JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday resentenced three death row inmates to life in prison because judges, not juries, had decided they deserved to be executed for their murders.
The decisions affecting inmates Antonio Richardson, Andre Morrow and Keith Smith follow a ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in an Arizona case that the Constitution's right to a trial by a jury also applies to death sentences.
In a June decision, the state Supreme Court said it would apply the decision retroactively.
to inmates on Missouri's death row. Before Tuesday, the court already had re-sentenced two other convicted killers to life in prison because judges had imposed their death sentences after juries deadlocked on the appropriate punishment.
In its three separate orders Tuesday, the court said that juries in each case had failed to find every fact required by state law as a prerequisite to the death sentence before judges took over the sentencing job. The orders were signed by Chief Justice Ronnie White.
Considering its past rulings, the state Supreme Court's most recent decisions are not legally surprising, said Attorney General Jay Nixon. But "our court certainly is taking as broad of an interpretation as to the reach of the (U.S. Supreme Court) decision as any court in the country," Nixon said.
The attorney general said there still are a "handful" of other Missouri death row inmates sentenced by judges whose death penalties could be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
Death penalty opponents were heartened by the state Supreme Court's decisions.
"If a jury of one's peers can't agree that a death penalty is warranted, then the U.S. Supreme Court realized that's not in keeping with our democracy, and I think the Missouri Supreme Court is being quite appropriate in supporting that basic foundation of our society," said Jeff Stack of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Richardson's execution already had been placed on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court and also could have been affected by an August state Supreme Court ruling declaring it unconstitutional to apply death sentences to people younger than 18 at the time of their crimes.
Richardson, now 29, was 16 when he was part of a group that raped and killed two sisters -- Julie and Robin Kerry -- by pushing them off the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis in April 1991.
Morrow, 33, had been sentenced to death for the April 1994 shooting of John Koprowski, president of the NIE Insurance agency in St. Louis, as Morrow and an accomplice struggled with Koprowski and stole his Jeep Cherokee outside the Mid-County YMCA in Brentwood.
Smith, 35, had been sentenced to life in prison for the November 1991 murder of the Rev. Parris Campbell, at whose home he had been staying. But a judge had sentenced him to death after the jury could not decide his fate for the murder of the minister's housekeeper, Annie Miller.
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision on judge-imposed death sentences, the state Supreme Court in June re-sentenced Joseph Whitfield, 63, to life in prison for the January 1988 murder of Ronald Chester, a paraplegic who was shot in the back of his head as he sat in his car in St. Louis.
One month ago, the Supreme Court cited both the Whitfield and U.S. Supreme Court decisions while re-sentencing Deandra Buchanan, 30, to life in prison for the November 2000 slayings of his aunt, Juanita Hoffman, 51; his stepfather, William Jefferson, 74; and his girlfriend, Angela Brown, 20, at the Columbia home they shared.
On the Net:
Missouri Judiciary: http://www.osca.state.mo.us