SCOTUS Commutes Death Row Inmate's Sentence Just Because Jury Was Lied To
Arizona now has one less inmate on death row, knocking it down to a mere 115 people set to be executed by the state.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a rare good opinion on something when it sided with death row inmate John Montenegro Cruz. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court granted Cruz's request for a new sentencing hearing on the grounds that his lawyers had been barred from telling the jury that he would not be eligible for parole if they decided against giving him the death penalty.
Sotomayor was joined by fellow liberal justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson as well as conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts. Writing the dissent was none other than Amy Coney Barrett, whose very deep Catholic faith only seems to ever surface in abortion cases.
There isn't a lot of information available about the original crime, which occurred in 2003. According to reports at the time, Tucson police officer Patrick Hardesty was investigating a hit-and-run, approached Cruz as a suspect, and "a struggle ensued in which Officer Hardesty was shot five times and fatally wounded." There were no actual witnesses to the crime, but "prosecutors tied [Cruz] to the murder weapon."
Cruz was found guilty of the murder in 2005. During sentencing, jurors were told Cruz was eligible for one of three possible sentences: death by lethal injection; life imprisonment without possibility of parole or release from imprisonment on any basis; and life imprisonment with a possibility of parole or release from imprisonment after 25 years. They were then instructed that they only had the ability to choose death or a life sentence and that it would be up to the judge to decide whether or not Cruz would ever be eligible for parole.
Except the thing is, he would not have been eligible for parole, because in 1994, Arizona abolished parole for all felony convictions from 1993 on, meaning the only way Cruz could ever be released would be if he were given clemency.
Just before Cruz's trial, the Supreme Court decided in Simmons v. South Carolina that defendants who will not be eligible for parole if sentenced to life should be allowed say that at sentencing. Cruz and his lawyers argued that the decision meant they should be able to tell jurors he would not be eligible for parole, but the judge refused. The day after sentencing, upon finding out parole would not actually have been an option, several jurors released a statement saying they would have voted for a life sentence had they been given the correct information.
Other petitioners were also refused the ability to do this on the grounds that the Arizona Supreme Court had determined Simmons simply "didn't apply" to Arizona. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court, in Lynch v. Arizona, found that it did, and that Arizona had to play by the same rules as every other state. Following that decision, Cruz again appealed his sentencing, citing Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), which would allow him to do so following “a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.”
However, the Arizona Supreme Court insisted Lynch was not a significant change and denied his petition again. Sotomayor explained, in her opinion, why this was incorrect.
While Lynch did not change this Court’s interpretation of Simmons, it did change the operative (and mistaken) interpretation of Simmons by Arizona courts. Lynch thus changed the law in Arizona in the way that matters for purposes of Rule 32.1(g): It overruled previously binding Arizona Supreme Court precedent preventing capital defendants from informing the jury of their parole ineligibility
Last year, during oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan pointed out the ridiculousness of the situation.
I think Kafka would have loved this. Cruz loses his Simmons claims on direct appeal because the Arizona courts say point-blank Simmons has never applied in Arizona. And then he loses the next time around because the Arizona courts say Simmons always applied in California. I mean, tails you win, heads I lose, whatever that expression is? I mean, how -- how can you run a railroad that way?
Because they really, really, really wanted to put this guy to death?
In her dissent, Barrett mostly just argued that Arizona should be allowed to do what Arizona wants.
The Court holds that the Arizona Supreme Court’s application of Rule 32.1(g) is inadequate to support the judgment below. That assertion is jarring, because the bar for finding inadequacy is extraordinarily high. When, as here, the argument is based on the state court’s inconsistent or novel application of its law, the bar is met only by a decision so blatantly disingenuous that it reveals hostility to federal rights or those asserting them. See Walker v. Martin, 562 U. S. 307, 321 (2011). Given the respect we owe state courts, that is not a conclusion we should be quick to draw— and ordinarily, we are not quick to draw it.
Again, there are currently over 100 people on Arizona's death row. This ruling could possibly apply to at least 30 of them, which will probably really disappoint a lot of terrible people. Though perhaps they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that the Supreme Court of Canada recently abolished life without parole sentences in a unanimous decision, on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment and “incompatible with human dignity.”
We know prosecutors lie to juries already. A study conducted last year found 550 wrongful convictions that were caused in part by prosecutorial misconduct, often fabricating evidence or withholding it. However, they should at least have the decency to try to hide it, rather than have it condoned by state laws, state supreme courts and enforced by judges.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse