Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. was on the panel that did not stop the 1999 execution of so-called House of Horrors murderer Gary Heidnik, and he has rejected other death-row appeals in his 15 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote the majority opinion turning down the claims of a killer sentenced to death in Lehigh County, Pa. – only to be overturned this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. Alito, nominated Monday to the Supreme Court, also has ruled in favor of murder defendants. He was on a three-judge panel that ordered a new penalty hearing in a York County case, and this year, he was part of a panel that upheld a ruling that a death sentence was unconstitutional.
“He doesn’t have a fixed opinion,” lawyer Peter Goldberger said about how his Yale Law classmate might view death-penalty cases if confirmed to the high court. Timothy Lewis, a former Third Circuit judge and death-penalty opponent, believes Alito’s “natural inclination toward judicial restraint” means that he would only reluctantly interfere with a death sentence. In the case decided by the high court this year, a convict cited ineffectiveness of a lawyer who failed to get records that might have persuaded a jury to vote for a life sentence, rather than death. Alito rejected the claim, which a dissenting judge called “shocking ineffective assistance of counsel.” In a 5-4 ruling joined by Sandra Day O’Connor, whom Alito would replace, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and said court-appointed trial lawyers had failed to look adequately for mitigating evidence.