- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

The Supreme Court reversed a Pennsylvania man’s death sentence yesterday, ruling that his lawyers missed details in his background including a possible mental illness that could have convinced a jury to spare the convicted murderer’s life.

The 5-4 ruling marks the third capital punishment reversal this year by the high court, which in March struck down the death penalty for minors.

The rulings show increased scrutiny of the death penalty by the court. But legal observers, anti-death penalty groups among them, say the cases should be perceived individually — not as a sign the justices are veering toward outlawing death sentences altogether.

“For many terms now we have seen a pattern where the U.S. Supreme Court is narrowing the circumstances under which a death penalty can be applied,” said David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

While the pattern “is continuing this year, it’s not taking us any closer to doing away with the death penalty,” Mr. Elliot said.

Last week, the high court struck down death sentences in two separate cases, citing issues of unconstitutional racial discrimination in jury selections. New trials were ordered for convicted killers Thomas Miller-El in Texas, and Jay Shawn Johnson in California.

The justices were near-evenly split in March, when they ruled 5-4 in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons, which declared it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on murderers who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at New York Law School, said that while some on the high court — namely Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — take a “consistently abolitionist” position on the death penalty, the apparent trend is to confine the sentence to the worst of the worst.

“Public support for the death penalty is at a five-year high,” Mr. Blecker said. “If we reach a point where the death penalty is applied to only those who are certainly deserving of it, public support for it will be at an all-time high. The U.S. Supreme Court may be a helpful instrument to get us to that point.”

Mr. Elliot, meanwhile, cited four recent cases in which the justices upheld the death penalty. But he said, “overall it’s been a good term” from an anti-death penalty standpoint because of the Roper ruling.

Yesterday’s case involved Ronald Rompilla, 56, who in 1998 fatally stabbed an Allentown saloon owner, then set the man’s body on fire.

Prosecutors argued for death based on “aggravating factors” such as the use of torture. Counter arguments by Rompilla’s family failed to sway the jury, which sided with the prosecution.

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed with an appeal by Rompilla, who said that his two court-appointed defense lawyers failed to research his background for “significant mitigating evidence about [his] childhood, mental capacity and health, and alcoholism.”

Rompilla said such evidence not only existed, but could have persuaded the jury to spare his life. A majority — Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Conner, Ginsburg and Breyer — ordered Pennsylvania to give Rompilla a new trial or reduce his sentence to life in prison.

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