WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday took action in two death penalty cases, rejecting a broad constitutional challenge to capital punishment from Louisiana and reversing a death sentence from Arizona.
The moves were in keeping with the court’s general approach in this area. It has been open to cutting back on the availability of the death penalty but not inclined to test its constitutionality.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, dissenting in Glossip v. Gross last year, urged his colleagues to consider the larger question. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” he wrote, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”
The case from Louisiana asked the justices to consider that question, but the court turned down the appeal without comment. Justice Breyer dissented and, as in Glossip, only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined him.
In the second case, Lynch v. Arizona, No. 15-8366, the court reversed a death sentence in an unsigned opinion, saying the jury had not been told an important fact: that the only alternative to a death sentence was life without the possibility of parole.
The case concerned Shawn P. Lynch, who was convicted of the 2001 kidnapping and killing of James Panzarella, whom he met at a bar in Scottsdale, Ariz. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty was warranted because Mr. Lynch posed a risk of future dangerousness. But they blocked defense lawyers from telling the jury that the only alternative sentence would have kept Mr. Lynch in prison for life.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a 1994 decision required the judge to tell the jury about the alternative or let defense lawyers do so. The unsigned opinion rejected the state’s argument that such statements were not required because executive clemency remained available and because the state Legislature may someday allow parole.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the 1994 decision was wrong. Justice Thomas accused the majority of micromanaging state sentencing procedures and imposing “a magic-words requirement.”
Source: The New York Times, Adam Liptak, May 31, 2016