U.S. Supreme Court: Ring v. Arizona


Supreme Court Declares Juries, Not Judges Must Decide Critical Sentencing Issues
In a 7-2 decision in the case of Ring v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a defendant has the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide on the existence of an aggravating factor that makes the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In its decision, the Court held that a death sentence where the necessary aggravating factors are determined by a judge violates a defendant's constitutional right to a trial by jury. (Associated Press, June 24, 2002). Read the opinion. See also, DPIC Press Release.
Which states employ judge sentencing?

States with Judge Sentencing (Prior to Ring)

Developments related to Ring

Post-Ring Developments

Pre-Ring Developments

In the U.S. Supreme Court
Possible retroactivity

Additional Information

Law Reviews

Notes on Judge Sentencing

Arizona (formerly judge sentencing. New: jury to determine whether aggravating and mitigating circumstances exist and if the death penalty will be imposed)

Idaho (formerly judge sentencing. New: In February 2003, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed into law a bill that provides for jury sentencing in capital cases.)

Montana (Jury to unanimously determine aggravating factors [as of May 1, 2001])

Delaware while 1991 change in the law empowered the judge to overrule a jury's wishes, as a practical matter judges generally have only overruled a jury to impose a life sentence.  Since 1991, only one judge, John E. Babiarz Jr. has overruled a jury's recommendation of life (10-2) to impose a death sentence (and that sentence was overturned). (S. O'Sullivan, "Delaware jury's votes in capital cases don't always sway judges," DelawareOnline, Feb. 25, 2011).

Colorado (formerly 3-judge panel. New: sentence determined by a unanimous jury)

Nebraska (A jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime meets one of the state's nine aggravating circumstances before a death sentence is imposed; unanimous 3-judge decision necessary for death)

Nevada (New: sentence determined by unanimous jury)

Alabama (retained judge sentencing)

Florida (retained judge sentenceing)

States that employ judge sentencing in capital cases:

Judge Decides Sentence
Montana X  
Nebraska X 3-judge panel decides (must be unanimous for death)
Alabama X Jury makes recommendation
Delaware X Jury makes recommendation, which is given appropriate weight
Florida X Jury makes recommendation; majority-for-life-recommendation can only be overridden if no reasonable juror would vote for life
Indiana   Judge decides sentence only if the jury is not unanimous for life or death
Missouri   Judge decides sentence only if the jury is not unanimous for life or death
Ohio   3-judge panel decides sentence only if defendant pleads guilty; judge can override a death verdict in exceptional circumstances
California   Judge can override a death verdict in exceptional circumstances

Post-Ring Developments
Supreme Court Declares Ring Not Retroactive In a 5-4 decision on June 24, 2004, the Supreme Court determined that its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona (No. 01-488) was not retroactive, thereby denying new sentencing hearings for dozens of death row inmates in Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska whose sentences were originally handed down by judges, but whose cases are older and not in the first stages of their appeals. In Ring, the Court decided that sentencing laws must protect the right to a jury determination of eligibility for the death penalty. With their decision in Summerlin, the Justices decided that their original 7-2 decision in Ring was a procedural rule and thus was not retroactive. Dissenting in Summerlin were Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Discussing the differences between the death row inmates granted new sentencing hearings and the death row inmates denied new sentencing hearings because they are in a later stage of appeals, Justice Breyer stated: "Certainly the ordinary citizen will not understand the difference. That citizen will simply witness two individuals, both sentenced through the use of unconstitutional procedures, one individual going to his death, the other saved, all through an accident of timing. How can the Court square this spectacle with what it has called the 'vital importance to the defendant and to the community that any decision to impose the death sentence be, and appear to be, based on reason'?"
Supreme Court to Clarify Ring Ruling The Supreme Court agreed to clarify the impact of its 2002 Ring v. Arizona ruling that held that jurors, rather than a judge, must be allowed to determine whether a defendant is eligible for a death sentence. The Justices will decide whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was correct when it overturned Warren Summerlin's death sentence, holding that Ring should apply retroactively to inmates who had exhausted their direct appeal. While the Supreme Court's Ring ruling invalidated the death sentencing laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado, it did not make clear if its ruling should apply retroactively to everyone on those states' death rows. Since the decision, courts have issued differing interpretations on the retroactivity question. (Associated Press, December 1, 2003) See Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari on two questions in the case of Schriro v. Summerlin, No. 03-526 (formerly Summerlin v. Stewart). The two questions are:
  • Did the Ninth Circuit err by holding that the new rule announced in Ring is substantive, rather than procedural, and therefore exempt from the retroactivity analysis of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) (plurality)?
  • Did the Ninth Circuit err by holding that the new rule announced in Ring applies retroactively to cases on collateral review under Teague's exception for watershed rules of criminal procedure that alter bedrock procedural principles and seriously enhance the accuracy of the proceedings?
Following the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Summerlin v. Stewart on September 2, 2003, numerous press accounts reported on the effect of the decisions holding Ring v. Arizona to be retroactive. A series of excerpts from these articles is available by clicking here. Excerpts from the Summerlin v. Stewart decision are available by clicking here. To read the complete Summerlin v. Stewart decision, visit http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov.

Pre-Ring Developments

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Stay of Execution for Alabama Inmate Gary Leon Brown was granted a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court just hours before he was scheduled to be executed in Alabama. Brown has raised two issues before the Court: he claims that (1) Alabama's use of the electric chair violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama is one of only two states that use electrocution as their sole method of execution. (Subsequent legislation changed Alabama's method of execution to lethal injection). (2) Brown also contends that the Court should halt his execution until it decides Ring v. Arizona, a case it will hear later this year to determine the constitutionality of having a judge, rather than a jury, decide sentencing in death penalty cases. In Alabama, the jury makes a sentencing recommendation, but the judge is not bound by it. (Associated Press, 4/4/02).

Florida Execution Halted by Governor Bush Two hours after the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay to Linroy Bottoson, Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced that he would issue an executive order halting the execution of Robert Trease, who was scheduled for execution on February 7, 2002. Citing the Supreme Court's decisions to stay Bottoson's and Amos King's executions, Bush stayed Trease's execution "until further action is taken by the [C]ourt." (Associated Press, 2/6/02).

U.S. Supreme Court Stays Two Florida Executions Florida death row inmates Amos King, who was scheduled for execution on January 24, and Linroy Bottoson, scheduled for February 5, were granted stays of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court appears to have granted the reprieves in light of its decision to hear Ring v. Arizona. (Associated Press, 1/23/02)

Indiana Gives Jury Sentencing Power Effective July 1, 2002, unanimous jury votes for death or life without parole are binding on the judge, who imposes the formal sentence. This new law, signed by the governor on March 26, 2002, allows the judge to decide the sentence only if the jury cannot agree unanimously. The jury must find at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt.

Montana: Jury must decide death eligibility As of May 1, 2001, a judge may not impose the death penalty without the jury's unanimous finding of aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. The 6 current death row inmates were all sentenced prior to this change.

Maryland Court of Appeals Stays Execution Until Ring Decided In December 2001, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided a challenge to its death penalty based on Apprendi (Borchardt v. State, 786 A.2d 631 (Md. 2001)). Death row inmate Lawrence Borchardt challenged his death sentence, arguing that Maryland's statute allows jurors to use the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence when deciding on death sentences. In a 4-3 holding, the Maryland Court rejected the argument, stating that the Supreme Court did not intend for Apprendi to apply in death penalty cases. "If Apprendi renders the Maryland law unconstitutional, then. . . it likely renders most of the capital punishment laws in the country unconstitutional," wrote the majority. (Borchardt, 786 A.2d at 649). However, the four dissenting justices, which included Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, argued that the standard of proof in deciding the death penalty should be the highest available. "I would hold that, based on Apprendi . . . the sentencing authority must find that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, and not by a mere preponderance of evidence," wrote dissenting Judge Irma Raker. (Borchardt, 786 A.2d at 665) (Raker, J., dissenting). Although the Maryland Court of Appeals held that Apprendi did not apply to Maryland's death penalty, they did grant a stay of execution to Stephen Oken after the Supreme Court's decision to hear Ring. Oken, who was scheduled for execution in early March, challenged his death sentenced based on Apprendi.



On January 11, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Ring v. Arizona (No. 01-488) to decide the constitutionality of having a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case. The case will apply an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the Court held that "any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be . . . submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt." (500 U.S. 466, 476 (2000)) (emphasis added). In Arizona and eight other states, judges decided whether to impose the death penalty after a jury had determined guilt (but see Developments).

The purpose of this page is to offer information regarding Ring v. Arizona. The page provides background information on cases such as Apprendi that have bearing on Ring, as well as recent gubernatorial and judicial developments related to the Court's decision in Ring. The page also lists which states allow judge sentencing, and therefore may be affected by the Supreme Court's decision.

In the U.S. Supreme Court

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Walton v. Arizona (497 U.S. 639 (1990)) that the Arizona capital sentencing law, which provided that a judge, not a jury, was the ultimate finder of fact with respect to the existence of aggravating circumstances, was constitutional. However, the Court recently held in Apprendi v. New Jersey (500 U.S. 466 (2000)) that a judge could not make findings that would increase a defendant's sentence beyond the maximum, since that was comparable to an additional conviction. Such a decision should be submitted to a jury and requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

With regard to the death penalty, the four justice plurality in Apprendi stated that the Court's decision should not affect death penalty cases: "[The Court] previously considered and rejected the argument that the principles guiding our decision today render invalid state capital sentencing schemes requiring judges, after a jury verdict holding a defendant guilty of a capital crime, to find specific aggravating factors before imposing a sentence of death." However, Justice Thomas in a concurring opinion, addressed whether Apprendi could be reconciled with Walton, and thus be applied in capital cases:

Walton did approve a scheme by which a judge, rather than a jury, determines an aggravating fact that makes a convict eligible for the death penalty, and thus eligible for a greater punishment. In this sense, that fact is an element. But that scheme exists in a unique context, for in the area of capital punishment, unlike any other area, we have imposed special constraints on a legislature's ability to determine what facts shall lead to what punishment - we have restricted the legislature's ability to define crimes. Under our recent capital-punishment jurisprudence, neither Arizona nor any other jurisdiction could provide - as, previously, it freely could and did - that a person shall be death eligible automatically upon conviction for certain crimes. We have interposed a barrier between a jury finding of a capital crime and a court's ability to impose capital punishment. Whether this distinction between capital crimes and all others, or some other distinction, is sufficient to put the former outside the rule that I have stated is a question for another day.
Thomas, J., concurring (citations omitted)).

Possible Retroactivity

On June 24, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ring v. Arizona, ending the practice of having a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case. It is unclear, however, if the ruling will apply to all the defendants in all states with judge sentencing. Affected defendants will either have their sentences reduced to life sentences - as happened after Furman v. Georgia in 1972 - or they will receive new sentencing trials with a new jury.

Retroactivity of the Court's Decision

Ring clearly applies to all future cases and to defendants whose convictions were not final when Ring was decided. An open question is whether RingSchriro v. Summerlin, No. 03-526 (formerly Summerlin v. Stewart) that will determine the retroactivity of Ring. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Ring should be retroactive for at least some defendants on death row. The Supreme Court will consider: should retroactively apply to everyone on death row regardless of the stage of their appeal in the affected states. The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in the case of

  • Did the Ninth Circuit err by holding that the new rule announced in Ring is substantive, rather than procedural, and therefore exempt from the retroactivity analysis of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) (plurality)?
  • Did the Ninth Circuit err by holding that the new rule announced in Ring applies retroactively to cases on collateral review under Teague's exception for watershed rules of criminal procedure that alter bedrock procedural principles and seriously enhance the accuracy of the proceedings?

