Death-penalty ruling's effect: new laws, trials

Lawyers and legislators scramble as current cases and old convictions float in limbo.

Just after a Denver jury pronounced Abraham Hagos guilty of murder in April, the defendant jumped over a table and attacked the prosecutor. It might have seemed that the only bright spot in Mr. Hago's future was that the jury and judge – who witnessed the attack – wouldn't be the ones to decide whether he'd get the death penalty. A panel of judges would do that.

But a Supreme Court ruling Monday suddenly leaves the future of Mr. Hagos – and that of many defendants hovering between conviction and sentencing – much more murky.

The court ruled that juries – not judges – should decide wehter to impose a death sentence. The ruling in Ring v. Arizona invalidated death penatly provisions in at least five states, including Colorado, and leaves lawyers and legislators nationwide scrambling to understand the implications of the ruling. There are several cases on trial now that would be affected, as well as crimes that might be committed in the legal limbo left by the decision in some states.

"We're kind of in a no man's land right now," says Lynn Kimbrough of the Denver district attorney's office, which prosecuted Hagos.

At least 538 inmates already on death row in nine states – where judges meted out sentences – could use the decision to appeal their death sentences. How many of those appeals might succeed is already a subject of great debate among state attorneys general and death-penalty opponents.

But there's a more immediate day-to-day concern for local prosecutors and defense attorneys – how to proceed in ongoing cases while unsure whether there's a valid death-penalty statute in place.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens's staff was to meet yesterday with district attorneys from around the state to discuss whether the death penalty statute needed to be revised. Colorado law automatically converts a death sentence to life in prison if its death-penalty provision is ruled unconstitutional.

Colorado prosecutors are concerned that those who commit crimes now – while the state's old version of the death penalty is unconstitutional – won't face the death penalty when they eventually stand trial.

"If you commit a capital crime right now, there isn't a death penalty in place here," says Mike Knight of the Arapahoe County, Colo., attorney's office.

That void may be hard to fill quickly, because most state legislatures have already left for the summer or, as in the case of Idaho, for the rest of the year.

"In the meantime ... we're pretty much handcuffed," says Colorado state Rep. Dan Grossman. He wants the governor to reconvene the legislature to consider a new death-penalty law.

In Arizona, Governor Jane Hull has already said that as soon as the state's wildfire crisis is contained, she'll call the legislature into special session to draft a new death-penalty law.

Death-penalty critics are concerned legislators may quickly rush into adopting a new statute without thinking through the consequences of switching from judges to juries.

For instance, Phoenix defense attorney Larry Hammond says the victims' emotional statements currently read to judges during sentencing hearings may not be appropriate.

For instance, Phoenix defense attorney Larry Hammond says the victims' emotional statements read during sentencing hearings may not be appropriate if the audience is jurors.

In the meantime, prosecutors in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, intend to continue with new trials in capital cases. "We believe the death penalty is still a viable sentence," says spokesman Bill Fitzgerald.

But Arizona's attorney general has postponed the sentencing phase in all capital cases and is exploring how to handle sentencing of people already convicted, says Pati Urias, spokeswoman for the attorney general. Judges could temporarily dismiss juries and reconvene them again once a new law is enacted, she says.

But juries released for a long break could return tainted by having read accounts of the trial, contends Hammond.

Reconvening a jury may be even more problematic in the case of Mr. Hagos in Denver, because the jury witnessed him being subdued with a stun gun during his attack on the prosecutor.

"We're not sure how it's going to work. It's up to the trial judge," says Forrest Lewis, Hagos's attorney.

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