High court will consider feds' reach overseas

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide if people working for the U.S. government can covertly arrest suspects in other countries, a case the Bush administration said was a key test of America's terror-fighting powers.

The justices will review a lower court decision critical of such law enforcement actions. In appealing that ruling, the administration said kidnappings of suspects in uncooperative countries are very rare but sometimes are needed to ensure justice and protect national security.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson said if the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco were allowed to stand, it would jeopardize U.S. efforts "to apprehend individuals who may be abroad, plotting other illegal attacks" in the United States.

For example, he said, federal agents could not bring Osama bin Laden to America to face charges in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The appeals court sided with a Mexican man who was abducted 13 years ago and brought to the United States to stand trial in the torture death of a U.S. drug agent. He was accused of keeping the agent alive for torture and questioning to find out what he knew about a drug cartel.

Also Monday, the Supreme Court said it will clear up confusion over the impact of its ruling that juries, not judges, must have the final say in who gets the death penalty.

The justices agreed to decide whether inmates already on death row can use the 2002 ruling to argue that they deserve a lesser punishment. It was unclear at the time of the earlier case whether it would apply retroactively to potentially hundreds of death row inmates who were sentenced by judges.

The Ring v. Arizona ruling last year forced changes in the death penalty laws of Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Colorado, because those states left it to judges to determine if a particular convicted killer should be executed.

The ruling also cast doubt on death sentencing procedures in four additional states that used a combination of juries and judges to impose death sentences.

Lower courts have since divided over whether the ruling should apply retroactively. A California federal appeals court ruled it should, potentially tossing out death sentences of more than 100 death row inmates who exhausted their direct appeals.

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