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8:25 AM Fri, Sept. 21st

High court: Judge failed to tell jury life sentence alternative

Shawn Patrick Lynch

Shawn Patrick Lynch

PHOENIX – Jurors deciding whether to sentence someone to death are entitled to be told that in Arizona the only alternative is life behind bars, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In an unsigned opinion, six of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court said it was a mistake for a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to block the defense attorney for Shawn Patrick Lynch from telling jurors that if they did not sentenced him to death that he would be sentenced to life behind bars, with no possibility of parole. Denied that information, the jurors sentenced Lynch to death.

The ruling is important, not only in this case but other murder trials. In essence, the high court is saying that jurors, told someone would never get out – and never pose a risk to anyone else – might decide not to impose the death penalty.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office prosecuted the case, had no comment Tuesday.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, acknowledged that Arizona had abolished parole as an option in these kinds of cases.

But he pointed out that, at least technically speaking, there was a possibility, albeit remote, that Lynch could be released: He could get a recommendation after 25 years from the Board of Executive Clemency, with the governor having the final word. And Thomas dismissed as “nonsense’’ requiring a trial judge to tell a jury that Lynch is ineligible for early release, at least at this point.

Thomas also said requiring Lynch to be resentenced, this time with jurors having new information, ignores that it was the “sheer depravity’’ of the crime that resulted in the death penalty, rather than any specific fear by jurors that Lynch would get out in the future.

According to court records, Lynch and Michael Sehwani met James Panzarella in March 2001 at a Scottsdale bar. All three went to Panzarella’s residence the next morning. The victim’s credit cards were used during the next two days. Panzarella was eventually found in his home tied to a chair with his throat slit. Police also found credit card receipts from purchases made that morning at a supermarket and convenience store.

Lynch and Sehwani were arrested later that day. Sehwani had Panzarella’s credit cards and checks in his wallet. And in the truck and motel room he and Lynch were using they found the keys to Panzarella’s car, a pistol belonging to the victim, and a sweater with Panzarella’s blood on it. Blood on Lynch’s shoes matched the victim’s DNA.

During sentencing, prosecutors argued that jurors should consider Lynch’s future dangerousness when determining proper punishment. But the trial judge refused to let defense counsel tell the jury that under Arizona law, the only alternative sentence was life without parole.

The majority, in Tuesday’s ruling, conceded that there was a chance Lynch could be released after 25 years. But the justices said that was not enough of a possibility to let jurors think if they did not sentence Lynch to death that he might be released.

Sehwani separately pleaded guilty to first degree murder and theft and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of any form of early release.

The majority in its opinion also brushed aside arguments by prosecutors that a future legislature could alter the laws and once again make parole an option, as it was in Arizona prior to 1994.

The justices said that would effectively undermine the whole precedent the high court set decade ago when they first concluded that jurors need to know what are – and are not – the options for a judge in deciding whether to impose the death penalty.