The Death Penalty and the Sixth Amendment: How Will the System Look after Ring V. Arizona?

Article excerpt


Throughout American legal history, there has never been a more controversial topic than the death penalty. Until recently, a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial1 did not extend to the determination of aggravating factors that would allow imposition of the death penalty under state law.2 Historically, that question was decided by a judge. In Ring v. Arizona,3 a six-member majority of the United States Supreme Court4 held that the Sixth Amendment's jury trial guarantee requires that a jury must find the existence of any aggravating factor legally necessary for imposition of the death penalty beyond a reasonable doubt.5 This decision will significantly affect the way each state's criminal justice system addresses capital punishment, particularly those permitting death sentencing by judicial decision.

This Note will analyze how the Ring decision will affect death penalty systems in states that have judicial capital sentencing systems and will explore Ring's effect on the hundreds of convicted defendants sitting on death row. Part I will analyze the issue in Ring as well as the state and federal struggles to distinguish two prior Supreme Court decisions that addressed sentencing procedures and the reasons that the Supreme Court granted certiorari. Part II will discuss the facts and holding of Ring and try to clarify any ambiguity surrounding the scope of the decision. Parts III and IV will provide a more detailed discussion of the decision, its effect, the disruption of death penalty systems in nine states, and the need to resentence many convicted capital defendants under a jury system. Part V will analyze the unprecedented changes in the capital punishment system in the United States caused by Ring.


The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Ring to resolve the difficulty courts were having distinguishing two of the its prior holdings,6 Walton v. Arizona7 and Apprendi v. New Jersey.8 In Walton, a jury convicted the defendant of first-degree felony murder9 under Arizona's penal code for the death of Thomas Powell.10 In accordance with Arizona's sentencing procedures,11 the trial judge conducted a separate sentencing hearing without a jury. He determined that certain statutory aggravating circumstances were established and sentenced Walton to death.12 After the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Walton's conviction and sentence,13 the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the constitutionality of Arizona's capital sentencing system.14 Walton argued that a jury should determine every sentencing decision conditioned upon a finding of fact and that because Arizona law permitted factual determinations to be made by a judge rather than a jury, Arizina's sentencing system was unconstitutional.15 In upholding Walton's sentence, the Court held that Arizona's sentencing system did not violate the Sixth Amendment because the aggravating circumstances found by the judge qualified as sentencing considerations rather than as an element of the offense.16 The Court buttressed its decision by citing Cabana v. Bullock,17 which upheld an appellate court's power to determine whether a "defendant killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill" in order to qualify a defendant for the death sentence for first-degree felony murder.18 Relying on Cabana, the Court noted that even though defendants convicted of felony murder could not be put to death without a finding of one of these facts, such factual findings were not "a new element of the crime of capital murder that must be found by the jury."19 The Court analogized the Cabana decision to Arizona's capital sentencing system in holding:

If the Constitution does not require that the Edmund finding be prove[n] as an element of the offense of capital murder, and does not require a jury to make [such a] finding, we cannot conclude that a State is required to denominate aggravating circumstances "elements" of the offense or permit only a jury to determine the existence of such circumstances. …