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Justices divided on death sentence

Retiring O'Connor casts decisive vote

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court split yesterday in reinstating a California inmate's death sentence, a decision that came down to the vote of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justices voted 5-4 to overturn an appeals court ruling that declared Ronald Sanders's sentence unconstitutional.

It was the first capital punishment decision under newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts and probably one of the last cases in which O'Connor will have an influential vote.

Senators are considering President Bush's nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to succeed O'Connor. Alito's views track those in the ruling against Sanders.

''Replacing O'Connor with Alito in this opinion would not have made a difference," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports the death penalty and backed California in the case.

Sanders was put on death row in 1982 after he was convicted of killing a woman a year earlier during a drug-related robbery in Bakersfield, Calif. The victim, Janice Allen, was bound with a vacuum cleaner electrical cord, blindfolded, and beaten to death.

Two of the four 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 eligible for a death sentence even without those factors. The Supreme Court's five conservative members agreed.

In a dissent, Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter said ''this decision is more likely to complicate than to clarify our capital sentencing jurisprudence." Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a separate dissent, complaining that the court's finding could ''deprive a defendant of a fair and reliable sentencing proceeding."

Without O'Connor, the court would have been split 4-4, which would have left in place the lower court ruling in Sanders's favor.

The decision was announced as senators were in the third day of Alito's confirmation hearing. Alito has been a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for the past 15 years.

Scalia referred in his opinion to a Third Circuit opinion by Alito in a 1995 case, in which Alito said Delaware death row inmates William Flamer and Billie Bailey did not deserve new sentences despite problems with factors considered by jurors. Both were executed a few months later.

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