Close study ordered for death ruling Courts told to review 'mitigating' evidence

January 23, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With new Justice David H. Souter casting his first decisive vote, a deeply divided Supreme Court sternly ordered state appeals courts yesterday to examine carefully every fact that might indicate that a murderer did not deserve a death sentence.

In a 5-4 ruling that the dissenters called "radical" and "ill-advised," Justice Souter voted with the court's three liberals and one of its conservatives. As a judge, he previously had had no chance to take a position on capital punishment issues.

The decision means that state courts reviewing death sentences must look closely, on their own, at all "mitigating" evidence offered by a convicted murderer to show that death was not a proper sentence for that person and for that particular crime.

The court also took another action yesterday on the death penalty, throwing out a case that had seemed likely to test the majority's willingness to allow prosecutors to try to win death sentences by putting before jurors evidence of how a murder had harmed the victim's family.

Prosecutors have been forbidden to do that since the court, in a Maryland death row case in 1987, ruled out so-called "victim impact evidence" before juries as they decide for or against a death sentence for a convicted murderer. That ruling had been laid down in the case of Booth vs. Maryland, involving John "Ace" Booth of Pimlico.

Acting in an Ohio murder case, on which the justices had held a hearing just a week ago today, the court said it now feels it had been "improvident" in granting review of that case. While there was no further explanation, that is the word the court usually uses to indicate that a case, on closer study, does not actually raise the issue the court originally thought it did. The case was Ohio vs. Huertas (No. 89-1944).

The court's significant new capital punishment ruling yesterday, issued in the case of Parker vs. Dugger (No. 89-5961), requires Florida state courts to reconsider the death sentence of Robert Lacy Parker. The leader of a small-time, drug-pushing operation, he was sentenced to die for one of the murders that allegedly had been committed to terrorize individuals who owed him money.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a conservative member of the court but sometimes a moderate on death sentencing issues, wrote the ruling saying that state appeals courts act in an unconstitutionally "arbitrary" way if they do not look at all the facts of the "actual record" of each individual murderer's case before deciding whether death was the right sentence.

In the Parker case, Justice O'Connor wrote, the Florida Supreme Court "did not come to its own independent factual conclusion" about whether Parker should be spared from death because of evidence that he was intoxicated with alcohol or drugs at the time, that he had had a difficult childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father, that another man who did one of the actual shootings did not get a death sentence, and that Parker had had a good relationship with his children and his neighbors.

Joining in her opinion, besides Justice Souter, were the court's three liberal justices, Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Byron R. White was joined in dissent by three other conservatives: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.

The case

Robert Lacy Parker, a Florida death row inmate, was the central figure in the Supreme Court's major new capital punishment ruling. He was given a death sentence for his role in the murder of the 17-year-old girlfriend of a man who allegedly owed Parker money for drugs.

A jury convicted Parker of murder both in the young woman's death and in the separate death of her boyfriend, but the jury urged that Parker's life be spared on both crimes. A judge agreed on the boyfriend's murder, sentencing Parker to life in prison for that, but decided to impose death as a sentence for the young woman's killing.

The young woman had been lured from her home and taken to the place where her boyfriend's body had been left. She was shot to death by another man, and Parker then slit her throat.

Yesterday's ruling requires a new look by state courts at the death sentence for her murder.

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