Schriro v. Summerlin

PETITIONER:Dora B. Schriro, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections
RESPONDENT:Warren Wesley Summerlin
LOCATION:Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 03-526
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 348 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 01, 2003
ARGUED: Apr 19, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 24, 2004

James A. Feldman – argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
John Pressley Todd – argued the cause for Petitioner
Kate Lowenstein – for Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation et al.
Ken Murray – argued the cause for Respondent
Michael Avery – for Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation et al.

Facts of the case

Warren Summerlin killed a loan collector with a hatchet in 1982 and was subsequently convicted of murder. He was sentenced to death by a state trial judge because of the heinous nature of the crime and his previous criminal history. He appealed the sentence, arguing that his attorney’s romantic relationship with the prosecutor and the trial judge’s proven use of marijuana had prevented him from receiving a fair trial, but the Arizona state courts rejected his appeals.

In June 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Ring v. Arizona. The decision found that the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial meant that only juries, not judges, could sentence someone to death. The Ring decision gave Summerlin new hope. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the decision changed the substance of the law rather than just the procedure used to apply it, and that it should therefore be applied retroactively. The state countered that the change dealt only with who did the actual sentencing, not with the burden of proof, and was therefore only procedural. Because procedural changes are not applied retroactively under the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Teague v. Lane, the state argued that Summerlin’s sentence should be upheld. A divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, siding instead with Summerlin and ordering the state to reopen his trial for re-sentencing.


Was the change announced by the Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona substantive in nature and therefore retroactively applicable?

Media for Schriro v. Summerlin

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 19, 2004 in Schriro v. Summerlin

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 2004 in Schriro v. Summerlin

Antonin Scalia:

The second case I have to announce is No. 03-526, Schriro v. Summerlin.

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The petitioner Warren Summerlin was sentenced to death in 1982, 22 years ago, for the murder of Brenna Bailey in Arizona.

Arizona law authorizes the death penalty if one or more aggravating factors is present.

At the time that finding of an aggravating factor was made by a judge rather than a jury.

The judge in Summerlin’s case found two aggravating factors and sentenced him to death.

That sentence was affirmed on Appeal.

Nearly 20 years later, we decided in Ring v. Arizona, that Arizona’s capital sentencing and procedures violated the Sixth Amendment by allowing the judge rather than the jury to find the facts essential to imposition of the death penalty.

This was an application of Apprendi.

The Ninth Circuit acting on Summerlin’s federal habeas petition held that our decision in Ring could be applied retroactively to his case and overturned his death sentence.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the Ninth Circuit.

When a decision of this Court results in a new rule, that rule applies to convictions that are already final only in certain limited circumstances.

New substantive rules generally apply retroactive.

New procedural rules, on the other hand, apply retroactively only, we have said, if they qualify as watershed rules of criminal procedure implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.

That a new procedural rule is fundamental in some abstract sense is not enough, the rule must be one without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished.

We conclude that Ring’s holding is properly classified as procedural, it did not alter the range of conduct or the class of persons subject to the death penalty in Arizona, but only the method of determining whether the defendant engaged in the criminal conduct.

We further conclude that Ring did not announce a watershed rule of criminal procedure, even though the right to jury trial is fundamental under our constitution, we cannot confidently say the judicial factfinding, as opposed to jury factfinding seriously diminishes accuracy.

It is a mode of finding the facts used in many other countries of the world, and as I indicated in announcing the prior case, the principal purpose of jury trial in the American system is not accuracy, but assurance of control by the people.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg joined.