Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 25, 2002

State reviews



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BNI Newswire

Attorney General Bill Pryor said his office is reviewing a Monday U.S. Supreme Court ruling over death penalty sentences handed down by judges.

Seven of the nine justices ruled that juries, not judges, must decided whether a person is sentenced to death. Five states are immediately affected by the decision, but several others – including Alabama – are in a gray area.

"Although the court ruled that Arizona’s manner of capital sentencing by judges only is in violation of the Sixth Amendment, it did not hold unconstitutional the sentencing procedure in Alabama, where both the judge and jury play a role," Pryor said in a statement. "As the court itself specifically noted, Alabama’s sentencing system is different from that which was ruled unconstitutional in Arizona.

"In Arizona, the jury makes a finding only of whether the defendant is guilty, and the judge imposes the sentence of capital punishment. In Alabama, the jury, after determining all the facts, makes a finding of guilt or innocence and also makes a recommendation of death or life without parole, which the judge considers in his final sentencing."

Two attorneys who work with death penalty cases told The Associated Press that more than 40 inmates could have their death sentences overturned because of the ruling, because a judge sentenced them to death after a jury recommended life.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a dissenting opinion that she believes the ruling opens the door for inmates in four states, including Alabama, to appeal their sentences.

The court ruled that Arizona’s sentencing procedure is unconstitutional because that state’s juries are prohibited from participating in the penalty phase of a capital case and are not allowed to find aggravating circumstances, the finding of which, the court said can elevate a sentence of life imprisonment to death.

The court noted that Alabama’s sentencing scheme is a "hybrid system" that is different from Arizona’s.

Alabama requires prosecutors to present evidence of aggravating circumstances to the jury.

"Today’s decision does not hold that Alabama’s sentencing scheme is unconstitutional simply because the jury makes a sentencing recommendation to the trial judge who actually sentences the defendant to death or life without parole," Pryor said. "The court specifically did not address the issue of whether this manner of judicial sentencing is constitutional."

Pryor said one Alabama inmate – Gary Leon Brown – earlier had his execution stayed pending the decision the Supreme Court made today. But, according to Pryor, that death sentence does not violate the decision because the trial judge relied on aggravating circumstances found by the jury.