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On May 31, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Lynch v. Arizona without oral argument. A jury convicted Shawn Patrick Lynch of first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, and burglary for the 2001 killing of James Panzarella. The State of Arizona sought the death penalty, and, before penalty phase began, moved successfully to prevent Lynch’s counsel from informing the jury that the only alternative to a death sentence was life without parole. When the first jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict, a second jury sentenced Lynch to death. After that sentence was vacated by a state appellate court due to errors in the jury instructions, a third penalty phase jury was convened and again sentenced Lynch to death.  

On appeal, Lynch, invoking the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Simmons v. South Carolina, argued that the trial court’s refusal to allow mention of his ineligibility for parole violated his federal Due Process rights. In Simmons, the Court stated that “where a capital defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and the only sentencing alternative to death available to the jury is life imprisonment without possibility of parole,” the Due Process Clause “entitles the defendant ‘to inform the jury of [his] parole ineligibility, either by a jury instruction or in arguments by counsel.’” The Arizona Supreme Court rejected Lynch’s argument and affirmed his death sentence.

By a of vote of 6-2, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Arizona Supreme Court’s judgment and remanded the case, holding in a per curiam opinion that the Arizona Supreme Court had erred in its attempt to distinguish Lynch’s case from the situation in Simmons. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined.

To discuss the case, we have Marah McLeod, who is an Associate Professor at Notre Dame Law School.

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