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Sam Heldman


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Wednesday, October 23, 2002
No. 01-7574 Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania

It looks like the Court decided to hear easy cases on November 4. First, there is the Pierce County case (below), in which the Supreme Court of Washington held that a federal spending program was beyond the power of Congress, and now a death penalty case in which the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided that it's okay to retry a capital defendant who once was sentenced to life.

In this case, the defendant was convicted of capital murder. Under Pennsylvania's death penalty scheme, he then entered a sentencing phase, wherein jurors must find at least one aggravating factor for a sentence of death. If the jurors deadlock, as they did here, the judge must enter a life sentence. The defendant later managed to get his conviction set aside. He was convicted again, and this time, the jury did find an aggravating factor. He was sentenced to death.

The question is whether that the second capital sentencing phase violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. In a prior case, Bullington v. Missouri, 451 U.S. 430 (1981), the Supreme Court held that a death sentence may not be imposed after a capital sentencing phase results in a life sentence. However, as the United States' amicus brief for respondents argues, in that case the first jury had unanimously reached a verdict for a life sentence.

So, does the fact that the jury deadlocked and the judge entered the life sentence as required by law distinguish this case from Bullington? I think the Court will find that it does not and REVERSE. The sentence is a final adjudication on the merits of the question of a death versus life sentence. That part of the capital trial is finished, and Pennsylvania may not give itself the opportunity for a second bite at the apple simply because its own statute directs the judge to impose the sentence.

P.S. I retract my earlier statement that this is an easy case.