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San Francisco appeals court tosses out 100 death sentences

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court threw out more than 100 death sentences in Arizona and two other states today because the inmates were sent to death row by judges instead of juries.

The case 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.

In 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 in prison.

The ruling applies only to Arizona, Idaho and Montana, the only 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.

"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," Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the court.

Defense attorneys hailed the verdict.

"This is fundamental justice," said Ken Murray, a federal public defender in Phoenix.

Murray estimated that the decision affects at least 100 inmates on Arizona's death row alone.

The Arizona attorney general's office did not immediately return calls seeking comment. But lawyers involved in the case said the ruling is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case the appeals court used to decide the issue concerned Arizona inmate Warren Summerlin, who was found guilty of murder in the 1981 slaying of Brenna Bailey, 36.

The Tempe finance company administrator's body was found in the trunk of her car a day after she visited Summerlin to check on money he owed. Summerlin was convicted in 1982 and a judge sentenced him to death.