Supreme Court to Reconsider Death Sentences
The Honolulu Advertiser
The Supreme Court used a case that reads like a best-selling legal thriller to consider Monday whether more than 100 death row inmates should get new sentences because judges, not juries, were the final arbiters of their fates. The court ruled two years ago that juries must have the final say in who receives the death penalty, and the justices must decide whether that ruling should void old death sentences handed down by judges.
During Monday's arguments, the attorney for Arizona prisoner Warren Wesley Summerlin said that Summerlin has tried for more than 20 years to get a sentencing hearing in front of a jury. "In death penalty cases, juries really do make a difference," Ken Murray told justices. "Judges are human. They have human frailties, as this case shows." Summerlin was sentenced by a judge with drug problems, one of several elements that makes the case read like pulp fiction. John Todd, an assistant attorney general, said that the judge did the job just as a jury would, and his findings should not be erased.
The 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, forced changes in the death penalty laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado, because those states left it to judges to determine if a killer should be executed. The ruling also cast doubt on death sentencing procedures in other states that used a combination of juries and judges to impose death sentences. The court's latest decision on retroactivity, expected by the end of June, could affect the cases of at least 86 Arizona death row inmates, including Summerlin, and about 25 others in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, attorneys said. Other states that could be affected include Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana and Nevada.