The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a man who arranged for his wife's murder could be sentenced to life in prison in the state where the murder was committed and then sentenced to die in the electric chair in the state where the woman was abducted.
The court, in a 7-to-2 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said the Constitution's ban on double jeopardy did not stop Alabama from executing Larry Gene Heath, even though he had earlier pleaded guilty to the same murder in Georgia.
"When a defendant in a single act violates the 'peace and dignity' of two sovereigns [states] by breaking the laws of each, he has committed two distinct" crimes, O'Connor said in Heath v. Alabama.
If the federal government and a state can prosecute someone for the same crime, she said, so can two separate states if there has been a violation of the "peace and dignity" of each.
Heath hired two men for $2,000 in 1981 to kill his wife, who was nine months pregnant. The men abducted her from the couple's home in Alabama and shot her after crossing the nearby border into Georgia.
Heath, seeking to avoid a death sentence, pleaded guilty to murder in Georgia on the understanding that he would get a life sentence and become eligible for parole in seven years.
Alabama authorities then indicted, convicted and sentenced Heath to die for "murder during a kidnaping" that began in Alabama.
Heath is now on death row in Alabama but no execution date has been set, according to his attorney.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., dissented, saying the majority's reasoning, even if it could justify prosecutions in different states, "could not legitimate the collusion between Georgia and Alabama in this case to ensure that [Heath] is executed."
The second prosecution, Marshall said, should be overturned both as a violation of the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy for the same crime and as an "affront to the due process guarantee of fundamental fairness."
In another opinion yesterday, the justices said federal courts have broad power to review state court judges' decisions on whether confessions in criminal cases were voluntary.
Justice O'Connor, writing for eight justices in Miller v. Fenton, said a federal appeals court should not have deferred to a state court's assessment that a New Jersey man confessed voluntarily.
An appeals court had let stand a confession of a man convicted of murdering a 17-year-old girl in rural New Jersey 12 years ago.
The suspect, Frank M. Miller Jr., was questioned for about an hour by a detective who sympathized with Miller and offered to help him get psychiatric assistance because, the detective told him, "you are not responsible."
Miller eventually confessed, collapsed in shock and was taken to the hospital, O'Connor said.
The appeals court allowed the confession to be used as evidence, citing recent Supreme Court decisions reinforcing state trial judges' discretion to resolve factual questions.
The case asked the court to define precisely what is a factual dispute and what is a dispute over the law. Under federal law, federal courts generally must assume that trial court rulings on factual matters are correct. But federal judges have greater leeway in assessing state judges' handling of questions of law.
O'Connor, acknowledging that the justices have not "charted an entirely clear course in this area," said questions over the voluntary nature of a confession are matters of law and can be reviewed by federal judges.
"The ultimate question [of] whether . . . the challenged confession was obtained in a manner compatible with the requirements of the Constitution is a matter for independent federal determination," O'Connor wrote.
The high court, with Justice William H. Rehnquist dissenting, said the appeals court was incorrect in thinking state judges had the last word in reviewing confessions.