TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fate of nearly 800 death row inmates in Florida and eight other states may rest on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case that could have the most dramatic effect in 30 years on the way states apply the death penalty.
The high court agreed last month to hear a case from Arizona that asks whether a judge instead of a jury can decide whether a convicted killer deserves the death penalty.
The court's decision, expected by summer, could affect sentences already handed down in nine states where judges choose between a death sentence and life in prison for a convicted killer.
In Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, juries have no role in sentencing those they convict in capital cases. In Florida, Alabama, Delaware and Indiana, juries make recommendations but judges make the decision.
"It goes to the very heart of what we mean by the right to a jury trial, and we have argued it forever," said Denise Young, a lawyer in Tucson, Ariz., who represents death row inmates.
Defenders of the sentencing laws at issue have argued that judges can be better than juries at applying the law without passion. Having a judge make the choice may lead to fewer death sentences, or sentences better able to withstand scrutiny on appeal, some prosecutors have said.
Florida leads the nine states with 372 inmates on death row, followed by Alabama with 184, Arizona with 128 and Indiana with 39. Missouri has 70 inmates awaiting the death penalty.
The court could rule broadly on whether it is ever appropriate to have a judge make the final call, or confine its ruling to the situation in Arizona and the four other states with nearly identical laws.
Since the Supreme Court agreed on Jan. 11 to hear the challenge to Arizona's law, it has granted stays of execution to two Florida inmates whose lawyers had cited the pending Arizona case. That has led some lawyers to suggest that the Supreme Court believes that Florida's law -- and those like it -- are constitutionally suspect, too.
Under Florida's law, a judge can impose the death penalty even if a jury recommends a life sentence.
Exactly what would happen if the death penalty laws in the nine states were invalidated is not clear. Some lawyers have speculated that the death row inmates' sentences could be commuted to life in prison. Or the inmates might be resentenced, with some receiving a death sentence all over again.
The defendant in the Arizona case is Timothy Ring, who was condemned for the 1994 murder of an armored car driver during a holdup.
His case could be the biggest challenge to the nation's death penalty laws since 1972, when the Supreme Court declared that capital punishment had become too "arbitrary and capricious."
In 1984 the Supreme Court upheld Florida's law against a challenge that asserted it violates the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. In 1990, the high court upheld Arizona's law against a similar challenge.
But in June 2000, a Supreme Court decision in an unrelated New Jersey case gave new hope to death row lawyers.
In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the justices struck down the state's hate crime law, ruling that a judge could not use the law to lengthen a sentence.