State updates included on this page:

  • Arizona
  • Colorado (abolished the death penalty in 2020)
  • Delaware (abolished the death penalty in 2016)
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Maryland (abolished the death penalty in 2013
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico (2-jury system, abolished the death penalty in 2009)
  • North Carolina
  • Federal


First Ring Resentencing Reverses Original Sentence On September 24, 2004, the jury in the new sentencing phase of Keith Phillips’ trial reversed the original jury’s death recommendation and presented the judge with a life sentence. Phillips is the first of the “Ring 30” to be resentenced under the Ringdecision by the U. S. Supreme Court. (Arizona Republic, October 4, 2004)

Ring Not Retroactive The Arizona Supreme Court held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona does not apply retroactively to defendants whose cases have completed their direct appeal. (State v. Towery, No. CR-02-0031-PC (2003)). Arizona has about 90 such prisoners on death row whose sentences are final and who were sentenced under the scheme found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ring.

Federal Appeals Court Considers Retroactivity of Ring A federal appeals’ court has agreed to decide the case of Arizona death row inmate Warren Summerlin. In Summerlin v. Stewart (No. 98-99002), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will decide if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizonaapplies retroactively. In Ring, the Court held that critical issues regarding sentencing had to be decided by juries, not judges, but the Court did not indicate whether the decision applied retroactively to inmates like Summerlin, whose case preceded Ring. The Circuit Court’s decision could impact prisoners in Arizona, Montana and Idaho, which are within the Ninth Circuit. (Idaho Statesman, November 23, 2002).

Arizona Retroactivity The Arizona Supreme Court turned down appeals from 31 death row inmates who claimed that they are entitled to be resentenced in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. The inmates, who have exhausted their direct appeals, claimed that the high Court’s ruling that juries, not judges, should decide critical sentencing issues, mandates that they be resentenced under new procedures adopted by the state legislature in light of Ring. Without comment, the state Supreme Court denied the inmates’ motions. The court will decide later this year if the new procedures will apply to inmates who have not exhausted their direct appeals. (Arizona Daily Star, September 27, 2002)

Arizona Passes Possibly Flawed Legislation to Allow Jury Sentencing After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s death penalty statute in Ring v. Arizona, the state legislature met in a special session to amend the state’s death penalty law to provide that jurors, not judges, impose death sentences. The bill passed and was signed by Governor Jane Hull. However, an editorial in the Tucson Citizen noted that, although the bill allows for jury sentencing:

The law allows survivors of murder victims to tell the jury whether they want the defendant sentenced to death. Attorney General Janet Napolitano told lawmakers that is unconstitutional and cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling supporting her.

The law also bars review of the jury’s sentence by the trial judge and limits review by the state Supreme Court. Both provisions are likely to be challenged.(Tucson Citizen, editorial, August 6, 2002)


Colorado abolished the death penalty in 2020.

Colorado Supreme Court Finds Three-Judge Panel Sentencing Unconstitutional The Colorado Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of two men who were sentenced by three-judge panels. The Court held that a 1995 law setting up the three-judge panel system was unconstitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. (Associated Press, February 24, 2003)

Lawmakers Reform Death Penalty Sentencing Statutes In a special session called by Governor Bill Owens after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona, Colorado lawmakers approved legislation to change the state’s death penalty statute to ensure its constitutionality. Colorado was previously one of five states - including Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, and Idaho - where judges alone determine whether the death penalty is appropriate. The reform bill returns the sentencing determination in a capital case from a 3-judge panel to the trial jury for a unanimous determination. (Associated Press, July 11, 2002). Governor Owens signed the bill into law.


Delaware abolished the death penalty in 2016.

Delaware Court Halts Death Penalty Trials The President Judge of Delaware’s Superior Court has halted all capital murder trials and sentencings until the state’s Supreme Court can consider the constitutionality of the Delaware’s death penalty. The court will review the Delaware cases and a new state law as they relate to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In Ring, the Supreme Court held that a death sentence violates a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury when the necessary aggravating factors must be determined by a judge rather than a jury. Prior to Ring, Delaware jurors served in an advisory role during capital cases, but state law now gives jurors sole authority to decide death eligibility. (Associated Press, September 13, 2002)

Ring Decision Sparks Delaware Death Penalty Developments As a result of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ring v. Arizona, the Delaware Supreme Court has ordered attorneys in each of the 8 death penalty cases currently pending before the court to submit new briefs detailing how the Ring decision affects their case. Prior to Ring, Delaware judges were asked to consider a jury’s recommendation on the existence of aggravating circumstances but had the ability to ultimately find otherwise. The Delaware Supreme Court order came just one day after the state’s legislators passed a bill giving juries sole authority to unanimously determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. (Associated Press, July 18, 2002) [Governor Ruth Ann Minner signed the bill into law].


Florida Rescinds Unanimous Jury Requirement in Death Sentencing

In April 2023, Florida passed legislation allowing a judge to impose death if at least eight out of twelve jurors agree.

DPIC’s reading of the legislation indicates that, if a jury has not been waived:

  1. The jury MUST unanimously find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that at least one aggravating factor in the statute exists in the case. Otherwise, the defendant is not eligible for the death penalty.
  2. If eligible and the jury has at least 8 votes for a death sentence, the recommendation MUST be for death. If there are less than 8 votes for death, the recommendation MUST be for life without parole.
  3. If the jury’s recommendation is for life without parole, the judge MUST impose that sentence.
  4. If the jury’s recommendation is for death, the judge MAY impose that sentence or MAY impose a life sentence.

The judge must provide a written order explaining how the sentence was arrived at, including reasons for rejecting a jury’s recommendation, if applicable.

Florida Revises Death Penalty Procedures

In March 2016, the Florida legislature directly addressed Hurst v. Florida by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. It also modified Florida’s sentencing practice by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death sentence.

Florida Supreme Court Urges Legislature to Initiate Unanimous Juries

In a recent opinion addressing several procedural issues regarding the state’s capital punishment law, the Florida Supreme Court urged state legislators to require capital jurors to be unanimous in recommending death sentences or at least in deciding what aggravating factors support a death sentence. “The bottom line is that Florida is now the only state in the country that allows the death penalty to be imposed even though the penalty-phase jury may determine by a mere majority vote both whether aggravators exist and whether to recommend the death penalty… . The requirement of a unanimous verdict can only assist the capital sentencing jury in reaching such a reasoned decision,” wrote Justice Raoul Cantero for the court. Cantero also noted that many scholars and courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have concluded that unanimous verdicts are important to the death sentencing process. Currently in Florida, only judges can impose death sentences, but they are required by law to give great weight to recommendations from juries. It takes a vote of 7-5 or greater to recommend death in a first-degree murder case. The only alternative is life in prison without parole. (Associated Press, October 12, 2005). See Florida v. Steele, No. SC04-802 (Oct. 12, 2005).

Florida Supreme Court Asked to Clarify Impact of Ring Decision

A District Court panel in Florida has endorsed a special verdict form that asks jurors to specify what elements of a crime warrant a death penalty. The District Court certified its decision as a matter of great public importance and asked the Florida Supreme Court to review the rulings, noting “this ruling could affect many cases that may ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court.” In the original ruling in the capital case against Alfredie Steele Jr., Pasco County Judge Lynn Tepper required the jury’s specific decision to bring Florida’s law into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In Ring , the U.S. Supreme Court held that a defendant is entitled to have the jury, not a judge, decide whether he or she is eligible for the death penalty. Some of the states possibly impacted by Ring, including Florida, have yet to formally address how the decision should affect court procedures, leaving local judges to deliver rulings based on their own interpretation of the law. (Miami Daily Business Review, April 29, 2004)

Florida Supreme Court Stays Executions to Review Constitutionality of State Death Penalty Statute; Later Rules Statute is Constitutional The Florida Supreme Court stayed two executions so that it could consider whether the state’s capital punishment law is constitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ring v. Arizona ruling. Florida is one of four states that permitted a judge to override a jury recommendation of a life sentence and impose death. The announcement came just hours before the scheduled execution of Linroy Bottoson and two days before the scheduled execution of Amos King. (The Washington Post, July 9, 2002). On October 24, 2002 Florida supreme court rejected Bottoson’s and King’s appeals, ruling that the state statute was constitutional despite the decision in Ring. On December 9, 2002, Florida executed Linroy Bottoson. Amos King is scheduled to be executed on February 26, 2003.


Idaho Governor Signs Bill to Allow for Jury Sentencing In February 2003, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed into law a bill that provides for jury sentencing in capital cases. The new law, which shifts the responsibility of imposing the death penalty from judges to juries, was enacted in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. It is unclear whether or not the new Idaho law will apply retroactively. (Associated Press, February 14, 2003)

Idaho Lawmakers Pass New Death Penalty Sentencing Statutes On February 5, 2003, the Idaho legislature passed a bill providing for new sentencing procedures in capital cases. The Idaho House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill, and Governor Dirk Kempthorne has indicated that he will sign it. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona effectively overturned Idaho’s death penalty sentencing statute, which then had provided for sentencing decisions by the trial judge. The new legislation will apply the new sentencing procedure to the state’s current death row inmates if their sentences are overturned because they were imposed by a judge. (Associated Press, February 5, 2003)

Idaho Supreme Court Voids Death Sentence in Light of Ring Decision The Idaho Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of death row inmate Donald Fetterly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona. The Idaho Court held that the Ring ruling appears to invalidate the death penalty scheme in Idaho. (Associated Press, August 7, 2002)


Sentence of Life Without Parole Vacated On August 19, 2002, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated Amy Bostick’s three sentences of life without parole. The Court held that Bostick’s sentences were unconstitutional under Ring v. Arizona because the trial judge, and not the jury, found that the state had proven the qualifying aggravating circumstances for a sentence of life without parole beyond a reasonable doubt. Since the judge made this decision after the jury failed to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation, the Court found that Bostick was sentenced beyond the maximum term of imprisonment authorized by the jury’s verdict. The Indiana Supreme Court remanded her case to the trial court for resentencing. (Bostick v. Indiana, 2002 Ind. LEXIS 657)


Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013.

Maryland State Supreme Court Ruling Allows Executions to Resume Maryland’s highest court ruled that Ring v. Arizona does not invalidate the state’s capital punishment statute. The 4-3 decision denied the contention of defendant Steven Oken that the state’s law was unconstitutional. Oken’s appeal had centered on how judges and juries consider whether defendants should be put to death. Maryland’s statute asks them to determine by a preponderance of the evidence whether mitigating circumstances, such as an individual’s age, outweigh aggravating factors, such as motive. According to the Supreme Court’s Ring v. Arizona decision, a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is required for certain death penalty decisions. The state maintained, and the court agreed, that Ring only applied at the point when a person’s eligibility for the death penalty was at issue. (Washington Post, November 18, 2003).

Maryland Court of Appeals Stays Executions to Review Constitutionality of State Death Penalty Statute The Maryland Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution in the case of Steven Oken, who was scheduled to be executed the week of March 17, 2003. The stay, which will affect all Maryland death row inmates, came after Oken challenged the constitutionality of the state’s capital murder statute in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. Oken challenges that the current standard of proof that prosecutors are required to meet in asking juries to vote for death sentences is too low. Currently, jurors need only find that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances by a “preponderance of the evidence.” Oken argues that the correct standard of proof should be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring. The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in May 2003. (Washington Post, February 12, 2003)


Missouri Supreme Court Overturns Sentence, Citing Ring Decision The Missouri Supreme Court once again reduced a death sentence to life imprisonment without parole based on the 2002 U. S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona. Deandra Buchanan was originally sentenced to death by a Boone County Circuit judge when the trial jury was unable to agree on a punishment. The Missouri Supreme Court referred to its 4-3 decision in a previous case where they overturned the death sentence for similar reasons. The three judges who dissented earlier concurred with the ruling in this case, citing the result that had been established in the other decision. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1, 2003)

Man whose death sentences were overturned gets life in prison A Jackson County judge on Tuesday sentenced a double murderer whose death sentences had been overturned to life without parole. Circuit Judge Charles Atwell said recent U.S. Supreme Court and Missouri Supreme Court rulings made it impossible for prosecutors to again seek death in the case against Lemoine Carter, 36, who had lived in Kansas City. The 2 higher courts have ruled that juries and not judges must impose death sentences. In Carter’s case, another Jackson County judge imposed 2 death sentences in 1995 after a jury could not agree on whether to recommend death or life without parole. (Kansas City Star, September 17, 2003)

Supreme Court Rules that Ring is Retroactive The Missouri Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, held in SC77067 State of Missouri v. Joseph Whitfield, that Ring is retroactive and that the proper remedy is resentencing to Life Without Parole, instead of a new sentencing hearing. Read the Whitfield decision. See also Life Without Parole.

Supreme Court Ruling Regarding Juries May Apply More Broadly Although Missouri has not been mentioned as one of the nine states potentially affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona, some of its death sentences may be overturned as a result of this ruling. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has announced that the state will thoroughly review the cases of its 68 death row inmates to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Ring. Nixon noted that nearly one of every six Missouri death row inmates were condemned by a judge instead of a jury. Missouri law allows judges to impose death sentences in some instances, including when a jury that convicts a defendant deadlocks about sentencing. (Associated Press, June 26, 2002). Nevada also allows a panel of judges to make death sentencing decisions in some cases. In Connecticut, a three-judge panel can decide on death sentences in re-sentencings.


Federal Judge Declares Electrocution Unconstitutional and Ring v. Arizona to be Retroactive In a decision vacating the death penalty for Nebraska death row inmate Charles Jess Palmer, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bataillon declared that electrocution is unconstitutional. Bataillon wrote, “In light of evidence and evolving standards of decency, the court would find that a death penalty sentence imposed on a defendant in a state that provides electrocution as its only method of execution is an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” Nebraska is the only state that maintains electrocution as its sole method of execution. Bataillon’s ruling also stated that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona - which held that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide eligibility for a death sentence - is retroactive and applies to Palmer’s case. The judge further decried the lengthy period of time Palmer has spent on death row. Palmer remains incarcerated with a sentence of life imprisonment. (Lincoln Journal Star, October 10, 2003) See Methods of Execution, and Life Without Parole. UPDATE: Nebraska adopted lethal injection as its method of execution in 2009.

Nebraska Supreme Court Rules Ring Not Applicable for a Case That Completed Direct Appeal On July 11, 2003, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in State v. John Lotter that Ring v. Arizona would not be applied to a case that had completed direct appeal and was on postconviction review. The opinion followed a standard Teague v. Lane analysis and is available here.

Nebraska Passes Legislation to Allow Jury Determination of Aggravating Factor During a special session of the Nebraska legislature, members enacted a bill that attempts to bring the state’s law into compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona. The bill requires that a jury find beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime meets one of the state’s nine aggravating circumstances before a death sentence is imposed. The legislation was worded to apply retroactively to crimes committed earlier but which have not come to trial. The new law also requires a 3-judge sentencing panel to conduct a pre-sentencing investigation in which other negative information about the defendant may be introduced. The 3-judge panel must be unanimous in order to sentence an inmate to death. Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns signed the changes into law. (Lincoln Journal Star, November 24, 2002).

Special Legislative Session Called to Change Invalid Death Penalty Law; State Supreme Court to Consider Interim Procedures District Judge Robert Ensz ruled that prosecutors could not seek the death penalty against Nazario Robles, a defendant in a Madison County murder trial. Judge Ensz ruled that Nebraska’s death penalty procedure is rendered unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. In Nebraska, juries determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant, but judges are responsible for determining the sentence. Governor Mike Johanns has called a special legislative session starting November 7 to change the state’s death penalty laws. In the meantime, prosecutors are asking that jurors be allowed to render “special verdicts” that would permit them to determine eligibility for the death penalty if they found a defendant guilty. Judges could then sentence the defendant to death if the jury found the necessary aggravating factors. Defense lawyers argue that such a process would be contrary to state law. On November 5, the Nebraska Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide if Nebraska can continue to sentence people to death using “special verdicts,” or if prosecutors will have to wait until after the legislature changes the laws to pursue death penalty cases. (Associated Press, October 17, 2002)

Nebraska Supreme Court Asked to Review Death Penalty Policy Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg has asked the state’s Supreme Court to decide whether Nebraska can continue sentencing people to death despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In Nebraska, judges or juries can determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, but only judges have handed down death sentences since state lawmakers decided in the 1970s that there was the potential of bias by juries. Stenberg contends that since state law says a judge or a jury must sentence capital defendants, jurors could be asked whether prosecutors proved any aggravating circumstances that are required to issue a death sentence. This “special verdict” would then allow judges to sentence defendants based on the jury’s findings. While special verdicts are used in Nebraska civil cases, defense attorneys have argued that a 1982 decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court found that “special verdicts” are not applicable to criminal prosecutions. (Associated Press, July 16, 2002).


