Supreme Court Rules Man on Death Row Should be Resentenced after State Court Judges Ignore Supreme Court Precedents

By Roni Ayalon and Brinda Kalita

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court this week unexpectedly ruled in favor of John Cruz, a man on death row in the state of Arizona, allowing him to be resentenced after the courts in Arizona failed to use prior Supreme Court decisions in his case.

Cruz was found guilty of capital murder in 2005, and when the jury was then tasked with deciding his punishment and it was instructed by the trial judge that if it chose to find Cruz guilty, he would only have three sentencing options: death by lethal injection, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or release, and “life imprisonment with a possibility of parole or release from imprisonment.”

Even though he had these three options, the jury was only allowed to choose whether or not Cruz would be sentenced to death. If the jury chose to save him from capital punishment, it would be up to the judge’s discretion what sentence he would receive, life with or without parole.

Not only was the jury denied the opportunity to vote for life without parole, but the judge also gave the jury incorrect information about the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court said the jury believed that there was a “possibility of parole or release from imprisonment after 25 years” but that was “plainly wrong,” said the court, noting under Arizona law “the only ‘release’ available… is executive clemency, not parole.” In other words, unless the Arizona governor were to pardon Cruz, he would not have been eligible for release.

Given this lack of clear and accurate information, the jury ended up sentencing Cruz to death. However, a day after the decision, three jurors published a press release explaining the “gut-wrenching decision” and stating “[t]here was not one person on the jury who did not cry.”

 If given the option, the jury would have wanted to sentence Cruz to life without parole rather than death, but they were not given the choice. Cruz inferred that if they had known he wouldn’t have been eligible for parole or release after 25 years, this would have changed their sentencing verdict.

With this, Cruz asked for a new trial, arguing the judge did not provide the jury with “an accurate and complete understanding of the consequences of a non-death verdict.” He used the Simmons v. South Carolina decision to support his reasoning.

In Simmons, the Supreme Court held that defendants are “allowed to inform the jury that a life sentence… would be without parole.”

He also used the Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), which allows petitioners to challenge their sentences when “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s … sentence.”

In Lynch v. Arizona, which had been decided after his sentencing, the Supreme Court decided that Arizona had been handling ineligibility for parole in an inconsistent manner with federal law. Cruz argued that this was a significant change to the law, which in turn would require a new sentence.

He appealed, however the State Court of Arizona argued, “Lynch was not a significant change in the law because “the law relied upon by the Supreme Court in [Lynch]—Simmons—was clearly established at the time of Cruz’s trial.”

This ultimately led to the case coming up to the Supreme Court. 

The majority opinion of the court was delivered by Justice Sotomayor, who was joined by the other two liberal justices, Kagan and Jackson, as well as conservative justices Roberts and Kavanaugh. They noted that Cruz’s “due process rights had been violated by the trial court’s failure to permit him to inform the jury that a life sentence in Arizona would be without parole.”

The opinion gave some more background and opinion on the previous elements of the case, before getting to the decision on the actual question presented. The Court first explained how Cruz “expressed concern that unless he had ‘the opportunity to present the mitigating factor that he will not be released from prison,’ jurors would be left to ‘speculate’ about Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme and whether it allows for parole.”

Cruz also tried to call the chairman of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency as a witness to “testify that the board no longer had authority to parole any capital defendants” but the State “sought to prevent Cruz from offering evidence.”

SCOTUS also noted Arizona courts had “incorrectly” believed “Arizona’s sentencing and parole scheme did not trigger application of Simmons.” The Arizona Supreme Court had “repeated that mistake in a series of cases,” which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in Lynch v Arizona, which “held that it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons ‘did not apply’ in Arizona.”

Although the Court commented on these factors, the main decision was “limited to the question whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Rule 32.1(g) precluded postconviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.”

SCOTUS said it “will not take up a question of federal law in a case ‘if the decision of [the state] court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.’” In this case, the Court is focused on the requirement of adequacy.

SCOTUS noted: “Ordinarily, a violation of a state procedural rule that is ‘firmly established and regularly followed’ . . . ‘will be adequate to foreclose review of a federal claim…’ Nevertheless, in ‘exceptional cases,’ a ‘generally sound rule’ may be applied in a way that ‘renders the state ground inadequate to stop consideration of a federal question.’”

The Court decided this qualified as one of those exceptional cases, which justifies the Court stepping in for a state court matter.

The Court noted that pursuant to Rule 32.1, allowing “defendants to file a successive or untimely post conviction petition if there has been ‘a significant change in the law,’” Arizona should have applied these principles in a “straightforward” way which would have “led to the conclusion that Lynch was a ‘significant change in the law.’”

Justice Sotomayer was firm, noting that  “it is hard to imagine a clearer break from the past.”

The interpretation, the justice added, that the Arizona Supreme Court did reach was that Lynch was not “a significant change because Lynch relied on Simmons, and Simmons ‘was clearly established at the time of Cruz’s trial . . . despite the misapplication of that law by the Arizona courts.’” The Arizona Court also argued that Lynch changed the application of the law, not the law itself.

The U.S. The Supreme Court shot this down, stating that “this interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is entirely new and in conflict with prior Arizona case law.”

Because of the “unusual circumstances” of this case, “the Arizona Supreme Court’s application of Rule 32.1(g) to Lynch was so novel and unfounded that it does not constitute an adequate state procedural ground.” Because of this, the Court held that it is “not necessary to reach the further issue whether the decision below is independent of federal law.”

The majority opinion also addresses the dissenting opinion, stating it “ fails to grapple with the basic point that Lynch reversed previously binding Arizona Supreme Court precedent…  it makes no difference that Lynch did not alter federal law.”

The majority opinion concludes by saying: “The Arizona Supreme Court applied Rule 32.1(g) in a manner that abruptly departed from and directly conflicted with its prior interpretations of that Rule. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arizona is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

The dissenting opinion was delivered by Justice Barrett, who was joined by Justices Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch in agreement, who argue, “We cannot disturb state-court rulings on state-law questions that are independent of federal law.”

Additionally, they believe that just because this is the first time that state laws are being used to judge a case like Cruz’s, that does not make them inadequate for making decisions, stating, “Novelty does not mean that a rule is inadequate merely because a state court announced it for the first time in the decision under review, and I do not understand the Court to suggest otherwise.”

They also argue that there was more to the story, and that Lynch cannot fit the description of a significant change outline in Arizona’s 32.1 rule. 

Finally, in the dissent, they said, “But that call is not within our bailiwick. Our job is to determine whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision is defensible, and we owe the utmost deference to the state court in making that judgment. Cases of inadequacy are extremely rare, and this is not one.”

About The Author

Brinda is a student at UC Riverside, pursuing a degree in History with a Law and Society emphasis. She plans to attend law school after receiving her bachelors.

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