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Aggravating Factors At Sentencing: To Increase A Sentence The Aggravating Factor Must Be Found By Jury, Not Judge.

Ring v. Arizona.

 United States Supreme Court 

Death Penalty: where an aggravating factor is required before the death penalty can be applied, it is for the jury (not the judge) to decide whether that aggravating factor exists.

Ring v. Arizona 122 S.Ct.2428

Decided June 24, 2002 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: Whether Arizona’s system of judicial (rather than jury-based) decision-making on the existence or otherwise of ‘aggravating circumstances’ making a defendant eligible for the death penalty was constitutional.

Holding: Arizona’s statute pursuant to which a judge, (sitting alone),  determined, post-trial, whether the aggravating factors necessary for the imposition of the death penalty are present is unconstitutional as it violates the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in capital prosecutions.

Facts: Defendant-petitioner Timothy Ring was found guilty of felony murder occurring in the course of armed robbery. For the death penalty to apply, Arizona state law provided for a separate sentencing hearing whereby a judge would determine the existence or nonexistence of certain aggravating circumstances and mitigating circumstances. If at least one aggravating circumstance was present and in the absence of sufficient mitigating circumstances, the capital penalty could apply.

As this was a felony murder case (the jury having deadlocked on a premeditated murder charge), Ring could only receive the death penalty if he was found to have been the victim’s actual killer or if he was found to have been “a major participant in the armed robbery that led to the killing and exhibited a reckless disregard or indifference to human life”. On the basis of the evidence of an accomplice who gave evidence at the sentencing hearing, the trial judge concluded that Ring was the ‘ringleader’ in the enterprise and furthermore that it was indeed Ring who shot and killed the victim. (The ‘ringleader’ point was later dismissed by the Arizona Supreme Court but the other assertion stood).

In determining the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, The trial judge found that two statutory aggravating factors applied; namely the fact that Ring had committed the offense for pecuniary gain and secondly, the fact that it had been committed “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner”. The only mitigating factor to apply was the fact that Ring’s criminal record prior to the killing was “minimal’. The trial judge did not consider this to be sufficiently strong to outweigh the aggravating factors and handed down the death penalty.

On Appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, Ring argued that this sentencing scheme violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments on the basis that it was up to a judge and not a jury to make findings of fact which would determine the maximum sentence which would apply. The Arizona Supreme Court considered the case of Apprendi v New Jersey 530 U.S. 466 (2000) where the US Supreme Court had held that if a state makes an increase in a defendant’s punishment contingent on the finding of a fact, that fact must be found by a jury. Nonetheless, the Arizona Supreme Court considered themselves bound by an earlier US Supreme Court Decision Walton v Arizona 497 U.S. 639 (1990) where the Arizona system was deemed to be lawful – especially as the Court in Apprendi had stated that Walton remained good law. In light of the conflict between Walton and Apprendi, the US Supreme Court considered the issue.

With Justice Ginsburg giving the lead decision, the Court held that Walton and Apprendi were irreconcilable and the earlier case was overturned in so far as it allowed for a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury, to find an aggravating circumstance required for imposition of the death penalty.

Legal analysis: Arizona had attempted to argue essentially that there is a marked difference between an “element of the offence” which in all cases would be a matter for the jury to decide on, and a “sentencing factor” -i.e. something which is for the sentencing judge to consider. After all, under Arizona sentencing law there could have only been two possible sentences in the event of the jury in the original trial delivering a  guilty verdict: life imprisonment or death. This approach was rejected. Taking the reasoning in Apprendi and applying it to this case, Ginsburg stated “the required finding of an aggravated circumstance exposed Ring to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict.”

It is important to remember that the jury verdict was insufficient to give rise in itself to the death penalty being imposed. Following the verdict, there had to be a further fact-finding process to establish whether the criteria for a capital sentence were met. The Supreme Court reiterated what it had stated in Apprendi – namely that “the relevant enquiry is one not of form but of effect”. Whether you label something a ‘sentencing factor’ or an ‘element’ the fact is that a number of vital factual points need to be determined before it can be decided what sentence can be passed. To find that the aggravating factors in a particular case are such that the death sentence ought to be passed is the “functional equivalent of [the finding of] a greater offense than the one covered by the jury’s guilty verdict”. On this basis, the consideration of the alleged ‘aggravating factors’ ought to be something for the jury to decide on to avoid violation of the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

Incidentally the Court also rejected Arizona’s assertions that as a matter of public policy, retaining judicial authority over findings on ‘aggravating factors’ might be the best way of preventing “arbitrary imposition of the death penalty”. This idea was dismissed – there being no actual evidence of this. Indeed the Court noted that the majority of states had already moved away from judicial determination of “aggravating circumstances” in capital cases in favour of juries. The net result of Ring was that the remaining states were of course required to reject the judicial determination approach also.