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9th Circ. Overturns 34-Year-Old Arizona Death Sentence

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on February 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Ninth Circuit just overturned a 1982 death sentence handed down by an Arizona court because it found that the convicted was intellectually disabled at the time of the crime; and thus his execution would be cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment and prongs of Atkins v Virginia.

There was not unanimity in the ruling and the dissent opined that the circuit should have deferred more greatly to the state's determination of the defendant's mental capacity. Following this ruling, his sentence has been reduced to life imprisonment.

The 1980 Crime

In 1980, Smith was riding in a vehicle with friends Joe Lambright and Lambright's then girlfriend when the collectively decided to find a girl for Smith. In the middle of the night, the group kidnapped a hitchhiking victim outside of Tucson, Arizona. Smith raped her and Lambright stabbed her to death while Smith restrained her.

Botched Trial

Both men where charged, tried, and convicted. The jury handed down death sentences to both of them, but Lambright managed to escape death by the state because his lawyer allegedly only spent a few hours preparing his client's case.

Smith Also Escapes

Justice would also come in to save Smith as well. The circuit court reviewed the record of the lower court that convicted Smith and concluded that it had erred in making its determination that Smith was not mentally disabled. In general, appeals courts will not overturn the lower court's decision even if it disagrees with the conclusion unless that court's finding is not "fairly supported by the record."

In the case of Smith, at least two judges concluded that Smith clearly satisfied the major conditions for Arizona's own definition of mental disability. Because the lower court's decision was not supported by the factual record thus leading the Circuit to conclude that the usual deference given to lower court decisions would not apply in this case.

Judge Callahan's Dissent

Judge Callahan did not join the majority and found their ruling spurious. "The one thing everyone appears to agree on," Judge Callahan wrote, "is that Smith is not intellectually disabled."

"Yet despite this fact," she continues "the certain that Smith [was intellectually disabled] in 1980 ..." If anything, there was, she contends, plenty of evidence to support the Arizona finding that Smith was not mentally disabled and deserved his sentence of death.

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