A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentences of more than 100 inmates in Arizona, Idaho, and Montana, on grounds that a jury rather than a judge should have imposed the sentence.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals voted 8 to 3 in broadly interpreting a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional any system that permits a judge to decide who may be sentenced to die.
The appeals court made the high court’s decision retroactive, rejecting Arizona’s argument that it should apply only to inmates whose state appeals are still pending. “It means that 93 men and one woman on death row [in Arizona] will have their death sentences vacated,” said public defender Dale Baich in Phoenix.
Arizona will ask the high court to consider the issue, noting that another federal appeals court ruled that last year’s ruling applies only to convictions that are not yet final.
The decision will have no effect in California, which requires a jury to decide whether an inmate is eligible for the death penalty. It could spare the lives of as many as 22 death row inmates in Idaho and Montana as well as the 94 in Arizona.