Nevada Death Row Affected by Court Ruling

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Thirteen inmates on Nevada's death row could be resentenced under a federal appeal's court ruling.

Last year, the U.S Supreme Court ruled only juries - not judges - can impose a death sentence.

On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco determined the ruling is retroactive.

"By my count, there are 13 people on death row whose death sentences may be affected by the 9th Circuit's ruling if it's not overturned," Deputy Nevada Attorney General David Neidert, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Nevada's 13 inmates, three from Washoe County and 10 from Clark County, were sentenced to death by three-judge panels after the defendants either pleaded guilty or a jury deadlocked while deciding their sentence.

Neidert said in some cases, new juries may need to be seated.

"I see nothing that would prevent Nevada from having new sentencing hearings," he said of the appeal court ruling.

Michael Pescetta, a federal public defender who specializes in death penalty cases, was pleased by the ruling but said Nevada's complicated death penalty sentencing system will mean that each case will need to be litigated separately.

"Nothing is going to happen instantly," Pescetta said. "It's not like there's going to be a big scoop that will pick them up and dump them off of death row.

"The question is what's going to happen as we slog through this stuff case by case."

In a case last year called Ring v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for judges to decide capital cases because it violates a person's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

The high court's decision didn't address whether the ruling should apply retroactively.

The ruling affected all death penalty cases in five states _ Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Nebraska _ where judges decided capital cases.

Nevada's system was slightly different.

Until this year in Nevada, a three-judge panel ruled on death penalty cases for guilty pleas or hung juries. Lawmakers passed legislation this year eliminating the three-judge panel and requiring juries in all capital cases.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco-based appeals court ruled that in an Arizona case, the high court decision "applies retroactively so as to require that the penalty of death in this case be vacated."

The appeals court ruling runs counter to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling last December on a death penalty appeal by Lawrence Colwell of Las Vegas. In that ruling, the state high court said the U.S. Supreme Court decision must not apply retroactively.

Colwell had pleaded guilty in 1994 to strangling a 76-year-old man.

According to Pescetta, this means that inmates wishing to challenge a three-judge panel ruling must fight their sentence at the federal level and base it on Tuesday's appeals court ruling.

But Neidert said that since another federal appeals court - the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not apply retroactively, the issue will likely return to the high court.

"The U.S. Supreme Court likes to look at cases that the appeals courts differ on," Neidert said.


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