Wednesday, January 11, 2006


A divided Supreme Court reinstated a California inmate’s death sentence yesterday, the first 5-4 vote under newly installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Justices overturned an appeals court ruling that declared Ronald Sanders’ sentence unconstitutional. Sanders was put on death row for the 1982 killing of a woman during a drug-related robbery in Bakersfield, Calif.

The case presented a technical question for the court involving jurors’ consideration of invalid aggravating factors. Two of the four special circumstances used by prosecutors in their case against Sanders — that the crime was committed during a burglary and was cruel or heinous — were later found invalid.

California argued that Sanders would have been eligible for a death sentence even without those factors. The Supreme Court’s five conservative members agreed.

“The erroneous factor could not have ‘skewed’ the sentence, and no constitutional violation occurred,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Roberts, retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Dissenting, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “This decision is more likely to complicate than to clarify our capital sentencing jurisprudence.” He was joined in dissent by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, although their reasons varied.

The ruling was the court’s first death penalty decision since Justice Roberts succeeded Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist last fall. Justice Scalia cited a previous decision by Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. that also went against a death row inmate. In his lengthy dissent, Justice Breyer said the court’s finding could “deprive a defendant of a fair and reliable sentencing proceeding.”

The decision was announced as senators questioned Judge Alito in his confirmation hearing. Judge Alito has been a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the past 15 years.

“Replacing Justice O’Connor with Alito in this opinion would not have made a difference,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty group.

Justice Scalia referred to an Alito appeals court opinion in a footnote of yesterday’s ruling. In the 1995 case, Flamer v. Delaware, Judge Alito said that death row inmate William Flamer did not deserve a new sentence despite his challenge to the jury’s consideration of certain factors. Flamer was executed the following year.

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