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn signed a bill that bans the use of 3-judge panels in deciding death sentences. Instead, if the jury is divided between a life or death sentence, the trial judge may either impanel a new jury or impose a life without parole sentence. (Associated Press, June 9, 2003)

Nevada Supreme Court Overturns Sentence Imposed by a Three Judge Panel In December 2002, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Donte Johnson, an inmate who was sentenced by a three-judge panel after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous decision regarding his sentence. The Court held that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, when a jury is unable to agree on a sentence in a capital case, the finding of aggravating circumstances and the imposition of the death penalty by a three judge panel violates a defendant’s right to a jury trial. The Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Johnson. The Court also decided the case of Lawrence Colwell, and held that the Ring decision did not apply to his case because Colwell waived his right to a jury trial when he pleaded guilty. (Law Vegas Review-Journal, December 19, 2002).

New Jersey

New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007.

Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty as Victims’ Mother Seeks Closure Prosecutors from Middlesex County, New Jersey, have decided to adhere to the wishes of the victim’s family and will not seek the death penalty against Dwayne Carreker of New Brunswick at his retrial. They will instead seek a sentence of life in prison. “The victim’s mother has said she is more interested in justice and closure than she is with the death penalty,” said First Assistant Prosecutor William Lamb. Lamb noted that his office considered the victim’s family’s wishes and the result of the first trial against Carreker when deciding whether to proceed with a capital trial. Carreker’s first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a unanimous decision. The state was forced to reconsider its initial decision to seek the death penalty when the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that such a decision must be reviewed by a grand jury. (Courier News, February 6, 2004) See Victims and the Death Penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring led to the NJ decision requiring grand jury review.

State Supreme Court Rules for Grand Jury Rule Changes The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors who plan to seek the death penalty must submit that request to a grand jury for approval. Prior to the 4-2 ruling by the Court, prosecutors could decide to seek the death penalty as late as the middle of the trial. The Court’s decision was made in the case of Scott Fortin, and will probably affect other cases currently being prosecuted. The remaining 13 inmates on death row may not be affected unless the ruling is held to be retroactive. The Court’s decision brought the state’s procedures in line with the United States Supreme Court ruling in Ring v Arizona, making “aggravating factors” a functional element of the crime. Previously, such factors were not considered part of the crime, and therefore were not subject to review by the grand jury. (New York Times, February 4, 2004)

Attorney General, Lawyers Seek Freeze of Capital Cases New Jersey defense attorneys, with the support of the state’s attorney general and prosecutors, are seeking a statewide freeze of capital cases until the New Jersey Supreme Court can assess the state’s death penalty laws as they relate to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In a letter sent to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Assistant Attorney General Peter Harvey stated that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring is of “such tremendous statewide import” that all capital trials should be stayed until the matter is addressed. In Ring, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a death sentence violates a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury when the necessary aggravating factors must be determined by a judge rather than a jury. Defense attorneys have also argued that Ring applies to grand jury indictments in jurisdictions that require them, such as New Jersey. (New Jersey Law Journal, September 16, 2002) Read the article. Note: On Sept. 17, the N.J. Supreme Court lifted a stay in the case of Thomas Koskovich, thereby allowing his capital trial to continue.

New Mexico

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009.

Application to Mental Retardation A New Mexico trial judge recently ruled that part of the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional. In deciding Ruben Flores’s case, Judge Don Maddox ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona gives juries, not judges, the authority to determine whether a defendant is mentally retarded. Currently, judges determine whether a defendant is mentally retarded after conviction, but before his sentence is determined. (Albuquerque Journal, September 28, 2002)

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009 for future crimes. For crimes committed prior to the effective date of the law, the defense may choose a 2-jury system: first jury determines guilt or innocence and is then dismissed; second jury is death qualified and determines sentence. (NM Supreme Court order).

