The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a death penalty case in the spring that originated in Arizona but which could have serious implications in Montana and seven other states. The case, Ring vs. Arizona, challenges the constitutionality of an Arizona death penalty statute similar to sentencing laws in Montana.
A Phoenix lawyer for the petitioner, convicted killer Timothy Stuart Ring, says he cannot predict what impact a favorable ruling for his client would have on other states, but says it is conceivable such a decision could effect a section of Montana’s death penalty law.
At issue is an Arizona statute that allows judges rather than juries to impose the death sentence in homicide trials. The case revolves around Ring, who was convicted in Arizona in 1996 for the 1994 murder of an armored truck driver during a robbery. After his conviction by a jury he was sentenced to death by the presiding judge in the case.
Ring’s attorney, Andrew Hurwitz, is now challenging the constitutionality of the judge-imposed death sentence, using another U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down in June 2000 as legal precedent. That decision, Apprendi vs. New Jersey, invalidated New Jersey’s hate crime law that required the judge to decide whether there was a motive for a hate crime, which carried an extended sentence.
In the 1994 New Jersey case the defendant, Charles Apprendi, confessed to firing a gun at the home of a black family to send them a message that blacks weren’t welcome in his neighborhood. He was convicted on three weapons charges and received an extended sentence under New Jersey’s hate crime law, based on the nature of the offense and his confession.
He appealed his conviction to the state appellate court, arguing that the state unconstitutionally imposed an extended sentence based on “the preponderance of evidence” of racial bias, rather than on the more difficult standard of proof required for a jury, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The case wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down New Jersey’s hate crime law and set the stage for the current legal challenge to the Arizona statute that gives sentencing authority to judges in death penalty cases.
When sentencing is to be increased beyond the minimum sentencing requirement, says Hurwitz, the Supreme Court has ruled that the facts of the case must be discovered by the jury, not the judge.
In Montana homicide cases in which the death penalty is sought by the prosecutor, the sentencing is the responsibility not of the jury, but of the judge who presided over the trial or who accepted the guilty plea. The judge must hold a sentencing hearing to determine whether there were aggravating circumstances involved in the crime. That hearing must be conducted before the court alone, with no jury involved.
The judge may take into account a number of factors before rendering the sentence, including the character, background, history, mental and physical condition of the killer, the harm caused to the victim and the victim’s family, and any other facts that would either aggravate or mitigate the penalty.
Hurwitz contends that the Supreme Court decision in Apprendi puts the responsibility for harsher sentences on the jury, rather than on the judge. His client is asking that his death sentence, handed down by an Arizona judge in 1996, be amended to life in prison.
If his client prevails before the High Court, the ruling could have an impact on similar death penalty statutes in Montana, Idaho, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana and Nebraska.
Exactly what that impact would be is hard to say, Hurwitz acknowledges.
If the Supreme Court rules for Hurwitz’s client, he says, and if Montana’s law is exactly the same as Arizona’s, and if the Supreme Court strikes down the sections of the law that are similar in both states, then Montana might see the constitutionality of its death penalty statute struck down as well. But there are a lot of ifs, he says.
“It depends on the circumstances, but it certainly would raise a question about the legality of the death sentence,” he says.
It is conceivable that a ruling favorable to Hurwitz’s client could have broader applications. Melissa Harrison, a professor of law at the University of Montana, agrees with Hurwitz that a favorable court ruling may—or may not—be felt in Montana. “If Arizona’s statute is just like Montana’s and the United States Supreme Court holds that that portion of Arizona’s statute violated the U.S. Constitution, then Montana’s would also.”
There are nearly 800 prisoners on death row in the states that could be affected by the Supreme Court ruling, including 385 in Florida alone, 128 in Arizona and six in Montana. Neither Harrison nor Hurwitz would speculate on how—or even if—a favorable ruling might affect the status of current death row prisoners in Montana. “That gets very complicated,” says Harrison. When Supreme Court decisions are retroactive “it might affect people sitting on death row, it might not.”
The last prisoner executed in Montana was Terry Langford in February 1998. There are no scheduled executions pending in Montana.
Harrison says a Supreme Court decision that overturns the Arizona lower court ruling might affect any Montana death row prisoner appealing his sentence, and would affect those sentenced to death after a court ruling. The case is scheduled to be heard in April.