Judicial Notebook

During its 2001-02 term, the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases involving capital punishment, holding that executing mentally retarded defendants is unconstitutional (Atkins v. Virginia). The cases also reiterated that due process entitles capital defendants whose dangerousness is at issue to inform the jury that if they are given a life-sentence (in lieu of a death sentence), they will not be eligible for parole (Kelly v. South Carolina). In its most recent ruling in a capital case, Ring v. Arizona (122 S. Ct. 2428, 2002), the court held that jurors, not judges, must determine the facts that result in a capital sentence.

Background on the case

In Ring, a jury had convicted the defendant, Timothy Ring, of first-degree felony murder for the shooting death of the driver of an armored van in a 1994 armed robbery. Under Arizona's procedures for capital cases, once the jury had determined Ring's guilt, the trial judge was responsible for setting Ring's sentence as either life in prison or death. Ring could only be sentenced to death if the trial judge, in evaluating the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the case, determined that there was at least one aggravating factor and that it was not outweighed by any mitigating factors. After a sentencing hearing at which additional evidence was adduced, the trial judge determined that aggravating circumstances did exist, that these aggravators were not outweighed by the sole mitigating factor and that a sentence of death was appropriate.

On appeal of his death sentence, Ring argued that the Arizona capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional under the Court's recent ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey (530 U.S. 466, 2000). Although the Court, in Walton v. Arizona (497 U.S. 639, 1990), had previously approved the Arizona sentencing procedures, Ring argued that Walton could not be reconciled with the Court's reasoning in Apprendi.

In Apprendi, the defendant was convicted of second-degree possession of a firearm, an offense with a 10-year maximum sentence. Because the judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's crime had been motivated by racial hatred, this maximum sentence was increased to 20 years under New Jersey's "hate crime" sentencing-enhancement law. Based on this enhancement, the defendant was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The Court held that this sentence violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right "to a jury determination that [he] is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged beyond a reasonable doubt." In other words, the Court found that a defendant could not be "expose[d]...to a penalty exceeding the maximum he would receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone."

In Ring, the Court had to consider the implications of the rule announced in Apprendi for the Arizona capital sentencing scheme. The Court found that Arizona sentencing judges were required to make additional findings about the existence of statutory aggravating and mitigating circumstances that could expose the defendant to a death sentence. In the absence of these additional findings, "[b]ased solely on the jury's verdict finding Ring guilty of first-degree felony murder, the maximum punishment he could have received was life imprisonment."

Thus, the Court, on the basis of Apprendi, found the judicial sentencing procedure unconstitutional and overruled its holding in Walton "to the extent that it allows a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury, to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty."

Implications for psychology

Under the Court's ruling in Ring, jurors, not judges, must make the factual determinations involving aggravating and mitigating circumstances. However, psychological research suggests that jurors have difficulty understanding the concepts of aggravation and mitigation, particularly mitigation, and even misconstrue individual factors as falling in the opposite category (see e.g., Benetle & Bowers, 2001; Haney & Lynch, 1994; Haney & Lynch, 1997). Moreover, a number of studies have demonstrated that decision-makers' level of understanding of the capital sentencing jury instructions influences their use of the evidence and their sentencing decisions (e.g., Lynch & Haney, 2000; Weiner et al., 1998).

More research is needed to further understand the relative abilities of judges and jurors to make determinations involved in capital sentencing decisions, to improve jurors' understanding of the relevant concepts and to understand how other aspects of capital cases (e.g., voir dire or case characteristics) can impact jurors' sentencing decisions.