High Court Rejects Killer’s Claim of Double Jeopardy

Times Staff Writer

Convicted murderers who escape a death sentence through a hung jury can be sentenced to die when they are retried, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, rejecting a double jeopardy claim.

The 5-4 decision, which upholds a death sentence for a Pennsylvania man who shot and killed a restaurant manager, resolves a narrow question that is unlikely to arise often.

In the past, the court has said that a death row inmate whose conviction or death sentence is overturned on appeal can be tried and sentenced to death a second time. On the other hand, convicted murderers whom juries decide not to condemn cannot be forced to face the death penalty again.

This second sentencing trial would violate the double jeopardy ban, the court said in 1984. The 5th Amendment says “no person shall


David Sattazahn, the Pennsylvania murderer, was neither convicted nor acquitted during the sentencing phase of his first trial in 1991.

Instead, the jury split 9 to 3 on the sentencing issue, with most favoring a life term. At that time, the jurors were told Sattazahn had no other criminal record.

With the jury “hopelessly deadlocked,” the judge sentenced him to life in prison.

But Sattazahn appealed and won a ruling reversing his conviction on the grounds that the instructions were flawed.


In the meantime, however, Sattazahn pleaded guilty to several burglaries and third-degree murder.

State prosecutors retried him for the original crime, and after handing down a conviction, the jury voted unanimously to sentence him to death.

Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for the court, said a hung jury is the equivalent of a non-decision.

Sattazahn “cannot establish that the jury or court ‘acquitted’ him during his first capital-sentencing proceeding.... His ‘jeopardy’ never terminated,” he said.

The court split along the usual ideological lines.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in Sattazahn vs. Pennsylvania.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said “Sattazahn was forced to run” the gantlet once and should not have had to face the death penalty a second time.

She also said the ruling poses a dilemma for convicted defendants who, because of a hung jury, are sentenced to life in prison. If they believe they were wrongly convicted and lose on appeal, these defendants could face a death sentence after a second trial.


“The court’s holding confronts [these] defendants with a perilous choice,” said Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.

This situation is unlikely to occur in California. If a sentencing jury is hung in a death penalty case and unable to decide on life or death, state law calls for the judge to bring in a new sentencing jury.