The US Supreme Court has made it easier to impose the death penalty in cases where a jury deadlocks in an initial trial, and a second jury later imposes capital punishment.
In a 5-to-4 decision announced Tuesday, the nation's highest court upheld a death sentence for a Pennsylvania death-row inmate who had argued that he should not have faced the death penalty in his second trial because a judge had sentenced him to life in prison following his first trial.
At issue was whether the defendant's death sentence was barred by the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
A sharply split Supreme Court said it was not.
"The touchstone for double-jeopardy protection in capital-sentencing proceedings is whether there has been an 'acquittal,' " writes Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion. "Petitioner here cannot establish that the jury or the court 'acquitted' him during his first capital-sentencing proceeding."
The decision comes at a time of increasing national debate over the use of the death penalty, with a significant number of death-row inmates being released following DNA testing and the recent emptying of Illinois's death row by the outgoing governor.
In broad terms, the high court's 5-4 posture on this Pennsylvania case reflects the division within the nation itself over the issue.
David Allen Sattazahn was tried for the 1987 shooting death of a restaurant manager during an attempted robbery. In his first trial, the jury convicted him of the capital offense but then hung 9-3 on whether to impose life in prison or death as the appropriate sentence.
Under Pennsylvania law, the trial judge is required to impose a life sentence when the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the capital sentencing phase of the trial.
Mr. Sattazahn appealed his conviction and won a new trial.
At the retrial, prosecutors once again sought the death penalty. The trial jury sentenced him to die.
Sattazahn argued that since he had already been sentenced to life, it would violate double jeopardy to once again force him to face a death sentence.
The majority ruled that Pennsylvania's system of requiring a default life sentence is not the same for purposes of double jeopardy as an outright acquittal of the charges.
"When, as in this case, the jury deadlocks in the penalty phase of a capital trial, it does not 'decide' that the prosecution has failed to prove its case for the death penalty. Rather, the jury makes no decision at all," writes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in an opinion concurring with the majority.
In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the issue was "genuinely debatable" but that double jeopardy should prevent Sattazahn's death sentence in the second trial.
"I recognize that this is a novel and close question," she says. "Sattazahn was not 'acquitted' of the death penalty, but his case was fully tried and the court, on its own motion, entered a final judgment - a life sentence - terminating the trial."
She says the court's decision "confronts defendants with a perilous choice.... If a defendant sentenced to life after a jury deadlock chooses to appeal her underlying conviction, she faces the possibility of death if she is successful on appeal but convicted on retrial."
Justice Ginsburg adds, "If, on the other hand, the defendant loses her appeal, or chooses to forgo an appeal, the final judgment for life stands."
In the end, she says, a defendant in Sattazahn's position faces a difficult legal bind of having to give up the right to a potentially successful appeal or otherwise lose her state-granted entitlement to avoid the death penalty.