Murder juries weighing death sentence aren't due extra guidance, court says

Supreme Court rules 5-4 that initial instructions by judge to jury are sufficient

January 20, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If a jury in a murder case is confused over whether it can impose a life sentence instead of death, the judge has no constitutional duty to give new guidance about its choices, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday.

So long as the judge's initial instructions to the jury were valid, jurors' uncertainty about them does not obligate the judge to tell the jury that it remains free to choose life over death -- even if the jury specifically asks for new guidance, the court declared.

The ruling appeared to doom a Virginia death row inmate, Lonnie Weeks Jr., 27, who was two hours away from being executed in September when the court stepped in and agreed to hear his appeal. He was sentenced to die for gunning down, with "man-stopper" bullets, a Virginia state trooper who had stopped Weeks' car for speeding on an interstate highway south of Washington seven years ago.

Twice during the jurors' deliberations on a sentence, they asked the judge to clarify instructions about their options. Both times, the judge referred them to instructions he had already given.

The second question by the jurors -- the focus of yesterday's ruling -- asked whether they could still refuse to impose a death sentence if they found that Weeks' conduct technically satisfied the rules for a death penalty.

The judge refused a defense lawyer's suggestion that jurors be told that a life sentence remained an option if they were convinced by evidence favorable to Weeks -- including his background and his "remorse" over the killing.

After more than two hours of further deliberation, the jury came back with a death sentence. When the jurors were polled about their sentence, they all said they stood behind it. But a court reporter noted that most of the jurors were "in tears."

Yesterday's ruling by the court reflected starkly different interpretations among the justices about what had happened.

The majority said that the jury had received the clarification it needed and carried out its duty. The dissenters contended that it was obvious the jurors felt compelled to impose a sentence even while remaining uncertain about life or death.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the main opinion, said there was only "a slight possibility" -- the word "possibility" was stressed -- that the jury felt obliged to ignore the evidence favorable to Weeks. That possibility is not enough to have made his sentence invalid, the majority said.

While it is impossible to know what the jurors were thinking in their final two hours of discussions, Rehnquist wrote, "the most likely explanation is that the jury was doing exactly what it was instructed to do."

If the jurors were still confused, the chief justice said, they could have asked more questions; they did not.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissenters, said: "Tragically, there is a reasonable likelihood that they [the jurors] acted on the basis of a misunderstanding of duty."

The dissenters accused the majority of relying upon "inapplicable presumptions and speculation" about the jurors' ultimate understanding of what they could do.

Stevens' dissent was supported by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

Joining with the chief justice to form a majority were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

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