Should a judge be able to impose the death sentence in a capital case when the jury cannot decide whether the defendant should die?
The Missouri Supreme Court will take up that question Wednesday in the case of Deandra Buchanan, who was convicted in the November 2000 killings of his girlfriend, aunt and stepfather, all Columbia residents. Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gene Hamilton sentenced Buchanan to death in April 2002 after the jury could not decide whether he should be executed or imprisoned for life.
Buchanan’s attorney, Gary E. Brotherton of Columbia, argued that the procedure Hamilton followed in issuing the death sentence was unconstitutional. In Missouri, juries must make certain determinations, such as whether there were extenuating circumstances that do not outweigh the facts of the case, before sentencing. Brotherton said that Hamilton had failed to poll the jurors to find out whether they had made those determinations.
Brotherton also cited Ring v. Arizona, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a death sentence because the punishment was handed down by a judge and not a jury.
“The framers of our Constitution installed the jury as the ultimate check against ‘oppression by the government,’ ” Brotherton wrote in a brief to the court. “Deeming an independent judiciary insufficient by itself, the framers insisted upon juries to further protect the citizenry against arbitrary action.”
John Morris, a Missouri assistant attorney general, argued that Buchanan’s jury had only one determination to make — whether the crime made the defendant eligible for the death sentence. Morris said the Ring decision by the U.S. Supreme Court does not require a jury to consider mitigating evidence nor to make the actual sentencing decision.
“Ring expressly declined to address whether the jury was required to make any finding other than that of statuatory aggravating circumstances because that was the only question presented to it,” Morris stated in his brief.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco threw out more than 100 death sentences in Arizona, Montana and Idaho that were issued by judges. Morris’ spokesman Scott Holste said that court’s decision is not relevant to Buchanan’s case.