Death Row

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Court Overturns Death Sentences


More than 100 condemned prisoners had their sentences overturned by a federal court that ruled only juries - not judges alone - can choose between life and death.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday extended a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that found nonjury sentences unconstitutional. The appeals court applied the ruling retroactively to death row inmates in Arizona, Idaho and Montana.

The decision affects only those three states - all under the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction - but death penalty opponents hoped it might be extended to Nebraska and Colorado, two states with similar laws but under different jurisdiction.

Michael Donahoe, a federal public defender with a client among those condemned inmates, called the decision groundbreaking and predicted it would spark a host of death-row appeals. ``It's going to apply and everybody's going to have a right to argue it,'' he said.

Federal prosecutors said they doubt the ruling would stand.

``We are disappointed. We are going to appeal,'' said Kent Cattani, chief counsel for the attorney general in Arizona, where the latest decision affects 89 cases.

Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said the issue is almost certain to go back to the nation's high court since the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Florida ruled that the Supreme Court's decision should not be applied retroactively in some death penalty cases.

Tuesday's ruling applies to a fraction of the people awaiting execution in the United States. As of December 2002, over 3,700 men and women were on death rows across the county, according to Amnesty International.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles statistics on capital punishment, calculated that since 1976, those five states have executed 29 people under laws allowing nonjury sentencing.

In Florida, Alabama, Indiana and Delaware, juries recommend a life or death sentence but judges are allowed to give the death penalty against the jury's wishes.

The latest ruling is expected to alter the sentences of at least 15 of 21 convicted killers on Iowa's death row. Montana officials were reviewing the decision to determine whether its five condemned inmates were affected.

If the decision stands, Arizona, Idaho and Montana prosecutors might hold new penalty trials, convening juries to decide between life and death, said state prosecutor John Pressley Todd, a lawyer with the Arizona Attorney General's office.

Only the appropriate sentence would be at issue, not the defendant's guilt, because the original jury's verdict remains in effect, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.

``It may have major ramifications for individual defendants,'' Goddard said.

The ruling stems from a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that juries, not judges, must render death sentences. By an 8-3 vote Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said all condemned inmates sentenced by a judge should have their sentences commuted to life terms.

``By deciding that judges are not constitutionally permitted to decide whether defendants are eligible for the death penalty, the Supreme Court altered the fundamental bedrock principles applicable to capital murder trials,'' Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the court.

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson cited numerous studies that pointed out juries have their own problems in the capital sentencing context, including racial bias, snap judgements and guilt.

``The empirically established problems with jury sentencing deliberations calls into question the majority's facile conclusion that transfer of capital sentencing responsibility to a jury will enhance the accuracy of the process,'' he wrote.

Scott Crichton, executive director for Montana's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ruling ``takes us a step closer to the day when the United States will join the civilized nations of the world in outlawing the cruel, inhumane and biased application of the death penalty.''

The case the appeals court used to decide the issue concerned Arizona inmate Warren Summerlin, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1981 slaying of Brenna Bailey, 36.

The Tempe finance company administrator's body was found in the trunk of her car a day after she visited Summerlin to check on money he owed. Summerlin was convicted in 1982 and a judge sentenced him to death.

Justice Department officials in Washington said they would have no comment on the appeals court decision.

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