Jury needs to know if parole is possible, court affirms

South Carolina case gives limited victory to death-penalty foes

March 21, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court handed death-penalty opponents an important but limited victory yesterday, reaffirming that defendants in certain cases are entitled to tell jurors that they will not be eligible for parole if sentenced to life in prison instead of to death.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that when a jury must choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment for someone who prosecutors say poses a threat to society, the defendant may point out that he could never be freed from prison.

Denying a defendant that opportunity, the court said, violates his constitutional rights.

"Due process requires that the jury be informed that a life sentence carries no possibility of parole," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority's opinion in a case from South Carolina.

The effect of yesterday's decision will be confined to South Carolina because the court had reached the same conclusion in a 1994 death penalty case.

As a result of that ruling, all other states have begun to inform juries when a capital defendant will be ineligible for parole.

But South Carolina claimed that the rule no longer applied to it because the state has since changed its sentencing laws.

Under the state's new laws, a murder defendant can be sentenced not only to death or life imprisonment but, alternatively, to a minimum of 30 years in prison. Therefore, the state argued, a defendant should not be allowed to argue that release is impossible.

The court rejected that argument, pointing out that only a judge, not a jury, can impose the 30-year sentence.

It also stressed the importance of telling jurors when life imprisonment includes no possibility of parole.

The case arose out of the conviction of Wesley Aaron Shafer Jr. for the 1997 murder of a convenience store clerk.

At his sentencing, Shafer's attorneys asked the judge to inform the jury that life in prison meant just that, with no chance of parole.

The judge refused, telling jurors instead that life in prison means "until the death of the offender."

When jurors sent the judge a note asking whether a convicted murderer could ever be released on parole, the judge told them not to worry about parole eligibility.

The jury returned a sentence of death, and Shafer's lawyers appealed.

Dissenting from yesterday's ruling were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

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