San Francisco, Sept. 3 (Reuters): A federal appeals court today overturned the death sentences of about 100 inmates in the western US as it applied a recent US Supreme Court decision that juries and not judges must decide whether convicted criminals should be executed.
The appeals court ruling applies in three states covered by the 9th circuit court of appeals — Arizona, Montana and Idaho — which in the past have given sole discretion to judges to mete out the death penalty.
The ruling involved whether a 2002 US Supreme Court decision that juries rather than judges should decide the elements required to sentence a convicted criminal to death should apply retroactively to about 100 inmates. They will now have their death sentences commuted to life in prison.
“Depriving a capital defendant of his constitutional rights to have a jury decide whether he is eligible for the death penalty is an error that necessarily affects the framework within which the trial proceeds,” the appeals court said in an 8-3 decision.
The ruling stems from the case of Warren Summerlin, an Arizona man convicted of the 1981 murder of Brenna Bailey, an officer from a finance company who had gone to inquire about an overdue account.
It affects just a small fraction of the more than 3,500 inmates now on death row in prisons across the US.
The Arizona attorney general’s office, which argued the case, said it would appeal to the US Supreme Court on the question of whether its decision should be applied retroactively.
Kent Cattani, chief counsel with the office, added the Supreme Court will likely hear the case to clear up conflicting appellate decisions over how the high court’s decision should be applied. “If the issue were something to the fundamental fairness of the process it isn’t something we would oppose,” said Kent Cattani, chief counsel with the attorney general’s office.
Dale Blaich, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona, said the 9th Circuit only has jurisdiction over Idaho, Montana and Arizona but the decision could set a precedent in other states where courts have not yet weighed in on the issue.
Nebraska and Colorado have similar sentencing methods while a mixture of inputs from judges and juries help determine whether a convicted criminal should receive the death penalty in Delaware, Indiana, Florida and Alabama. “Our main argument was that the Supreme Court decision should apply to all inmates in Arizona,” Blaich said.