Six inmates sentenced to death for various murders will not receive new trials or new sentencing hearings, according to a decision of the Idaho Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona,  that the Sixth Amendment‟s jury trial guarantee requires that a jury find an aggravating circumstance necessary to impose the death penalty instead of a judge.  Idaho’s statutory scheme required, prior to that ruling, that the district court find the aggravating factor.  

Each of the six inmates whose cases were at issue in In re: Paul Ezra Rhoades had been sentenced to death under the Idaho statute – based on a finding of an aggravating circumstance by the judge, not a jury. So their challenge in State court was based on their claim that the federal law as determined by the US Supreme Court should require that their death sentences be overturned and they be re-sentenced. Justice Horton, writing for the Idaho Court affirmed their commitment to the traditional view that the federal rights at issue here do not require resentencing. There is, according to the Court, no retroactive application of the new federal rule announced in Ring. Bottom line – the process by which the death sentence was imposed stands.  The reason rests in the Court’s holding in Schriro v. Summerlin (542 US 348, 358 (2004) that Ring announced a new procedural rule that did not apply to cases already final on direct review under federal retroactivity doctrine.

So this is a complex area of law and the case, interesting as it is, restates the law as decided on this point regarding retroactive application. The holdings of Schriro, Ring, and Teague v. Lane, are also a reminder of the value of the lawyer you retain to help get you through any case – not just a death penalty or habeas corpus matter. Here are two things for you to consider as you decide whether you should retain a lawyer for a criminal case:

FIRST – the law is often complex and application of its principles to your case may be critical to keeping you free.  That’s right – free. Today I met with a client about a presentence investigation interview he is about to undergo. A question on the form he must fill out asks him what is important in his life. "Freedom and family," he said. I would not have a better answer. So with freedom on the line and various legal concepts and interpretations by state and federal courts, you should hire a lawyer. A legal education is essential if you hope to have the best chance at winning and staying free.

SECOND – the law is fluid. Before Ring, the Supreme Court had NOT held that the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial guarantee required a jury finding of an aggravating factor for the death penalty. Most lawyers handling death penalty cases in habeas or on direct appeal (including me on three occasions) had argued the point, but without success. It was only after the "conservative" Supreme Court concluded the Sixth Amendment contained this requirement that this became a potential game changer. Still, as Justice Horton points out in his analysis, another case (Teague) limits the application of a new rule of law decided by the Court if it is procedural. The law is a living breathing thing – and it changes – even when the folks interpreting the law profess to look no further than the words of the Constitution itself. To give yourself every advantage, you should get a trained lawyer to keep you up on the changing legal landscape.

So the six death sentenced inmates remain so – at least at this point. Changes in the interpretation of the Sixth Amendment or some other legal provision may change that, which is why those death penalty cases seemingly go on forever. Whether your case is seemingly simple or obviously complex, do yourself a favor and consult with a trained attorney. You have so much at risk whenever the government contends you committed a crime that it makes no sense to try and handle your legal matter without a professional.