The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week overturned hundreds of death sentences in nine states, Montana being one of them.
The High Court, in a 7–2 decision, ruled that only juries, not judges, have the constitutional right to impose the sentence of death on convicted criminals. Allowing judges to impose the death sentence violates the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.
The ruling could have serious implications in Montana, where six prisoners sit on death row awaiting execution.
The case originated in Arizona, where Timothy Ring was convicted of homicide and armed robbery in a 1994 armored car heist in Phoenix. The jury found him guilty of shooting to death the driver of the armored car and stealing $800,000. Under Arizona law, Ring could only get the death sentence if the judge found aggravating circumstances, which he did, ruling that the murder had been committed for money.
The court found, however, that Ring’s death sentence didn’t square with a previous Supreme Court decision handed down two years ago in a New Jersey hate crimes case. In that case, Apprendi vs. New Jersey, the Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, had to be the ones who find the aggravating circumstances that lengthen any sentence beyond the statutory maximum. That ruling did not extend to death sentences, however.
When the Ring case was heard before the Supreme Court two months ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted that the Apprendi ruling made no sense if it did not also address death sentences. “Tell me how one would explain to a citizen that you can’t get five years added to a sentence without a jury making the critical finding, but you can be sentenced to death,” she asked at the April 22 Ring hearing.
The court’s decision effectively invalidates the death sentencing procedure in five states: Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado, where judges or panels of judges, rather than juries, may impose the death penalty. It could potentially affect death penalty statutes in Florida, Indiana, Delaware and Alabama, where juries advise judges on the imposition of the death sentence, and where 529 prisoners have been already sentenced to death.
The five states immediately affected by the ruling have a total of 168 prisoners on death row. Six of them are in Montana. They are: Rodney Sattler, convicted of homicide in Lake County; David Dawson, convicted of deliberate homicide and three counts of aggravated kidnapping in Yellowstone County; Rodney Smith, convicted of two counts of homicide and two counts of kidnapping in Flathead County; and Douglas Turner, Daniel Johnson, William Gollehon, all convicted of murdering fellow inmates while they were incarcerated on other crimes in the state prison at Deer Lodge.
The Supreme Court has remanded the cases back to the states “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
With the overturning of the death sentence procedure in Montana and the other four states the fate of the 168 condemned prisoners remains unknown. They could be re-sentenced, or their sentences could be reduced to life in prison.
Nevertheless, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath believes the ruling will have no impact at all on the state’s six death row inmates. “It doesn’t have an immediate impact, despite the national media [stories],” he says. All six condemned prisoners have gone through the direct appeals process, he says. The Montana Supreme Court upheld their convictions and sentences. “Our cases are far enough through the process that they’re not affected by this ruling at all,” he says.
Not necessarily, says Chad Wright. Wright is the attorney for Rodney Sattler, one of the condemned prisoners.
McGrath contends that defense attorneys missed their opportunity to challenge the unconstitutional sentences during the various appeals filed by the inmates, and that the inmates are so far along in their appeals that they can‘t raise new challenges now. “That’s certainly wrong,” Wright says. “I don’t think it’s a settled question.”
Wright agrees with McGrath that, despite the attorney general’s contention that the recent ruling will have no impact on the prisoners sitting on death row, the ruling doesn’t preclude defense attorneys from at least trying to get their clients in front of a jury for re-sentencing.
“I think I’d be a lousy lawyer if I didn’t,” Wright says. “I’m certainly going to go over it with a fine-toothed comb.”
Wright says the 7–2 ruling is encouraging in that both conservative and liberal justices on the Supreme Court teamed up to overturn procedure on one of the most contentious social issues of the day. “You’ve got [Justice Antonin] Scalia and [Justice Clarence] Thomas, two of the most conservative judges there, saying it’s unconstitutional,” Wright notes.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dissented, arguing that the ruling will allow many sentenced prisoners to challenge their sentences, and that it will further disrupt a criminal justice system already destabilized by the previous Apprendi ruling. O’Connor was joined in dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Regardless of this week’s ruling or the impact it may have on Montana’s six death row prisoners, there are no executions scheduled in Montana. The last two prisoners to die by lethal injection were Terry Langford in 1998 and Duncan McKenzie in 1995.
All six death row inmates in Montana are currently appealing their convictions to higher courts.