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Supreme Court Watch

April 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: In other legal matters, there was a death penalty case at the U.S. Supreme Court today. Gwen Ifill has that.

GWEN IFILL: The Justices heard arguments in the case of a convicted murderer sentenced to death by a judge but not a jury. At issue: Should it be up to a judge to impose that ultimate penalty when new testimony is presented at sentencing that was not available to the jury? For more, we go inside the Supreme Court with NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, court reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

So Jan this was — lay this out for us. This was the difference between a jury deciding the death penalty and a judge deciding the death penalty.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right this case comes from Arizona and Arizona, like eight other states gives judges the discretion in imposing the maximum punishment, the death penalty. In this case, a jury convicted Timothy Stewart Ring of first-degree murder, felony murder, done in the commission of an armed robbery of an armored truck, that’s a capital offense. So then it went to a sentencing hearing. And a judge looked at aggravating factors, mitigating factors and imposed the sentence of death. But this case, ultimately, as the Arizona Attorney General put it today, it’s ultimately a question about the role of a jury.

GWEN IFILL: So were his lawyers arguing that there is a constitutional protection involved here?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, that’s right. His attorneys today said that before the state can deliver the maximum punishment, a jury must first consider these facts, and they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendants like Timothy Ring, have that right guaranteed to them under the Constitution. The Constitution’s sixth amendment which assures us a right to a jury trial.

GWEN IFILL: New facts in the case like what?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, at the sentencing hearing, one of the conspirators testified for the first time. The jury never heard him testify. He told the judge that Ring pulled the trigger – that he wanted people to brag on him about his shot. The judge taking that testimony into account, considered there to be aggravating factors. He considered the crime to be-brutal and depraved and conducted for financial reasons.

GWEN IFILL: All things that the jury never heard.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Certainly things in terms of the testimony, facts the jury had not heard about and decided on beyond a reasonable doubt. And based on those aggravating factors, the judge sentenced ring to death.

GWEN IFILL: Today in the courtroom what did the state of Arizona argue?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Arizona argued that these are sentencing factors; that they’re not elements of the crime; that the jury decided its main duty, its constitutional duty. It decided that Ring was guilty of this capital offense. So these were things that a judge was entitled to review; that he was just kind of weighing aggravating factors and the mitigating factors, things that might lessen the punishment in making that decision and that’s a role that judges are entitled to play.

GWEN IFILL: Now, it wasn’t too long ago that the court approached this type of issue before and both sides seemed to be harkening back to the 2000 New Jersey case.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s a watershed case. The dissenters predicted it two years ago when this ruling came down and it has certainly been proven true. That case involved a New Jersey man named Charles Apprendi and you may hear the Apprendi case, the name of the man Charles Apprendi who was convicted of violating a New Jersey gun law. At his sentencing, the judge added on extra time to his sentence because the judge concluded he had violated the law because of racial bias in violation of New Jersey’s hate crime statute. He argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that a jury should have made that call; that a jury should have decided those key facts.

And the Supreme Court in that 2000 ruling, that, you know, constitutional watershed landmark ruling, said that a jury must consider and decide facts beyond a reasonable doubt when it’s enhancing the penalty in that way.

GWEN IFILL: But Sandra Day O’Connor, our favorite justice to watch, wrote the dissent in that case, right?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: She did. It was an unusual split. It was 5-4 ruling. When we have a five/four ruling, we think the five more conservative journalists and four more liberal justices. This was written by John Paul Stephens, this Apprendi case, obviously one of the Court’s most liberal Justices, he was joined by two other liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and two conservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, a very unusual line-up. O’Connor, like you said, wrote the dissent. She predicted all of this chaos that has since ensued.

GWEN IFILL: Is going to come back. So if this were overturned, if this law, if this Arizona law were overturned, what is the potential effect?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, like I said, I mean, Arizona is just one of nine states that has these sentencing schemes that give judges is kind of discretion. So those laws could immediately be called into question and the death sentences of some 800 inmates on Death Row in those states could be called into question.

GWEN IFILL: So theoretically hundreds of cases – not the actual convictions being overturned but the sentencing being overturned.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Absolutely. And of course, when you are talking about the death sentence, that’s so critical.

GWEN IFILL: Now the Court keeps picking up or agreeing to hear death penalty cases this session. There was one we’ve talked about before on this program involving the death penalty for the mentally disabled.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, a very emotional case.

GWEN IFILL: There is one they took up today involving a felon who said he wasn’t represented properly by his attorneys and the one we are talking about this afternoon. Is there a pattern that is developing here?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the Court has several death penalty cases this term, and it’s certainly something you notice when they come out. I don’t see a trend yet. I mean there are different issues. The Atkin case involving a mentally disabled person presents a different constitutional question. And one of the lawyers I spoke with, in fact the lawyers who is representing the man whose case the Court agreed to hear next term, the Court announced that today, said he doesn’t see a trend yet either – that the Court always pays close attention to these cases because they’re so critically important.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard, however, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice O’Connor express — verbally express doubts about the application of the death penalty this year.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Particularly as it would apply to the ineffective assistance of counsel. There have been a couple of cases involving that and certainly there will be more next term. So that is certainly an issue to watch, whether or not particularly poor people on Death Row are being adequately represented at trial.

GWEN IFILL: Before the end of this term, we’re going to see something happen on the death penalty from this court.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Absolutely. Yes. And I think the one that will be really interesting to watch is going to be the Atkins case involving whether or not states can execute people who are mentally disabled.

GWEN IFILL: Jan, thank you very much.