Supreme Court Ruling Will Invalidate Most N.C. Death Sentences
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court overturned a key portion of North Carolina’s death penalty law Monday in a ruling that will invalidate the sentences of most of the 85 death row inmates in that state.
By a 6-3 vote, the court set aside a murderer’s death sentence because his sentencing jury was told not to consider any factor suggesting a lesser sentence unless all 12 jurors could agree on that factor.
The decision probably will not affect any death row inmate outside North Carolina.
″The system that was condemned is the system we’ve been using since 1977 for sentencing people to death,″ said Raleigh lawyer Malcolm Hunter Jr., who successfully challenged the North Carolina law. He said Monday’s ruling ″could have a very broad impact″ within the state.
A spokesman for North Carolina Attorney General Lacy Thornburg said as many as 70 death row inmates now must receive new sentencing trials.
In a separate decision, the court gave judges and prosecutors leeway in what they tell jurors choosing life or death for murderers, voting 5-4 to uphold a California man’s death sentence.
And in a third death-penalty ruling, the justices split 5-4 in ruling that an Oklahoma murderer is procedurally barred from contending that a jury wrongly was told to ignore ″sympathy″ before it sentenced him to death.
The rulings in the California and Oklahoma cases are not likely to affect many of the some 2,200 death row inmates across the nation.
In other matters Monday, the court:
-Agreed to decide whether Louisiana officials are violating an insane death row inmate’s rights by forcing him to take mind-altering drugs in an effort to make him sane enough so he be executed.
-Cut back severely the right of criminal defendants to attack their prosecutions on constitutional grounds after an initial set of appeals in state courts. The 5-4 ruling upheld a South Carolina murderer’s death sentence.
-Ruled, by a 5-4 vote in a Michigan case, that even when police questioning violates a criminal defendant’s right to legal help the responses may be used to contradict his trial testimony.
In the North Carolina death penalty case, the court set aside the death sentence of Dock McKoy Jr., convicted of the 1984 shooting death of Anson County Deputy Sheriff William Kress Horne.
Relying on their 1988 decision in a Maryland case, the justices said the jury that sentenced McKoy wrongly was limited in its consideration of ″mitigating evidence.″ Jurors were told they had to unanimously agree on the existence of each mitigating factor.
The requirement of unanimity was laid down in 1985, and the attorney general’s office believes Monday’s ruling will affect only defendants sentecned after that said Jim Coman, senior deputy attorney general. ″But I’m sure all the attorneys for all the death row inmates will appeal.″
Writing for the court, Justice Thurgood Marshall said the unanimity requirement is unconstitutional.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor dissented.
The court upheld the California death sentence of Richard Boyde, who was convicted of the 1981 murder of Dick Gibson, a Riverside convenience store clerk.
Boyde’s sentencing jury was read a list of specific mitigating factors it could consider in choosing his punishment. Jurors also were told they could consider ″any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime.″ California courts no longer use that instruction.
Rehnquist, writing for the court, rejected arguments by Boyde’s lawyers that the instruction prevented jurors from considering factors regarding his background and character that might be deemed mitigating even if they did not lessen the crime’s gravity.
Justices Marshall, William J. Brennan, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens dissented.
In the Oklahoma case, the court never reached the merits of death row inmate Robyn Leroy Parks’ challenge of an ″anti-sympathy″ instruction his sentencing jury received.
Instead, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court that Parks was procedurally barred from raising that argument after having exhausted his direct appeals in state courts.
Parks was convicted of the 1977 killing of Abdullah Ibrahim, a gas station attendant in Oklahoma City.
The presiding judge told jurors, ″You must avoid any influence of sympathy, sentiment, passion, prejudice or other arbitrary factor when imposing sentence.″
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the instruction undermined the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence but that ruling was overturned.
Kennedy was joined by Rehnquist, White, O’Connor and Scalia.