A divided Supreme Court reinstated a California inmate’s death sentence on Wednesday, the first 5-4 vote under newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justices overturned an appeals court ruling that declared Ronald Sanders’ sentence unconstitutional. Sanders was put on death row in the 1982 killing of a woman during a drug-related robbery in Bakersfield, Calif.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the ruling, the court’s first death penalty decision since Roberts replaced Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist last fall.
The case presented a technical question for the court involving jurors’ consideration of invalid aggravating factors.
Special circumstances used by prosecutors in their case against Sanders — that the crime was committed during a burglary and was cruel or heinous — were later found invalid.
California argued that Sanders would have been sentenced to death even without those arguments. The Supreme Court’s five conservative members agreed.
“The erroneous factor could not have ‘skewed’ the sentence, and no constitutional violation occurred,” Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Roberts, retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said “this decision is more likely to complicate than to clarify our capital sentencing jurisprudence.”
Also disagreeing with the decision were Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, although their reasons were varied.
In a lengthy dissent, Breyer said the court’s finding could “deprive a defendant of a fair and reliable sentencing proceeding.”
The case is Brown v. Sanders, 04-980.