Friday, September 05, 2003


U.S. Court Overturns 100 Death Sentences

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court threw out an estimated 100 death sentences in Arizona and two other states Tuesday because the inmates were sent to death row by judges instead of juries.

The case stems from a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the high court found that juries, not judges, must render death sentences. But the Supreme Court left unclear whether the new rules should apply retroactively to inmates awaiting execution.

In an 8-3 vote, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said all condemned inmates sentenced by a judge should have their sentences commuted to life in prison.

The ruling applies only to Arizona, Idaho and Montana, the only states in the 9th Circuit that have allowed judges to impose death sentences.

Two other states, Nebraska and Colorado, have also allowed judges to sentence inmates to death. But the federal appeals courts that oversee them have yet to rule on the issue.

The ruling affects approximately 3% of the 3,700 people on death row in the United States.

Murray and attorneys for Arizona estimated that the decision affects around 100 inmates on that state's death row alone.

The ruling is expected to reduce the death sentences of at least 16 condemned inmates in Idaho. Montana Assistant Attorney General Pamela Collins said state attorneys were reviewing the decision to determine whether its five condemned inmates would be affected.

"This may cause some chaos in the short term. I don't think this is going to hold up," Collins said.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles statistics on capital punishment, calculated that since 1976, those five states have executed 29 people under laws allowing nonjury sentencing.