Court Bars Execution of Bolles’ Killer but OKs Death Penalty Law
The Supreme Court permanently blocked the execution of an Arizona killer Thursday, a day after upholding the death penalty law under which he had been sentenced.
One attorney general called the sequence “a complete fluke.”
Two of the justices who voted with the majority in the 5-4 decision upholding the state law did not take part in Thursday’s action, turning Wednesday’s dissenters into a 4-3 majority for the one case.
In a brief order, the justices refused to reinstate the death sentence of John Harvey Adamson, who was convicted of murdering Phoenix newspaper reporter Don Bolles in 1976.
In 1988, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Adamson’s death sentence after striking down a provision in Arizona law that lets judges, instead of juries, choose between life and death for convicted murderers.
The appeals court’s ruling called into doubt the validity of death penalty laws in Idaho and Montana, which also allow for sentencing by judges. But the Arizona provision was declared constitutional Wednesday by the Supreme Court in the case of another Arizona killer.
Thursday’s confusing turn of events came about because Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, a former state judge in Arizona, and Anthony M. Kennedy, a former 9th Circuit judge, did not participate in Adamson’s case.
That left only Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White and Antonin Scalia voting to grant Arizona’s appeal and set aside the 9th Circuit court’s ruling in the Adamson case.
Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, who voted Wednesday to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law, voted to deny Arizona’s appeal in the Adamson case.
The result is that both the 1988 appeals court ruling and a contradictory Supreme Court decision are on the books. The practical effect is that Adamson cannot be sentenced to death.
Arizona Atty. Gen. Bob Corbin said: “As we see it, the Arizona death penalty statute is constitutional . . . but it doesn’t apply to Adamson. It’s a crazy decision, but that’s what they voted.”
Idaho Atty. Gen. Jim Jones called the sequence of events “ridiculous” but predicted that Thursday’s action would affect no Death Row inmate but Adamson.
“It really means not too much more than Adamson is going to get off because of a complete fluke, and the work of the judges of the 9th Circuit court,” Jones said.
Prosecutors said Adamson was paid $100,000 to attach a bomb to the car of Bolles, who had been investigating organized crime for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Bolles died on June 11, 1976, nine days after his car exploded.
Before dying, Bolles identified Adamson as the man who had made an appointment to see him the day of the bombing.