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Lack of Jury Trial Won't Prevent Execution, 8th Cir. Holds

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 29, 2015 12:56 PM

Roderick Nunley pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 15-year-old in 1989. The state court judge sentenced him to death. Nunley had argued, before the Eight Circuit, that his capital sentence was a violation of state and federal precedent, since he was sentenced to death without a jury. According to Nunley, state and federal Supreme Court precedent required a jury sentencing for a death penalty to be permissible.

Not so, ruled the Eighth, which found that Nunley had unequivocally waived his right to a jury sentencing when he plead guilty.

Does the Ring Fit?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the Sixth Amendment protected a right to jury sentencing in capital prosecutions. In that case, Ring v. Arizona, the High Court found that a trial judge, sitting alone, could not impose a punishment in excess of what a defendant would receive from a jury verdict alone. Arizona had allowed juries to decide a murder defendants guilt, while the judge determined whether aggravating circumstances justifying capital punishment would apply. Under Ring, only a jury could find whether such circumstances existed.

Though the Supreme Court later ruled Ring did not apply to retroactively, the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed. In Under state law, the state court found, Ring entitled death row prisoners to capital jury sentencing, even though their cases were finalized. To Nunley, this seemed the perfect out -- his case would seem to fall right into the opening created by the state and federal courts' rulings.

The Missouri Supreme Court wasn't swayed, however, denying his motion to recall his execution mandate on the grounds that he had waived his right to jury sentencing when he pleaded guilty. At that time, the court notified him that he would lose his right to a jury trial, he said he understood and that was that.

Too Late to Go Back Now

The Eighth Circuit followed the logic of the Missouri Supreme Court. Nunley had knowingly and unequivocally waived his right to a jury and could not undo that later. Nunley had argued that his waiver couldn't have been knowing of voluntary, since the Supreme Court had not recognized the right to jury sentencing in capital cases. The lack of retroactivity under Ring, however, foreclosed that argument, the Circuit held.

Similarly, his challenge to the sentencing statute was unsuccessful. That the law forbids jury sentencing on guilty homicide pleas in most cases. That is not unreasonable, the Eighth ruled, since both the state court and the Fourth Circuit have found that a guilty plea in capital cases can waive the right to jury sentencing.

Unless the Supreme Court takes up his case, this could be the end of the road for Nunley. His co-defendant, Michael Taylor, was executed slightly over a year ago.

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