Columnist Notes Rare Victory, Supreme Court Gives Death Row Inmate Chance to Spend Rest of  Life in Jail


By Perla Brito

WASHINGTON, DC – John Montenegro Cruz, an inmate of Arizona’s death row, was granted relief by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote this week.

According to Austin Sarat, a contributor to The Hill, it came as a surprise as “[t]he Supreme Court’s ultraconservative majority has succeeded in making the court hostile territory for death row inmates. It has perfected the art of turning a blind eye to shocking injustices in capital cases or obscuring them in a dense fog of legalisms.”

Cruz was convicted of the murder of a Tucson police officer in 2005 and sentenced to death. The incident occurred in 2003 when a Tucson police officer had responded to a traffic accident. He chased Cruz after he fled the scene. Once the police officer caught up with him, Cruz shot the police officer four times, according to The Hill’s news coverage.

At Cruz’s sentencing trial, the jury was considering one of two options, giving Cruz the death penalty or putting Cruz in jail for the rest of his life. Cruz’s attorney repeatedly asked the judge if they could tell the jury that Cruz would not be eligible for parole if he got a life sentence. The judge refused each time the attorney asked.

Arizona’s high court ruled that under state law Cruz could only seek relief if there had been “a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.”

The U.S. Supreme Court expressed its disagreement this week and that “Cruz is entitled to appeal his death sentence and seek to be resentenced to life without parole.”

Many Americans find life without parole sentences more suitable for people convicted of murder. In fact, 60 percent of Americans said life without possibility of parole “is the better penalty for murder” than the death penalty.

The Hill’s Sarat wrote, “The availability of life without parole also helps explain why the number of death sentences was just 20 in 2022.”

He found that “jurors in capital cases thought that life sentences really meant that those who received them would only be behind bars for seven years.”

Under these circumstances, jurors were likely to vote for the death penalty even if they did not want the defendant to be executed. They made that vote so that people convicted of murder or similar crimes would stay in jail.

According to the author, this is the reason that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Cruz case is crucial.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the five-justice majority in the Cruz case, wrote, “Before Lynch, Arizona courts held that capital defendants were not entitled to inform the jury of their parole ineligibility. After Lynch, Arizona courts recognize that capital defendants have a due process right to provide the jury with that information when future dangerousness is at issue,” as it was during the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial.

She also said anyone who would offer a “straightforward application” of well recognized legal principles would conclude that “when an appellate court overrules previously binding case law … It is hard to imagine a cleaner break from the past.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the four dissenters, was unpersuaded. She insisted that Lynch had not made a significant change in the law, but only a change in the “application of the law.” She also accused her colleagues in the majority of overreaching, the Hill reported.

Barrett felt the Supreme Court was “powerless” to “disturb” the Arizona supreme court decision that Cruz was not entitled to inform the jury of its power to sentence him to life without parole, said The Hill.

The author said, “One might rightly ask whether allowing him to do so would have made a difference in his case and spared him a trip to death row?”

Justice Sotomayor noted the day after they sentenced Cruz to death, three jurors issued a press release in which they said “they would rather have voted for life without the possibility of parole, but they were not given that option,” and a fourth juror said, “If I could have voted for a life sentence without parole, I would have voted for that option,” per Hill reporting.

“While we can’t know whether another group of jurors will feel the same way, John Cruz is one step closer to being able to vindicate his right to have a jury know that if it sentences him to prison he would be there for the rest of his life. And all of us — not just those on Arizona’s death row — are better off because of it,” said Sarat in The Hill piece.


About The Author

Perla Brito is a 4th year undergraduate student at California State University, Long Beach. She is majoring in Criminology and Criminal Justice and is set to graduate by Spring 2023. After graduation she plans on working at a local police department in the criminal investigations division. She intends to pursue a Masters in Psychology with a focus in Neuroscience in hopes of working on neurocriminology research one day.

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