WASHINGTON - In another reversal of the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit appeals court, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday restored a death sentence for a two-time Arizona murderer who told his trial judge, "If you want to give me the death penalty, just bring it right on."
The judge accepted the invitation and in 1990 sentenced Jeff Landrigan to die for the murder and robbery of Chester Dyer. Landrigan was in Arizona after escaping from a prison in Oklahoma where he had been serving time for murder.
During his sentencing hearing, Landrigan said he did not want his mother or his ex-wife to testify on his behalf. He also told the judge he wanted no "mitigating" evidence to be considered.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned his death sentence on the grounds that his lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence on his behalf.
The Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision yesterday, reversed that ruling and said Landrigan's "exceedingly violent past" made him a fitting candidate for the death penalty.
The judge "had seen first-hand his belligerent behavior," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. Moreover, he said, "Landrigan's mitigation evidence was weak."
The justices concluded that Arizona's courts had acted reasonably in upholding Landrigan's death sentence, and that the Ninth Circuit had erred by intervening on his behalf.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Thomas in the majority. Justices John Paul Stevens issued a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Yesterday's ruling probably will not have a wide impact because of the unusual nature of Landrigan's appeal. After having turned away at his trial any claims to spare his life, Landrigan filed appeals in the state and federal courts urging that his sentence be reconsidered.
He lost in the Arizona courts and before a federal district judge, but the Ninth Circuit took his side on a 9-2 ruling.
Yesterday's decision shows that the Supreme Court is closely split on capital punishment.
With Kennedy in the majority, the justices have regularly stepped in to overturn liberal rulings from the Ninth Circuit. It is the third time this term the court has overturned the Ninth Circuit to restore a death sentence or murder conviction.
At the same time, the justices have reversed a series of conservative rulings from the courts in Texas. Last month, they reopened three death-penalty cases from Texas on the grounds that juries had not been given a fair chance to consider mitigating evidence before sentencing a killer to die.
Kennedy has joined with the court's conservative bloc to reverse the Ninth Circuit, while joining the liberal bloc in the Texas cases to reopen the death-penalty cases.
In Stevens' dissent yesterday, he argued that Landrigan's trial lawyer had failed to investigate his client's past. "A more thorough investigation would have revealed that [Landrigan] suffers from an organic brain disorder," Stevens wrote. That disorder might explain his violence and his repeated outbursts in the court, he wrote.
Although that evidence might not have persuaded a judge or jury to spare his life, it should be examined in a further hearing before Landrigan is put to death, Stevens said.
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