PHOENIX - The Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday refused to overturn the death sentences of 27 death row inmates but said it may order individual resentencings on a case-by-case basis depending on individual circumstances.
Lawyers for the inmates had asked that their convictions and death sentences be overturned because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Arizona’s old death sentencing law was unconstitutional because judges, not jurors, decided facts that could lead to a possible death sentence.
However, the state’s high court refused to overturn the convictions and death sentences on a blanket basis, ruing that the trials were fundamentally fair and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t require throwing out all the death sentences.
However, the three-justice majority’s opinion said the court now must review each man’s case to determine whether individual circumstances require either resentencings or allow existing death sentences to stand.
Two other current or former justices agreed with most of the ruling but dissented with one part of it.
During November arguments, a lawyer for the inmates asked the Supreme Court to either throw out each man’s death sentence and order a new trial or to resentence each to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years for those whose crimes occurred before July 17, 1983.
The lawyer, Andrew Hurwitz, since has been appointed to the Supreme Court. He didn’t participate in deciding the case.
Prosecutors argued that it was a “harmless error’’ that juries did not decide aggravating factors in the men’s cases because those factors were established by conviction verdicts or other circumstances in each man’s case.
There were 31 men originally included in the case but several have been dropped because of unrelated developments.
In response to the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Ring vs. Arizona, the Arizona Legislature last summer rewrote the death penalty sentencing law to have juries decide both the facts that should be considered and what sentence to impose.