WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Thursday to overturn the death sentences of more than 100 inmates who argued their fates were improperly determined by judges, not jurors.
The 5-4 decision spares at least four states from having to decide whether to spend millions of dollars for new sentencing hearings or consent to prison sentences for the convicted killers.
It was issued on the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's (search) ruling that the constitutional right to a trial by jury means that jurors should weigh factors that determine whether a particular killing merits death or life in prison. Justices said in the follow-up decision that the 2002 ruling does not apply retroactively.
The case involved the biggest death penalty (search) issue of the court's term, which is expected to end next week. Next fall, justices will consider a broader subject, whether it is unconstitutional for states to execute people who committed their capital crimes when they were juveniles.
In Thursday's case, justices ruled against Arizona prisoner Warren Wesley Summerlin (search), sentenced to die more than 20 years ago by a judge who later lost his job because of a drug problem. Summerlin was convicted of raping and bludgeoning to death a bill collector who came to his house in 1981 to collect a payment for a piano.
The 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, forced changes in the death penalty laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado, because those states left it to judges to determine whether a killer should be executed. The ruling also cast doubt on death-sentencing procedures in other states that used a combination of juries and judges to impose death sentences.
Had the high court ruled the other way, states would have had to decide whether to pursue death sentences for 85 Arizona inmates and about 25 others in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska. Inmates in other states also could have tried to use the ruling to win new sentences.