News Release

Ninth Circuit decision affirms importance of jury input, attempts to limit arbitrariness in death sentences

Concurring opinion key to understanding of retroactivity 

Washington, DC (September 3, 2003) -- E.E. "Bo" Edwards, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, today issued the following statement in response to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Summerlin v. Stewart, which made the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona (finding death sentences by judges, rather than juries, unconstitutional) retroactive in its application:

"In Ring, the Supreme Court focused on the historical importance of the role of juries as the conscience of the community. The right of a criminal defendant to place his fate in the hands of his or her peers is a key underpinning of our criminal justice system.

"The Ninth Circuit confronted the cases of death row inmates who had been sentenced by judges, not juries, whose appeals were complete before Ring was decided. The court held that the timing of the appeal was not determinative, and applied Ring retroactively. However, it is significant to note the concurring opinion of Judge Stephen Reinhardt to understand why the government's arguments to the contrary are both unreasonable and wrong.

"Judge Reinhardt's concurrence very eloquently points out how arbitrary considerations often determine who receives the death penalty. But the arbitrariness must end somewhere. No one can legitimately argue that allowing an unconstitutional death sentence to be carried out, simply because the appeals process has run, is not arbitrary in a most cruel, callous, and unjustifiable way." 

Edwards is a criminal defense lawyer in Nashville. He can be reached at (615) 356-5037.

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.