Historic Steps Toward Abolition

More than 150 death row inmates must be given new sentencing hearings because the sentencing structures that lead to their death sentences violate the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided.

The case in Ring v. Arizona comes just days after the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision banning the execution of mentally retarded inmates. Combined, these cases make the current Supreme Court term "the most favorable term in a quarter of a century, in terms of death penalty jurisprudence," said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"The fact is that even after 25 years of trying to 'reform' the death penalty, we are still discovering that there is no good way to determine who lives and who dies," Hawkins said. "The principle behind today's ruling is that juries, not judges, should make the final decision regarding sentencing. Justice is supposed to be impartial. But judges are elected by voters or appointed by governors, and when your job is at stake, impartiality can sometimes fall by the wayside."

Hawkins added that juries are more likely to sentence people to life in prison than judges. "Statistics tell us that judges are three times more likely to overturn a jury's recommendation of life than they are to overturn a jury's recommendation of death," he said. "Once again politics - and the fact that the judge's job and career can be at stake - interferes with the process. Politics should have no role in determining who lives and who dies."

Although today's ruling constitutes a victory, it could have been much broader, Hawkins said. Today's ruling apparently applies directly only to five states where juries have no say whatsoever in the process -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska. The Supreme Court did not strike down sentencing schemes in states such as Florida and Alabama, where juries make recommendations and judges have the discretion to accept or reject the recommendation.

"It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court did not strike down these sentencing procedures as well," Hawkins said. "The question we must ask the court is, under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does the jury get to make the final decision or doesn't it? We can only predict a new round of litigation in these states. Ultimately, the same reasoning that applies under Ring in Arizona must apply in Florida, Alabama, Delaware and Indiana."

David Elliot is the communications director at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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