Retroactivity of New Laws Passed Since Ring

A second retroactivity issue is whether defendants sentenced under the old system involving a judge's finding of aggravating factors can now be resentenced under a new law employing juries. There is a general rule that new laws can't be applied retroactively (ex post facto), but there are exceptions. The Court might examine whether the new law is a real substantive change, or just a procedural change, and whether it provides an additional burden on the defendant, or is actually providing a benefit to the defendant. For example, when states have changed their method of execution, they haven't had to provide new sentencing hearings. States might argue that if they are required to provide juries for death sentencing, that is just a procedural change which imparts a benefit to the defendant, and hence their new law can be applied to the old cases. Defendants might argue that changing from judges to juries is a fundamental, substantive change in the law.

There have been cases of people who committed a capital crime before Furman v. Georgia (1972) (overturning death penalty laws), but who were not captured and tried until after the new laws reinstating the death penalty went into effect. At least one such person, Ernest Dobbert in Florida, was given the death penalty under the new law (which was deemed to have more protections than the old law struck down in Furman) and was eventually executed in 1984. See Dobbert v. Florida, 432 U.S. 282 (1977). The dissent in Dobbert, however, cited Lindsey v. Washington, 301 U.S. 397 (1937), which articulated a "fair warning" test for the application of ex post facto laws. The dissent noted that Lindsey held, "in language that might have been written with the present case in mind: 'The Constitution forbids the application of any new punitive measure to a crime already consummated, to the detriment or material disadvantage to the wrongdoer.'" (Dobbert, 432 U.S. at 305 (Brennan, J., dissenting)).

Additional Information

In the U.S. Supreme Court

Read the transcript of the oral argument in Ring
Read the opinion


Mary P. Gallagher, "Public Defender, Attorney General Seek Statewide Freeze of Capital Cases," New Jersey Law Journal, 9/16/02
Adam Liptak, "A Supreme Court Ruling Roils Death Penalty Cases" New York Times, 9/16/02
Stan Bailey, "Effects of Arizona case stirs debate: Could case there invalidate death sentences here?" Birmingham News, 2/13/02
Lesley Clark, "Ruling could force Florida to commute execution," Miami Herald, 2/12/02
Susan Clary, "Justices' review of death penalty met with shock," Orlando Sentinel, 2/7/02
Jay Weaver, "Appeal imperils Florida death penalty," Miami Herald, 2/7/02
"Supreme Court Intervenes in Death Penalty Cases," Miami Herald (editorial), 2/7/02
Linda Greenhouse, "Major Death Penalty Appeal Accepted," New York Times, 1/12/02
Charles Lane, "Supreme Court to Review Death Sentencing," Washington Post, 1/12/02
Karen Abbott, "Justices to Review Death Penalty," Rocky Mountain News, 1/13/02
David Lane, "Colorado Death Penalty Misguided," Denver Post (op-ed), 1/25/02

Law Reviews

Margery Koosed, "Averting Mistaken Executions by Adopting the Model Penal Code's Exclusion of Death in the Presence of Lingering Doubt," 21 Northern Illinois University Law Review 41 (2001) - The article considers the effects that the Supreme Court's decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey will have on capital judge-sentencing schemes.
Mark Vilaboy, Comment, "Playing the Apprendi Card: Revisiting Judicial Fact-Finding in Arizona's Death Penalty Scheme," 33 Arizona State Law Journal 363 (2001).
Joseph L. Hoffmann, "Apprendi v. New Jersey: Back to the Future? (Symposium)" 38 American Criminal Law Review 255 (2001)