Death-penalty evidence needn't be disclosed, court rules In 5-4 decision, justices find no constitutional right

June 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Convicted murderers do not have a constitutional right to be told all the damaging evidence that prosecutors will use to try to persuade a jury to impose a death sentence, a split Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Because no such right exists, the court said in the case of a Virginia inmate, the prisoner cannot ask a federal court to create one as a way of challenging his sentence.

Dividing 5-4, the court said an accused person's right at a sentencing hearing to contest a prosecution request for the death penalty does not include "a right to notice of the evidence which the state plans to use."

Its ruling came in the case of Coleman Wayne Gray of Portsmouth, Va., who has been sentenced to die for the execution-style murder of a store manager who had fired Gray's wife.

A prosecutor told Gray's lawyer that at the hearing, he would offer statements by an accomplice that Gray had bragged about another, similar murder, for which Gray was not charged. At the hearing, the prosecutor also offered testimony of a detective and a medical examiner to show that the two crimes were similar.

Gray went to federal court, claiming the prosecutor had improperly failed to give notice of the additional testimony. Gray said the prosecutor had misled him about the evidence to be offered.

Joining in a majority opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens.

But the court also ruled that lower courts should reconsider Gray's claim that he was intentionally misled. Thus, his death sentence may yet be overturned.

In a second ruling, the court said the government cannot be required to pay financial damages when a person enrolled in a federal program is discriminated against because of a disability.

The government, the court decided by a 7-2 vote, is immune to damage claims unless Congress expressly surrenders such immunity. Congress has not done so for a person involved in a program run by a federal agency, like the Merchant Marine Academy. Congress does allow damages for bias against disabled people who work for a government agency or take part in a government-funded program outside government.

Thus, James Griffin Lane, a cadet at the Merchant Marine Academy, failed in his plea for $75,000 in damages for having been illegally dismissed from the academy after he developed diabetes. He won reinstatement, but he wanted a damages payment, too.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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