The court overturned more than 100 death sentences in Arizona, Idaho and Montana. The ruling stems from a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the high court found that juries, not judges, must render death sentences. But the Supreme Court left unclear whether the new rules should apply retroactively to inmates awaiting execution.
By an 8-3 vote, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said all condemned inmates sentenced by a judge should have their sentences commuted to life terms.
“By deciding that judges are not constitutionally permitted to decide whether defendants are eligible for the death penalty, the Supreme Court altered the fundamental bedrock principles applicable to capital murder trials,” Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the court.
The ruling applies only to Arizona, Idaho and Montana, the states in the 9th Circuit that have allowed judges to impose death sentences.
Two other states, Nebraska and Colorado, have also allowed judges to sentence inmates to death. But the federal appeals courts that oversee them have yet to rule on the issue.
Defense attorneys hailed the verdict.