North Carolina

North Carolina Supreme Court Upholds Controversial Death Penalty Practice In a ruling that could affect nearly every death row inmate in the state, the North Carolina Supreme Court has upheld the practice of using indictments without aggravating factors in murder cases. The ruling came in the case of death row inmate Henry Lee Hunt. Hunt’s attorneys had argued that, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona, failure to include aggravating factors in first-degree murder indictments is a violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Grand juries issue indictments to inform defendants of specific charges, allowing for the preparation of a defense and preventing the state from convicting the defendant of something else. All of the prisoners on the state’s death row were convicted in cases using a short-form indictment. (Herald Sun, July 16, 2003). Executions in the state were stayed as the North Carolina Supreme Court considered this case. See Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Stays Execution in Light of Ring The North Carolina Supreme Court stayed the execution of Henry Lee Hunt, deciding to hear arguments in April, 2003, about whether the indictment form used in his murder trial was constitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona. Hunt was scheduled for execution on January 24, but the court halted the execution to consider “whether the failure to include aggravating circumstances in the indictment” that supports the death penalty is inconsistent with Ring. (Associated Press, January 22, 2003)


Federal Appeals Court Overturns District Court Ruling A federal appeals court overturned the ruling of U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III, who had ruled in a Vermont case that the federal death penalty law’s relaxed standards for presenting evidence at sentencing was unconstitutional. The appeals court ruling said judges are “evidentiary gatekeepers” and thus may decide what is relevant for the sentencing phase of death penalty trials. (Associated Press, March 2, 2004)

Judge Rules Federal Death Penalty Unconstitutional On September 24, 2002, a federal judge in Vermont declared the federal death penalty unconstitutional in the second such ruling in less than three months. U.S. District Judge William Sessions said the law does not adequately protect defendants’ rights. The ruling, in the case of U.S. v. Donald Fell, No. 2:01-CR-12-01 (District Court of Vermont), is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona holding that certain elements of the death penalty sentencing process are equivalent to a finding of guilt. Judge Sessions therefore concluded that the same rules of evidence should apply to determining death eligibility as are applied to the guilt-innocence phase of the trial. Judge Sessions wrote:

If the death penalty is to be part of our system of justice, due process of law and the fair trial guarantees of the Sixth Amendment require that standards and safeguards governing the kinds of evidence juries may consider must be rigorous, and constitutional rights and liberties scrupulously protected.

Federal Judge’s Ruling Could Have Greater Impact: The basis for the recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional (see above) is that Congress allowed relaxed standards for admitting evidence at the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial. Given what is at stake, life or death, the highest standards used to determine guilt should also be used in determining eligibility for a death sentence, the opinion said. Some states also use a relaxed standard at sentencing (see, e.g., Fla. Stat. sec. 921.141 (2002)), and if the decision in U.S. v. Fell is upheld or adopted by state courts, it could affect state, as well as federal, sentences. Judge Sessions wrote: “using a relaxed evidentiary standard for the determination of death-eligibility factors will not satisfy the demands of due process and the Sixth Amendment rights of confrontation and cross-examination.” Fell, at 30. He further challenged the government’s contention that death sentencing permitted weaker rules of evidence: “In effect, the government would approve death eligibility as the federal criminal justice system’s sole exception to the practice of requiring that offense elements be proven by admissible evidence comporting with due process and fair trial guarantees. This makes no sense.” Fell, at 37.

Supreme Court Vacates Federal Death Sentence The Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of federal death row inmate Billie J. Allen and remanded the case back to the Eighth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the Court’s recent ruling in Ring v. Arizona. Allen was sentenced under federal law, which provides that the jury determine whether certain aggravating factors exist. However, the specific factors that the government intends to prove have not been part of the indictment, which appears to be required by Ring. (New York Times, June 29, 2002). UPDATE : Allen’s sentence was reduced by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to life in prison when it ruled that the aggravating factors necessary to support his execution were not included in the original Federal indictment. (February 5, 2004, St Louis Post Dispatch).