Rocky Mountain News

Justices to review death penalty—Supreme Court will decide if judge’s panel is constitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to review an Arizona death penalty case that could change Colorado’s method of imposing death sentences. “It could eliminate the Colorado death penalty scheme,” defense lawyer David Lane said.

It also could spare the lives of 3 of the 6 men now on Colorado’s death row.

The issue before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether it is constitutional for judges, instead of juries, to decide whether a convicted defendant should be sentenced to death.

The ruling could affect death penalty laws in 9 states where hundreds of prisoners may have been sentenced to die by judges instead of by juries.

Among them are 3 Colorado inmates:

Francisco Martinez, convicted of leading the 1997 gang rape and torture of Brandy Duvall in an Adams County home.

George Woldt, convicted of the 1997 kidnapping, rape and murder of former Littleton High School athlete Jacine Gielinski.

In Colorado, juries decide if a defendant is guilty or not guilty. In cases where prosecutors seek the death penalty, a panel of 3 judges then hears testimony about aggravating and mitigating circumstances and decides if a convicted defendant should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Aggravating circumstances are those that make a crime particularly heinous. Mitigating circumstances are those that weigh in favor of leniency for the defendant.

The Arizona system is similar to Colorado’s, but only I judge makes the life or death decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court will review the Arizona case of Timothy Stuart Ring, who was sentenced to die for the 1994 killing of an armored van driver in Phoenix during a robbery.

Ring and many other prisoners condemned to die have appealed their sentences recently under a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a New Jersey hate crime case that didn’t involve death or the death penalty.

In that case, a man was convicted of shooting a gun into the home of his black neighbors and yelling racial epithets about them.

Under New Jersey law at the time, a judge could impose a tougher sentence after deciding that a defendant’s action was a hate crime.

The nation’s high court ruled in the New Jersey case that it was unconstitutional for a judge to decide facts leading to a tougher sentence.

Only juries can make such factual determinations, the U.S. Supreme Court said.

“In order to get a death penalty in Colorado,” Lane said, “the 3-judge panel has to find additional facts” beyond those determined by the jury.

Defense lawyer Nathan Chambers said the U.S. Supreme Court won’t rule directly on Colorado’s system, but if it finds Arizona’s system unconstitutional that could mean Colorado’s is also.

“There would be clear authority then that Colorado’s sentencing scheme would be constitutionally invalid,” Chambers said.
“I think that this case will definitely have implications for Colorado’s capital sentencing scheme,” he said.
In the past, court rulings invalidating death penalty laws have sent state legislatures, including Colorado’s, scurrying to pass new laws that meet high court standards.

But if Colorado’s existing death penalty laws turn out to be unconstitutional, and legislators pass new ones, they won’t apply to anyone sentenced under the existing law because laws can’t be applied retroactively, Chambers and Lane said.

“I suspect that their death sentences would be invalidated,” Chambers said.