A review by lawyers in the Attorney General’s office concludes a US Supreme Court ruling greatly restricting judge-imposed death sentences does not apply to Missouri. In the Ring case, the US Supreme Court found unconstitutional Arizona’s practice of having a jury trial to decide guilt, then a separate trial before a judge to decide the sentence. Arizona death row inmate Timothy Ring had challenged his death sentence, arguing that a jury, not a judge, should decide whether an aggravating circumstance is present and whether it warrants a death sentence. The US Supreme Court issued its ruling in June. Attorney General Jay Nixon says Missouri law varies significantly from Arizona law, because juries in Missouri decide both guilt and sentencing. Nixon says Missouri law requires juries to first unanimously agree that there is an aggravating circumstance to the murder, only then do they consider the death penalty. In eight Missouri cases, the juries deadlocked and the judge imposed the death penalty. In four cases, the inmate waived a jury trial and was sentenced to death. “If the jury unanimously finds an aggravating circumstance exists, then it may move on to deciding an appropriate sentence,” Nixon says. “When a jury then cannot agree on an appropriate sentence, the judge may impose a sentence of death because the jury has already found an aggravating circumstance, as required by Ring.” Four Missouri inmates have raised challenges to their death sentences based on the Ring decision: James Rufus Ervin, Andre Morrow, Roderick Nunley and Joseph Whitfield. “Those four cases also should not be affected by Ring because the court has never questioned the right of the defendant to waive trial by jury and place himself at the mercy of a judge,” says Nixon. Others are expected to challenge their death sentences based on Ring. Missouri has 67 inmates on death row.

Related sites:

Capital Punishment in Missouri
Missouri Department of Corrections
Missouri Attorney General