The ruling will affect death-sentencing procedures in states where juries decided a defendants’ guilt or innocence and a judge alone decided the sentence. The court held 7 to 2 that the defendants’ Sixth Amendment constitutional right to a trial by jury was violated by not allowing the jury to decide the defendant’s final fate.
Among the five states involved — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska — there are 168 death row inmates who had their punishments decided by a judge or panel of judges.
“We hold that the Sixth Amendment secures to capital defendants, no less than to non-capital defendants, the right to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in their maximum punishment,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a majority. Ginsburg was joined by an unusual alliance of conservative and liberal justices including Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote separately to agree with the majority.
It is not clear what will immediately happen to death row inmates in the affected states. Some may have their sentences commuted to life terms as happened when the Supreme Court put a temporary stop to the death penalty in the 1970s. The inmates could also be re-sentenced by a jury and receive the same death penalty punishment.
In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the decision of the majority was unnecessary under the Constitution and would encourage some 500 inmates in four other states, where juries only advise judges as to their punishment, to challenge their sentences. Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined O’Connor in dissenting.
The decision came in the case of Timothy Ring, an Arizona death row inmate who challenged his sentence for allegedly killing an armored car driver in 1994. Ring said his constitutional right to a jury trial was violated when the judge considered additional testimony after the jury had already been dismissed and then determined Ring’s crime warranted the death penalty.
The decision is the second major ruling by the Supreme Court concerning the death penalty in less than a week. Last Thursday, the court ruled that mentally retarded people are exempt from the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
In a separate decision handed down Monday, the justices ruled that judges can lengthen the prison sentences of defendants who use guns when committing their crimes, even if they have not been convicted on any charge specifically involving the weapon.
In a closely divided ruling, the court held 5 to 4 that judges can decide whether defendants used guns in their crimes and adjust prison sentences accordingly. The decision narrowly avoids a ruling that would have forced the re-evaluation of thousands of sentences and cast doubt on sentencing laws in almost every state.