Killers allowed to ask jury for life sentence

June 18, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Convicted murderers facing a possible death sentence have a constitutional right -- limited in scope -- to try to convince the jury that society will be just as safe from them if they are sent to prison for life, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The information that a life sentence means an inmate will stay behind bars permanently, the court said in the 7-2 decision, may be used to offset pleas by prosecutors that murderers are so dangerous that executing them is the only way to protect society.

The right, however, will exist only in those states where a life prison sentence actually means lifelong imprisonment, with no chance of parole, and that sentence is the only alternative to execution.

The issue is not expected to arise in Maryland, since juries in the state weighing a prosecution plea for a death sentence always are told that they have three specific options: death, life in prison, or life in prison without parole.

Yesterday's ruling prompted an angry dissent from two justices who argued that death penalty foes "have successfully opened yet another front in their guerrilla war to make this unquestionably constitutional sentence a practical impossibility."

The dissenters, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that the ruling will open "a whole new chapter" in the court's history of creating special legal rules just for capital punishment cases.

The ruling came in a splintered decision in a South Carolina case. No opinion had the votes of a majority. The outcome emerged from a combination of a four-justice opinion written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun and a three-justice opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Since the O'Connor opinion was narrower, it is likely to count the most with lower courts. That opinion said that the new right created by the ruling exists only when the prosecutor explicitly argues to the jury that the individual will be dangerous in the future, and uses that as a reason in favor of a death sentence.

The ruling came in the case of Jonathan Dale Simmons of Columbia, S.C., who was sentenced to die for murdering a 79-year-old woman. The conviction was his second for a violent crime, so under South Carolina law a life sentence meant that he would never be eligible for parole.

Since life-without-parole is the only alternative to a death sentence in that state, Simmons contended that the jury must be told that there is no parole for a lifer so that jurors have full information when they make a life-or-death choice.

The prosecutor stressed to the jury how dangerous Simmons was. The prosecutor noted that Simmons had been convicted of other assaults on older women, including his own grandmother. Giving Simmons a death sentence, the prosecutor said, would be a matter of "self-defense" for society.

The trial judge granted the prosecution's demand that no mention could be made of the no-parole effect of a life sentence. When the jury asked if life meant there would be no parole, the judge said the jurors were not to consider that issue in their deliberations. Less than a half-hour later, the jury came in with a death sentence.

Justice O'Connor's opinion said that, when a prosecutor seeks to show how dangerous a convicted murder will be, "the fact that he will never be released from prison will often be the only way that a violent criminal can successfully rebut the state's case."

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