Death Row Sentences Challenged as Court Rules Ring Decision is Retroactive

Relying on the fundamental importance of a defendant's right to a jury trial, a federal appeals court issed a ruling that could overturn many sentences in Arizona, Montana, and Idaho. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that an inmate's substantive constitutional rights were at issue when he was sentenced under state laws that permitted judges instead of juries to determine eligibility for the death penalty. By a vote of 8-3, the court ruled that the 2002 Supreme Court's ruling in Ring v. Arizona, which requires that a jury be allowed to make critical decisions in capital trials, is retroactive. In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court did not address the question of whether its decision should only apply to future cases. Judge Sidney R. Thomas, who authored the majority opinion for the 9th Circuit, noted that "[A] requirement of capital findings by a jury will improve the accuracy of Arizona capital murder trials." (Washington Post, September 3, 2003). See DPIC's page on Ring v. Arizona. To read the 9th Circuit opinion go to http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov.