Circuit court to interpret recent death penalty ruling

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- One day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, are to decide whether to impose the death penalty, Missouri's highest court left the interpretation of the ruling up to a circuit judge.

The first comment on the matter from the Missouri Supreme Court came in a footnote to a death penalty appeal Tuesday.

Missouri's highest court sent the case of Rufus James Ervin back to Phelps County Circuit Judge David G. Warren to review facts in the case. The judges said in a footnote that it would be up to the lower court to decide how to apply Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Ervin, who was convicted of first-degree murder, was sentenced to death by the judge after a jury deadlocked.

"The question of whether Ervin was constitutionally entitled to a jury finding of aggravated circumstance in order for the judge to impose the death penalty need not be reached at this time," the court said in the footnote to a ruling written by Judge Michael Wolff.

Ervin has been on death row since 1997 for his conviction in the death of Leland White in Reynolds County, northwest of Poplar Bluff. Court records show that Ervin killed White on Sept. 1, 1994, by striking him several times with a brick.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday concerned instances in which juries determined defendants' guilt or innocence and judges alone decided their punishment. The court held that such sentences violate defendants' constitutional right to trial by jury.

State law allows judges to impose the death penalty in some cases, most often when the jury that convicted a defendant deadlocks about sentencing.

Attorney General Jay Nixon has said that all 68 Missouri death row cases, including Ervin's, will be reviewed for compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

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