Arizona decision is basis of Md. killer Oken's appeal

States taking fresh look at death-penalty laws

February 14, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Timothy Ring was a part-time Arizona bail bondsman and a low-ranking FBI informant when, in 1994, he shot and killed the driver of a Wells Fargo armored car outside the Dillard's department store in Glendale, Ariz. Three years later, an Arizona judge sentenced Ring to death.

But Ring was never executed. Instead his case evolved into what capital defense attorneys nationwide say is one of their biggest legal opportunities in years to fight the death penalty.

Since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that Ring had been sentenced unconstitutionally, Ring vs. Arizona has been the basis of countless death-penalty appeals - including that of convicted murderer Steven H. Oken, who received a stay of execution this week so the Maryland Court of Appeals could consider Ring's impact on the state's capital punishment law.

Some states, such as Delaware and Arizona, have changed their death-penalty statutes because of Ring. In others, such as Maryland and North Carolina, court decisions are pending.

"I'm not aware of any decision that has had as much of a reach as this decision has had so far," said Ken Rose, director of the North Carolina-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a group that assists in capital defense.

"It's required that a lot of these states take a fresh look at the fairness of their death-penalty statutes. And I think some of them are coming to the conclusion that they're not fair."

Prosecutors and death-penalty advocates counter that Ring should have a limited impact and many attempts to use the case are legal stretches at best.

"Ring requires a fairly small number of states to change their laws," said Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports crime victims.

"The defense is claiming it has more far-reaching effects in a lot more states. That's what's happening in Maryland. I think that claim is bogus."

But even death-penalty advocates acknowledge that the Arizona case has opened a floodgate.

"There's a lot going on on this, although few final decisions," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. "There may be another Supreme Court case before this is all over.

"With so many states looking at this, they're probably going to come to different conclusions about what Ring means."

Although defense attorneys have recently brought up myriad arguments based on Ring, the Arizona inmate's lawyers focused last year on one narrow part of Arizona law.

Arizona had said that it was a judge's role to decide whether to give the death penalty, even though that meant the judge would make some factual findings - whether the defendant was the one who actually killed the victim, for example - without the jury.

Ring's challenge claimed that situation was unconstitutional. Those factual findings were elements of the crime, the appeal said, and should be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The U.S. Supreme Court had looked at similar questions before and had given contradictory rulings.

In 1990, the court upheld Arizona's sentencing system in Walton vs. Arizona. But in 2000, the high court ruled in Apprendi vs. New Jersey that a jury needs to make any factual decisions that could elevate a defendant's sentence.

Last year, when the court looked at Ring's case, the majority decided that either Apprendi or Walton needed to be overturned. It decided to scrap Walton, saying that a defendant in a capital case had a right to a jury sentencing.

The impact of the Ring decision was most immediate in the five Western states where only judges sentenced defendants to death. Those states have all started changing their statutes to allow jury sentencing.

But defense attorneys elsewhere have also seized on the court's opinion.

"It's been pretty widely interpreted and pretty broadly interpreted," said Ring attorney John A. Stookey.

There are a variety of arguments, all based on the same premise.

In Maryland, both Oken, 41 - who killed three women, including a White Marsh newlywed - and Courtney Bryant, a 20-year-old convicted of murdering the manager of the Hunt Valley Burger King, have argued that Ring makes the state's death-penalty law unconstitutional because of how the jury makes its sentencing decision.

To sentence someone to death in Maryland, a jury must decide by a preponderance of the evidence whether aggravating factors, such as another felony committed with the murder, outweigh mitigating factors, such as a defendant's difficult childhood.

Bryant and Oken say that, according to Ring, the question of whether the aggravating outweigh the mitigating circumstances is an element of the crime, and therefore it should be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled against this argument before. But the Ring decision, defense attorneys say, changes the playing field.

The Maryland high court's actions seem to indicate it is taking the argument seriously. On Tuesday, it postponed Oken's execution for raping and murdering the White Marsh woman from next month until at least May, saying it wanted to hear arguments on the Ring issue. It has heard arguments in the Bryant case.

If the court rules in Oken's and Bryant's favor, it could mean that all of the state's 12 death-row inmates would receive new sentencing hearings.

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