Judges Barred From Overturning Jury Decisions

By: Doug Lee

Death penalty abolitionists won an important victory June 24 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only a jury could decide sentences in capital punishment cases. By a 7-2 decision in Ring v. Arizona, the Court declared sentencing solely by a judge to be a violation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

This ruling, which only directly affects cases in Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Nebraska, means that judges will no longer be able to override a jury’s decision and impose death when the jury had decided on a lesser sentence. Since judges tend to impose death more often than juries do, this ruling will result in fewer people being sentenced to death. Of more than 160 cases where a judge did impose a death sentence, these death row inmates could receive commutations or resentencing.

The impact of this decision will be felt nationally, bringing more public attention to the errors committed in cases involving the death penalty. Like the recent ruling of the Supreme Court that bans the execution of the mentally ill, the ruling is a stepping-stone towards abolition.

The criminal justice system seems to be bracing itself for a period of critical analysis of the death penalty by offering concessions in an attempt to quell rising sentiment against this flawed system.

Ring v. Arizona seems to be the acknowledgement of a fallible system. In this ruling, the Court overturned Apprendi v. New Jersey, a case that gave judges the authority to lengthen capital punishment sentences in instances of a hate crime. Justices on the bench have responded to pressure placed on them by attempting to restabilize the conditions in which executions can occur, engaging in an action they have always avoided. By overturning a prior ruling, the Supreme Court has essentially admitted to making an error.

With continual pressure, decisions such as Ring v. Arizona will occur; every action by the public will demand a response from the system. Ultimately, activists, such as members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, will pave the way towards abolition through the mobilization of a visible movement against capital punishment.