The Supreme Court closed off appeals for more than 100 death row inmates Thursday, blunting the effect of an earlier ruling that judges cannot determine by themselves whether a convicted killer should die.
By a 5-4 vote, the court refused to make its 2002 ruling, which stipulated that juries impose death sentences, retroactive to condemned inmates who had already exhausted all their direct appeals. The ruling means at least four states — Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska — won't have to hold new sentencing hearings or allow death sentences to be reduced to life in prison.
In a separate ruling Thursday, the high court opened the door to new death row challenges on other grounds in Texas, which leads the nation in the number of executions. A third capital punishment ruling preserved a death sentence for a Pennsylvania serial killer.
The most significant of the day's death penalty rulings answered a question left from the court's unexpectedly forceful statement two years ago that the constitutional right to a jury trial extends to the then-unremarkable practice of allowing a judge to have the final say in death cases.
That ruling overturned the death sentencing laws of five states in which a jury or judge determined an accused killer's guilt but judges alone determined if circumstances such as multiple victims or particular brutality made a convicted killer eligible for the death penalty.
The 2002 ruling applied to some death row inmates and to new cases moving through the courts. But a conservative-led Supreme Court majority said Thursday that the principles at stake in the case do not rise to the level that force a wholesale reexamination of convictions that already have run their course.
The right to jury trial is fundamental to our system of criminal procedure, and states are bound to enforce the Sixth Amendment's guarantees as we interpret them," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
It does not follow, however, that when a defendant has had a full trial and has lost on appeal "he may nonetheless continue to litigate his claims indefinitely on hopes that we will one day have a change of heart," Scalia wrote.
The Supreme Court has said before that a deciding factor in whether to make a ruling apply retroactively is whether doing so will improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system.
Scalia said there is no proof that juries are so much better at making the right choice about a sentence that the accuracy of judge-only sentences is in doubt.
Chief Justice H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas agreed with Scalia.
On the other side were the court's more liberal justices: John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The circumstances that elevate a given killing to a crime worthy of the death penalty are rooted in a community's understanding of terms like "heinous," "cruel," or "depraved," Breyer wrote in dissent.
"A jury is better equipped than a judge to identify and apply those standards accurately," Breyer wrote.
The justices ruled against Arizona prisoner Warren Wesley Summerlin, sentenced to die more than 20 years ago by a judge who later lost his job because of a drug problem. Summerlin was convicted of raping and bludgeoning to death a bill collector who came to his house in 1981 to collect a payment for a piano.
"So many aspects of the death penalty are arbitrary, and in this case the court is saying that constitutional rights can be deprived and you can be executed depending simply on the date you filed your appeal," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and a capital punishment opponent.
But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the ruling should stop needless reconsideration of sentences that were properly applied the first time.
The Summerlin case was the most widely watched death penalty issue before the justices this term, which is expected to end next week. Like many death row cases the court agrees to hear, the case was a procedural question that did not address the fundamental fairness or constitutionality of capital punishment itself.
Attention now turns to a more emotional question facing the justices when they return from their summer break. The court has agreed to revisit the question of whether very young killers may be sentenced to death. Several states currently allow execution of 16- and 17-year-old killers, a practice almost unique around the world.
In the Texas case decided Thursday, the high court allowed Texas death row inmate Robert Tennard another chance to challenge his sentence. The case could affect several dozen condemned men in Texas who claim they have very low IQs and were not given enough chance to present mitigating evidence to a jury.
Nationwide, about 3,400 inmates await execution in the 38 states that allow capital punishment.
The Arizona case is Schriro v. Summerlin, 03-526. The Texas case is Tennard v. Dretke, 02-10038.
On the Net:
Link to ruling in Schriro v. Summerlin:
Link to ruling in Tennard v. Dretke: