WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, splitting 5-4 yesterday, put a new constitutional restriction on judges' or juries' power to impose a death sentence after prosecutors say they are not seeking that penalty.
Individuals on trial for murder and facing a potential sentence of death are entitled to be told that such a sentence is a definite enough risk so that their lawyers have a chance to mount a challenge to that penalty, the court declared.
The majority indicated that the Constitution requires more warning than simply having death specified, in state law, as one possible punishment for a given type of crime.
But it was not clear how far the new decision might reach in future cases, since the majority appeared to be dwelling upon "the unique circumstances" of the case before it -- a case involving a Texan sentenced to death in Idaho for his part in the bludgeoning murders of two campers.
Even so, the result in that case did depend upon the majority's conclusion that, in cases in which death is a potential punishment, there must be notice of the potential death penalty that is definite enough to warn the defense lawyer to put up a challenge.
In the Idaho case, Bryan Stuart Lankford of Houston and his brother, Mark, were accused of slaying a husband and wife at a campground near Santiam Creek, Idaho, after deciding to steal the couple's van.
When he first went to court on the charges, Bryan Lankford was told by the judge that the maximum penalty for the crime, by law, was death. The brothers were tried separately and convicted of double murders.
After Bryan Lankford was found guilty, but before he was sentenced, the trial judge ordered prosecutors to say whether they were seeking a death penalty for Bryan. Prosecutors, believing that Bryan had been influenced by his older brother and that the older brother actually had done the killings, formally declared that they were not seeking execution of Bryan.
At the sentencing hearing, nothing was said about death as a possible punishment. But afterward, the judge imposed that sentence anyway, saying he thought the brothers were equally to blame. The judge said it was enough notice to Bryan Lankford and his lawyers that death was specified by law as a potential punishment.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court majority overturned the death sentence and ordered Idaho courts to reconsider the case.
Saying that death is a "different kind of punishment" that requires especially fair procedures, the court noted that the "judge's silence" about a potential death penalty gave Bryan Lankford's lawyer "no way of knowing that the court" was even considering such a sentence.
An unusual feature of the new decision was that it marked the first time that Justice David H. Souter, who is in his first term on the court, took a different side than Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a major case.
Yesterday, Justice O'Connor joined the majority opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens while Justice Souter supported the dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Also in the majority in the case of Lankford vs. Idaho (No. 88-7247) were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy and Thurgood Marshall. Others in dissent were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Byron R. White.