it applies in other criminal cases.
"The right to a trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment would be senselessly diminished if it encompassed the factfinding necessary to increase a defendant's sentence by two years, but not the factfinding necessary to put him to death," writes Justice Ginsburg.
In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the decision will encourage a new flood of appeals by death-row and other inmates.
She notes that in the two years since the Apprendi decision, federal appeals courts have decided 1,802 cases challenging the constitutionality of their sentences.
"These federal appeals are likely only the tip of the iceberg, as federal criminal prosecutions represent a tiny fraction of the total number of criminal prosecutions nationwide," Justice O'Connor writes in a dissent joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
In a related decision yesterday, the high court declined to extend its ruling in the Apprendi case to strike down mandatory minimum sentences imposed by a judge rather than a jury.
Instead, the court, in a 5-to-4 decision in a case called Harris v. US, said that a mandatory minimum sentence imposed by a judge does not violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a jury trial, provided the resulting sentence falls within the maximum range of punishments authorized by a jury's verdict.
The Harris case involved a challenge to a federal mandatory minimum law that sentenced William Harris to seven years in prison for "brandishing" a gun during a drug-trafficking transaction. The federal law for possession of a firearm during a drug deal calls for a sentence of five years to life in prison.
Lawyers for Mr. Harris argued that without the finding by a judge at Harris's sentencing hearing that he had "brandished" the gun, his sentence would have been five years rather than seven. The lawyers argue that such a crucial fact should have been presented to the jury at trial rather than left for a judge at sentencing.
The court disagreed. "A judicial finding of brandishing does not evade the requirements of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments," Justice Anthony Kennedy writes for the majority. "That factor [brandishing] need not be alleged in the indictment, submitted to the jury, or proved beyond a reasonable doubt."
Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press