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US Supreme Court Decides Death Penalty Can Only be Imposed by Juries - 2002-06-24

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled juries, and not judges, must decide whether to impose the death penalty in criminal convictions where capital punishment is an option. The decision could impact many of the 3,700 people on death row in America's prisons.

The decision could mean throwing out the sentences of hundreds of people on death row by letting juries reconsider the option of life without parole. In essence, the high court found a defendant's constitutional right to a trial by jury is undermined when a judge instead of a jury imposes the death penalty.

George Kendall, an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that opposes the death penalty, explains, "This is really about the 6th amendment and the fundamental right to a trial by jury. Before somebody can be sentenced to death, a jury as opposed to judges, must find the critical facts that makes one eligible for a capital sentence."

Immediately affected are more than 160 prisoners now on death row in five states where judges imposed the death penalty on convicted killers. Monday's high court decision effectively sends those sentences back for review. The decision could also affect the death sentences of hundreds of other inmates in several other states where juries are allowed to advise judges on whether to impose the death penalty.

Christopher Adams of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, considers the 7 to 2 ruling a key defeat for death penalty advocates. "This is truly a monumental decision today and it's going to save a whole lot of lives," he said, "It's historically what we had in the death penalty and it's nice that we've righted the system that had gone wrong. It's certainly going to [have] a huge impact in Arizona and Colorado and a few other states that rely exclusively on judge sentencing." While juries determine guilt or innocence, a handful of states leave it to trial judges to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed in capital crimes. Monday's decision marks the second time in several days that the Supreme Court has ruled on a case involving capital punishment. Last week, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.