High Court Upholds Broader Death Sentence Law
By Joan Biskupic
Deciding its first case under a new federal death penalty law, the Supreme Court yesterday made it difficult for condemned prisoners to appeal their sentences on the grounds that their juries received improper instructions.
In a 5-to-4 split along ideological lines, the justices upheld the death penalty for Louis Jones, the first person sentenced to die under a 1994 law that broadened federal capital punishment to include more than 40 crimes. The Army veteran was convicted in 1995 of kidnapping and killing Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old private at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.
The justices ruled that jurors need not be told that if they fail to agree on a sentence of death or life imprisonment, the judge will mandate the life sentence, rather than some lesser penalty. The ruling rejected Jones's assertion that the jurors in his case might have believed that if they deadlocked, the judge would give him a lighter sentence.
"The Eighth Amendment does not require that the jury be instructed as to the consequences of their failure to agree," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, spurning Jones's appeal.
The majority also said Jones's case was not harmed by federal prosecutors introducing evidence of the victim's youth and the impact of the murder on her family during the sentencing phase of Jones's trial, aggravating factors that Jones argued were too vague and not specifically permitted under the new Federal Death Penalty Act.
Thomas was joined in his opinion by the more conservative members of the court: Chief Justice William H. Rhenquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
"[T]his court's tolerance of the flaws" at Jones's sentencing, Ginsburg wrote for dissenting justices, disregards the court's rule that "accurate sentencing information is an indispensable prerequisite to a jury's determination of whether a defendant shall live or die."
As the first case the court has heard on the newly expanded federal death penalty, yesterday's dispute was closely followed. The last federal execution was in 1963, when Victor Feguer was hanged for murder and kidnapping. Today, there are 21 men on death row for federal crimes, the best known being Timothy J. McVeigh, convicted of killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Jones was charged under federal law because the kidnapping took place on an Air Force base. Following his conviction, Jones was eligible only for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release. But the judge erroneously mentioned "some other lesser sentence" in his instructions to the jury.
Jones contended in his appeal that these instructions confused jurors and led them to believe that unless they gave him the death penalty, he might end up with a less severe sentence than life and could one day be released from prison. The Supreme Court has said in the past – and yesterday's dissent emphasized – that a jury may be swayed toward the death penalty if it believes the defendant otherwise will serve less than life in prison.
But yesterday, in Jones v. United States, Thomas wrote that the 1994 law does not demand that jurors specifically be told that if they reach a deadlock, a judge will still sentence the defendant to life in prison. "[T]he government has a strong interest in having the jury express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death," Thomas wrote, and "a charge to the jury of the sort proposed by [Jones] might well have the effect of undermining this strong governmental interest."
The majority added that even assuming the jurors in Jones's case were confused about the consequences of deadlock, Jones failed to show the confusion hurt his case or affected his rights.
The dissenting justices said "The jury's choice was clouded by . . . misinformation" and argued that the case be returned to lower court so that the sentence could be "made by an accurately informed trier."
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