The Supreme Court: Must a Jury Decide the Death Penalty?

Must a Jury Decide the Death Penalty?

Timothy Ring's road to death row started on November 28, 1994, when he and some friends decided to rob and murder a Wells Fargo driver, John Magoch, in Maricopa County, Arizona. Wells Fargo reported $800,000 in cash and checks missing after its courier Dave Morris finished a drop off at a Dillard's Department store and returned to find his Wells Fargo van missing.

There were no witnesses to the robbery or murder, but a bicyclist reported to police that he saw a white van followed by a red pickup truck that ran a stop sign on that afternoon. The police then got a lucky break in the case when an informant led the police to a girlfriend of James Greenham, who was a friend of Timothy Ring, who owned a red pickup truck.

Police got permission from the courts to listen in on phone calls between Greenham and Ring. During these conversations police heard the two scheme to disappear “up north” and negotiate payments. It became apparent during these conversations that Ring was holding Greenham's share of the money.

Police panicked Greenham when a detective left his card at Greenham's door. Greenham then made a call to Ring to warn him. Ring called a third man in the group, William Ferguson, and said cryptically, “I don't know what to think of it. Um, [Greenham's] house is clean. Mine, on the other hand, contains a very large bag.” Police continued to use various tactics over the next two days to panic the three, including issuing press releases with phony witness reports hoping to get one of the three to crack.

Finally after two days of playing these tricks, police showed up with a search warrant at Ring's home where they found a rifle outfitted with a homemade sound suppressor and a duffel bag with Ring's name on it and $271,681 cash inside. Police also found a note on Ring's headboard with the number $575,995.

Court Connotations

Circumstantial evidence is evidence given at a trial that is not directly from an eyewitness or participant. Circumstantial evidence is commonly perceived as weak by the public, but can include testimony about prior threats to a victim, fingerprints found at the crime scene, ownership of the murder weapon or being seen by a witness near the crime scene at the time the crime took place.

When adding the money found in the bag to the $575,995, it was about the same amount of cash Wells Fargo reported missing. Below that figure was the word “splits” and the letters “F,” “Y” and “T.” Police guessed that “F” was for “Ferguson,” “Y” for “Yoda,” Greenham's nickname, and “T,” for “Tim.”

All the information gathered accumulated to a lot of circumstantial evidence, but not hard evidence. No bullet was found, so Ring's rifle couldn't be tied to the crime. A jury found Ring guilty of murder, a capital offense in Arizona. Under Arizona law, a judge must decide whether someone convicted of murder gets death or life imprisonment. A jury alone cannot decide.

Ring never confessed to the crime and none of his accomplices did either. So there was no evidence directly connecting Ring to the murder. By the time of Ring's sentencing hearing, James Greenham made a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed robbery. Greenham testified at Ring's special sentencing hearing that Ring was the shooter and that Ring asked to be congratulated for his shot the day after the killing. He also named Ring as the one who organized the robbery and murder. This testimony was only heard by the judge. There was no jury present.

At Ring's sentencing hearing, the judge used Greenham's testimony to rule that Ring “is the one who killed Mr. Magoch” and that Ring showed “reckless disregard for human life.” Arizona law requires the judge to find beyond a reasonable doubt at least one aggravating factor in order to sentence a defendant to die. Thanks to Greenham's testimony, the judge found two:

Just the Facts

Jones v. United States set the precedent that removing a jury's control over the facts determining the “statutory sentencing range” would violate the Sixth Amendment. In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the United States Supreme Court held that “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” Both rulings seemed to indicate that all evidence must be heard by the jury before the death penalty can be imposed or the sentence would not meet the requirements of the Sixth Amendment.

  1. the murder was committed for money, and
  2. the crime was committed “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.”

Death penalty cases are granted an automatic direct appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. The state's highest court affirmed the sentence, rejecting arguments for a new trial. One argument did raise questions for one of Arizona Supreme Court justices. Justice Stanley Feldman, who wrote the opinion for the Arizona Court, asked whether two U.S. Supreme Court Cases—Jones v. United States in 1999 and Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000 made Arizona's sentencing procedure for capital cases unconstitutional. While the sentencing scheme had been ruled constitutional in a 1990 case Walton v. Arizona, the more recent rulings in Jones and Apprendi appeared to conflict with the older 1990 ruling allowing a judge to sentence a convicted criminal to death.

While the United States Supreme Court did say in its decision written in the Apprendi case that the Walton opinion stood because Arizona juries find defendants guilty of capital offenses before judges determine aggravating factors and apply the death penalty, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor questioned that stance and wrote in her dissent to Apprendi:

  • “A defendant convicted of first-degree murder in Arizona cannot receive a death sentence unless a judge makes the factual determination that a statutory aggravating factor exists …. If the court does not intend to overrule Walton, one would be hard pressed to tell from the opinion it issues today.”

Feldman agreed with O'Connor because the trial judge's determination of aggravating factors in Arizona death penalty cases was based solely on evidence presented at the sentencing hearing and never heard by the jury. Even given these facts, the United States Supreme Court justices who supported the majority opinion in the Apprendi case explicitly said that the Court did not mean to overturn Walton. Given that strong statement, Arizona's Supreme Court regarded its death penalty sentence scheme as constitutional and affirmed Ring's sentence.

The United States Supreme Court decided to hear the Ring case on January 11, 2002 and stayed the execution of a death-row inmate in Florida on January 23 because Florida's sentencing scheme was similar to Arizona's. Clearly the United States Supreme Court was ready to review the issue of Arizona's death penalty scheme and whether the 1999 and 2000 cases did overturn the Walton case on the issue of death penalty sentencing.

On June 24, 2002, the Court sided with Ring, and by a 7-2 vote, held that the sentences of those who were sentenced to die by judges, not juries, cannot stand. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the lead majority opinion and was joined by Kennedy, Souter, Scalia, Stevens, and Thomas. Breyer filed a concurring opinion. Justice O'Connor wrote the dissent and was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In writing her opinion for the Court, Justice Ginsburg said:

  • “We overrule Walton to the extent that it allows a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury, to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty.”

Ginsburg went on to say that the Court also found that Arizona's enumerated aggravating factors operate as “the functional equivalent of a greater offense,” and that the Sixth Amendment required that the jury be aware of these factors in order to determine appropriate sentencing. She added:

  • “Capital defendants, no less than non-capital defendants, we conclude are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in their maximum punishment.”

Since the jury during Ring's trial never heard the evidence used to determine a death sentence, the United States Supreme Court found that the judge imposed a stiffer penalty, the death penalty, based on evidence the jury never heard and therefore sentenced him beyond what the jury could consider. This was unconstitutional because the Sixth Amendment requires a jury trial.

Living Laws

A judge can only sentence you for crimes for which a jury has heard the evidence. If further evidence is offered at a sentencing hearing, you still cannot be sentenced to a stiffer penalty than would have been possible based on what the jury heard and decided.

The Court decided in Apprendi that the “Sixth Amendment does not permit a defendant to be 'expose[d] … to a penalty exceeding the maximum he would receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury alone.'” This decision came 10 years after the decision in Walton that held Arizona's sentencing scheme to be compatible with the Sixth Amendment.

The Apprendi ruling won out, to the dismay of Justice O'Connor, who wrote in a brief but pointed dissent that she would rather overrule Apprendi than Walton:

  • Apprendi's rule that any fact that increases the maximum penalty must be treated as an element of the crime, is not required by the Constitution, by history, or by our prior cases. And it ignores the 'significant history in this country of … discretionary sentencing by judges.'”

O'Connor believes the decision in Ring v. Arizona will open the floodgates to convicted defendants wanting to overturn their sentences. She added:

  • “I fear that the prisoners on death row in Alabama, Delaware, Florida and Indiana, which the Court identified as having hybrid sentencing schemes in which the jury renders an advisory verdict but the judge makes the ultimate sentencing determination, may also seize on today's decision to challenge their sentences.”

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.