Court Continues Tightening Curbs on Death Row Appeals
By Joan Biskupic
Over an impassioned dissent about fundamental fairness, the Supreme Court yesterday restricted the ability of death row prisoners to challenge sentences on the basis that jurors who condemned them were not told they could instead render a sentence of life in prison without parole.
By a 5 to 4 vote, the court upheld the death sentence of a Virginia murderer who had by making his case known on the Internet drawn the sympathy of Pope John Paul II and Italian legislators. Joseph Roger O'Dell III was convicted of rape, sodomy and murder in the 1985 slaying of Virginia Beach secretary Helen Schartner.
Yesterday's decision has broad significance for the years-long, much-criticized death penalty appeals process that allows prisoners to postpone execution dates through various constitutional challenges. The ruling is another step in the Supreme Court's march to limit state inmates in their ability to bring cases to federal court. In effect, the justices have made it harder for death row defendants to use favorable court decisions issued in other cases to appeal their sentence.
O'Dell, who has mounted several challenges, including an assertion of innocence based on DNA evidence, was trying in yesterday's case to attack his death sentence based on a 1994 Supreme Court decision that said when a prosecutor seeking the death penalty tries to establish a defendant's future dangerousness, jurors must be told if the defendant is ineligible for parole.
O'Dell said that although his conviction and death sentence became final in 1988, constitutional due process demanded he could use the ruling to try to escape Virginia's electric chair.
But yesterday, a narrow majority led by Justice Clarence Thomas said in O'Dell v. Netherland that the convicted murderer cannot take advantage of the high court's earlier decision. Thomas referred to a general court principle that a jury's good faith interpretation of legal principles at the time of a conviction could stand even when later rulings in other cases contradicted that interpretation. The court generally has said a defendant cannot challenge his conviction based on a new constitutional rule that a state court could not reasonably have predicted. Broadly reading that principle, Thomas said a jury could have concluded in 1988 at the time of the O'Dell trial that a state need not reveal whether a defendant sentenced to life was ineligible for parole. Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a strong dissent, insisting the 1994 case "applied a fundamental principle that is as old as the adversary system itself" and maintaining that the majority was discarding its usual concern for fairness in death sentences.
Stevens said O'Dell was unfairly denied the chance to respond to the prosecutor's misleading argument about his future danger to the community. Stevens was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
In a separate ruling, the court sided 6 to 3 with the federal government in a high-stakes land dispute with Alaska over ownership of offshore areas along the state's Arctic coastline. The ruling was a setback to Alaska's plan to allow oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a remote 19-million-acre wilderness at the state's northeastern corner. The state wants to tap oil reserves inside the wilderness as insurance against the eventual depletion of petroleum in nearby Prudhoe Bay. Environmentalists believe oil production would destroy a pristine wilderness that is home to Native American groups and a summer calving ground for 150,000 caribou.
The justices rejected a finding by a mediator who decided Alaska was entitled to tidal waters or "submerged lands" extending three miles off the coast, a finding that could have opened the area to offshore drilling. The federal government did not cede the disputed lands to Alaska when it was granted statehood nearly 40 years ago, the court said in United States v. Alaska.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.
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