Supreme Court to rule on multiple death sentences, insanity pleas High court also to decide two cases involving 'Miranda' rights

November 02, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider putting new limits on efforts to induce juries to impose more than one death sentence on multiple killers and to convict criminals who claim to be insane.

On a day filled with actions on criminal law issues, the court also said it would return to the controversial issue of "Miranda warnings," probably to spell out more explicitly what police may do when they take someone in for questioning.

In other areas of the law, the court refused to get involved in the simmering constitutional dispute in Colorado over the political rights of gay residents.

But the court agreed to step into the midst of a hot international dispute over business taxes imposed by American states on the overseas income of parent firms or their subsidiaries that do some business in the United States.

All of the activity yesterday came in brief orders by the justices, primarily dealing with newly filed cases. These were its actions on criminal cases:

* It agreed to decide whether a death sentence for a multiple murderer is unconstitutional if a jury voted for that penalty after being told the killer already faced execution for another crime. An Oklahoma death row inmate's appeal claims that word of the prior death sentence eases the jury's worry over adding a similar sentence.

* It said it would rule on the legality, in federal trials, of a judge's refusal to tell the jury that a criminal suspect will not be freed, but will have to go to a hospital, if found not guilty of a crime because of insanity.

A Mississippi man convicted of an illegal weapon charge -- despite his claim of insanity -- contends that juries must be told a verdict of insanity doesn't mean a defendant will be back on the street. Insanity verdicts make hospitalization mandatory, a fact that should be told to the jury, he argued.

* In one of two new cases raising issues about the duty of police to give suspects "Miranda warnings" about their rights, the court said it will offer new guidance on what police may do when an individual they are questioning says something about wanting a lawyer but does not make a distinct request for one.

The issue arose in the case of a sailor convicted of murdering another sailor over a $30 bet at the Charleston, S.C., Navy base. The convicted sailor wants the court to rule that all questioning must stop once the idea of a lawyer is mentioned in any way -- a view accepted by some, but not all, lower courts.

* In the other "Miranda" case, the court indicated it will try to define more specifically the conditions that must exist between police and an individual they are questioning before the officers become duty bound to warn him about his rights. No warnings are required if that individual is not being held involuntarily. The issue arose in the case of a California death row inmate, a former ice cream truck driver convicted of killing a 10-year-old girl in Los Angeles.

In one other action in the criminal law field, the court gave the Clinton administration a chance to narrow the scope of the 1977 federal criminal law against child pornography -- a move that has produced a sharp public complaint by conservative organizations.

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia had ruled a year ago that the child pornography law makes it a crime to distribute photos or films showing children in sexually suggestive ways, even if the children's genitals are covered by clothing. So long as the material focuses on the area of a child's genitals, the law is violated, the appeals court ruled in the case of a State College, Pa., man.

Although the Bush administration had supported that result, the Clinton administration changed the government's legal stance in September. It told the court that the law is violated only if the images show "the body parts themselves," either by direct exposure or by unmistakable appearance under the clothing.

The court told the appeals court in Philadelphia to consider the government's new argument.

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