Originally Published: August 13, 2002 6:10 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to use an Arizona case to decide whether it is constitutional for a judge, not a jury, to decide if a convicted murderer receives a death sentence.
The court's decision could affect nearly 800 death sentences in nine states.
The court is expected to decide this year whether a defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial also means that only a jury can decide a death sentence. Currently, although juries are responsible for deciding guilt or innocence, judges decide the sentence in Arizona and eight other states.
It is the third death penalty case the court has accepted for the current term, and the second in which the court will reconsider its own earlier rulings.
"It isn't clear how far the court would go, but it is an important case and it could mean a major change in the law and in lives," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
If the court overturns an Arizona man's death sentence, as many as 795 other sentences nationwide could be suspect. The court also could confine its review to the way Arizona and two other states with nearly identical rules impose sentences, meaning the ruling would affect far fewer death sentences.
The case is a follow-up to a 2000 decision, which drew little attention at the time, in which the court overturned a hate crime sentence imposed on a New Jersey man. A judge lengthened the man's sentence after the trial, based on sentencing rules that tacked on additional prison time if a judge found, among other things, that a given crime was a hate crime.
The system amounted to a judge acting as a jury, the Supreme Court said. Scores of federal inmates have since claimed that courts should overturn their sentences in light of that case, called Apprendi v. New Jersey.
In Friday's case, the court said it will review the sentence of Timothy Stuart Ring for the 1994 killing of an armored van driver in Phoenix.
At issue is Arizona's requirement that a trial judge decide whether a particular case involves "aggravating circumstances" that justify imposition of a death sentence for a convicted defendant.
Aggravating circumstances include whether a murder was especially heinous, cruel or depraved and whether it was for monetary gain.
In Ring's case, the judge found an aggravating circumstance based on an accomplice's testimony during a sentencing hearing. The jury portion of Ring's trial was already over when the accomplice described Ring as the ringleader of the Wells Fargo robbery, and as the person who actually shot the driver.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona's aggravated-circumstance system in 1990, and has now agreed to decide if it can reconcile that decision with the Apprendi ruling.
The Arizona Supreme Court rejected Ring's constitutional challenge last year. The state has 128 people on Death Row.
Idaho and Montana have systems like Arizona's, where a single judge decides the sentence. Idaho has 20 people on Death Row, and Montana has six.
In four states, juries only recommend whether a convicted murderer should receive the death penalty or life in prison. A judge makes the final call in those states: Florida, with 385 people on Death Row as of late 2001; Alabama with 188; Indiana with 39; and Delaware with 17.
In Colorado and Nebraska, a panel of judges makes the sentencing decision. Each state has six people on Death Row.
Nationwide, about 3,700 people await death for crimes committed in the 38 states that allow the death penalty.
The case is Ring v. Arizona, 01-488.