Here is another of those 5 to 4 rulings by the United States Supreme Court that I have come to loathe.  I find them particularly frustrating because, but for one vote, the decision would have gone the other way and the law would now be totally different.  Many people are hereinafter affected.  This case pertains to the matter of David Sattazahn, who, along with his friend Jeffrey Hammer, accosted a restaurant manager in the parking lot of his restaurant, demanding money and, when things didn’t work out, Mr. Sattizahn and Mr. Hammer shot and killed the manager.

In his first trial, Mr. Sattizahn was convicted of murder, and when it came time to punish, the jury was hung, deadlocked nine to three in favor of life imprisonment for Mr. Sattizahn, as opposed to the death penalty.  The judge then imposed a term of life in prison, as required by law in the state of Pennsylvania, which is where this case took place.

Mr. Sattizahn then filed an appeal with respect to his conviction, and the Appellate Court granted him a new trial due to a number of mistakes made by the trial judge.  Mr. Sattizahn was retried and again convicted, and at the punishment phase the jury imposed the death penalty. The Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania upheld both the conviction for murder and the death sentence, claiming that the nine to three hung jury in favor of life imprisonment at his initial trial and that judge’s life in prison sentence for Mr. Sattizahn did not bar the State from seeking the death penalty at the re-trial.

This is a terrible ruling.  Let us say hypothetically that Mr. Sattizahn didn’t do it.  If someone is wrongly convicted, how can they comfortably appeal their conviction knowing that a more significant sentence is being put back in play?

In this case, Mr. Sattizahn could have kept his conviction for murder and spent the rest of his life in prison; however, he decided he wanted to appeal, or perhaps an attorney guided him to that decision.  Is his benefit for having a new trial granted to him that he now must face death?  This is extremely unfair.

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the divided Supreme Court, and he stated that “the entry of a life sentence required by statute when the jury is hung does not create an ‘entitlement’ to such a sentence.”  I think it does – or at least, it should.

The four dissenting Justices were led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who stated that this decision “confronts defendants with a perilous choice of either appealing their convictions and facing death at their re-trial, or forgoing a potentially meritorious appeal and letting the life sentence stand.”  My sentiments exactly.  No defendant should ever be put in that position.  For that matter, the death penalty has recently been called into question more than ever based on the actions of former Governor Ryan of Illinois, commuting all death sentences to life imprisonment on his last day in office.  As Justice Ginsburg states, “The death penalty is unique in both its severity and its finality.”  And that should not be something brought back into play merely by a defendant having appealed his conviction.  Also weighing in on this matter is Chris Adams of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, stating that, “Some innocent defendants who are sentenced to life may be forced to forego an appeal of their convictions.”

The law in California is different than that in Pennsylvania.  Here, if the jury is hung on the issue of sentencing, that issue is brought before a new jury if the prosecution wishes to make another attempt at attaining the death penalty.  This is very different from Pennsylvania where a hung jury, by law, requires the judge to impose a life sentence.  In Pennsylvania, in order to obtain the death sentence, the prosecution needs to get all twelve votes the first time.  In California, if the prosecutor does not obtain a unanimous ruling the first time, he gets another bite at the apple.

Death is such an extreme measure that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the prosecution getting one bite at that apple, and if they get all twelve votes, then fine, but if not, a life sentence should be imposed.  That life sentence should not be subject to being replaced by a sentence of death.  People should be free to pursue an appeal of their matter without the concern that they might win!  If they win, they then are going to trial again, and if it goes bad, they can be put to death.  There are states that have a mandatory appellate process when an individual is convicted of murder.  Those states will now have to reexamine their policy and/or their statute.  One who is convicted might say something along the lines of, “Please do not appeal for me, I know the law requires it, but I would rather keep the sentence I have than risk being put to death.”

When it comes to election time, people often resent the fact that the argument is made that you are not only voting for a President but you are voting for the Justices he will appoint.  That, however, is true.  The President of the United States appoints the Justices of the United States Supreme Court along with numerous other Federal justices and/or judges.  When 2004 rolls along, and any and every other Presidential election comes up, please consider that your vote will greatly impact our justice system.  If you are content with things the way they are, then you will probably want to vote for the individual or party in power.  If you would like things to be different, consider that when you enter the voting booth.



Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.  He can be reached at charlieunger