A divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that an Arizona death row inmate was wrongly denied the right to tell jurors he would never get out on parole if he was sentenced to life instead of death. It is the third time the high court has told Arizona that capital defendants have that right, first identified in a 1994 case known as Simmons. Arizona had long claimed Simmons did not apply in the state, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument, ruling in a 2015 case known as Lynch that it does apply, Cronkite News reports. Despite that, John Montenegro Cruz was not allowed to tell jurors at his 2005 murder trial that if they did not sentence him to die, he would get life without chance of parole. He appealed his sentence after the Lynch opinion was handed down, but the Arizona Supreme Court said Lynch did not apply retroactively and rejected his appeal.
In her opinion for the 5-4 court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Arizona Supreme Court had created a catch-22 that made it “impossible for Cruz, and similarly situated capital defendants, to obtain relief.” That interpretation has had “a dramatic effect for capital defendants in Arizona,” she wrote. In a dissent, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said it was not the high court’s place to revise “a state court’s interpretation of its own law.” Legal experts said Wednesday’s ruling could affect as many as a dozen of the 110 inmates currently on Arizona’s death row. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center welcomed what he called a “clear statement” to Arizona courts that defendants have a right to tell jurors that a death sentence is not their only option. “What comes across (in the Cruz ruling) is a clarity of importance about this issue of instructing the jury so the jury doesn’t go blindly into its decision, and that the defendant needs to have a chance to raise that issue,” Dieter said.