Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584; 122 S. Ct. 2428; 153 L. Ed. 2d 556; 2002 U.S. LEXIS 4651 (2002)

Facts—A jury that deadlocked on the charge of premeditated murder convicted Ring of a felony murder committed during an armed robbery. By itself this penalty did not carry a death sentence, but a judge subsequently found the presence of aggravating circumstances that resulted in such a penalty. Although the Arizona Supreme Court indicated that U.S. Supreme Court decisions permitting such judicial decisions were in conflict, it upheld the sentence.

Question—Does the requirement of a jury trial as granted by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments require a jury rather than a judge to conduct fact finding as to aggravating factors that could lead to a death penalty determination?


ReasonsJ. Ginsburg (7–2). In Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990), the Supreme Court had upheld Arizona’s death penalty statute on the basis that the judge’s determination of aggravating and mitigating factors “qualified as sentencing considerations, not ‘as elements of the offense of capital murder.’” Apprendi v. New Jersey, a noncapital case, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), subsequently ruled that the Sixth Amendment prohibited a defendant from receiving a harsher sentence than the defendant would have received in a jury trial. Under the jury verdict in this case, Ring’s maximum penalty was life imprisonment; the judge’s finding of aggravating circumstances resulted in a death penalty. Although Walton had declared that specific factual findings of aggravating circumstances did not need to be made by a jury, juries served as vital fact-finders in English capital cases. Moreover, Apprendi ruled that a judge’s decision on aggravating factors in a noncapital case amounted to bypassing the requirement that a jury find an individual guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a rule cannot be applied to noncapital cases without also being applied to capital ones. Walton and Apprendi are “irreconcilable” and Walton is therefore overruled.

J. Scalia’s concurrence, while lamenting judicial intervening in capital cases, believed the decision in Ring was essential to preserving the right of trial by jury. J. Breyer’s concurrence raised questions about the value of the death penalty but suggested that juries were better guides to contemporary sentiments than judges. J. O’Connor’s dissent argued that the Court should overrule Apprendi rather than Walton and pointed to the increased number of appeals and the “destabilizing effect” that the Court’s capital punishment decisions were having on the criminal justice system.

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