Justices uphold death sentence

5-4 ruling in Ariz. case shows again a close split on capital punishment

May 15, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In another reversal of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court restored a death sentence yesterday for a two-time Arizona murderer who told his trial judge, "If you want to give me the death penalty, just bring it right on."

The judge accepted the invitation and in 1990 sentenced Jeff Landrigan to die for the murder and robbery of Chester Dyer. Landrigan was in Arizona after escaping from a prison in Oklahoma where he was serving time for murder.

During his sentencing hearing, Landrigan said he did not want his mother or his former wife to testify in his behalf. He also told the judge that he wanted no "mitigating" evidence to be considered.

But last year, the 9th Circuit overturned Landrigan's death sentence on the grounds that his lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence on his behalf.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court reversed that ruling and said Landrigan's "exceedingly violent past" made him a fitting candidate for the death penalty.

The judge "had seen firsthand his belligerent behavior," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

Moreover, "Landrigan's mitigation evidence was weak," Thomas said.

The justices concluded that Arizona's courts had acted reasonably in upholding Landrigan's death sentence and that the 9th Circuit erred by intervening on his behalf.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Thomas in the majority.

Yesterday's ruling probably will not have a wide impact because of the unusual nature of Landrigan's appeal. After having turned away at his trial any claims to spare his life, Landrigan filed appeals in the state and federal courts urging that his sentence be reconsidered.

He lost in the Arizona courts and before a federal district judge, but the 9th Circuit took his side on a 9-2 ruling.

But yesterday's decision shows again that the Supreme Court is closely split on capital punishment, with Kennedy holding the deciding vote.

With Kennedy in the majority, the justices regularly have stepped in to overturn liberal rulings from the 9th Circuit. It was the third time this term the court has overturned the 9th Circuit to restore a death sentence or murder conviction.

At the same time, the justices also have reversed a series of conservative rulings from the courts in Texas. Last month, for example, the court reopened three death penalty cases from Texas on the grounds that juries had not been given a fair chance to consider mitigating evidence before sentencing a murderer to die.

The difference between the two sets of rulings turns on Kennedy. He has joined with the court's conservative bloc to reverse the 9th Circuit, while also joining the liberal bloc in the Texas cases to reopen the death penalty cases.

Yesterday, Justice John Paul Stevens filed a dissent in the Arizona case. He argued that Landrigan's trial lawyer had failed to investigate his client's past.

"A more thorough investigation would have revealed that [Landrigan] suffers from an organic brain disorder," he said. That disorder might explain his violence and his repeated outbursts in the court, Stevens wrote.

Although this evidence might not have persuaded a judge or jury to spare his life, it should be examined in a further hearing before Landrigan is put to death, Stevens said.

Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined his dissent.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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