WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to overturn the death sentence of a man who confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky.
The justices ruled 6-3 that Robert Keith Woodall was not entitled to a new sentencing hearing despite his claim that jurors received faulty instructions.
Woodall argued that the trial judge should have told the jury not to draw any negative conclusions about his refusal to take the stand at his 1998 capital sentencing hearing.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the trial judge was under no obligation to instruct the jury about drawing adverse conclusions. Scalia acknowledged that prior Supreme Court precedents have required such instructions during the guilt phase of a criminal trial and in some cases during sentencing. But he said those decisions did not "clearly establish" a broad rule for all sentencing hearings.
Woodall pleaded guilty to kidnapping Hansen on Jan. 25, 1997, from a convenience store in western Kentucky. Woodall acknowledged that he raped the girl and slit her throat twice before taking her body to Luzerne Lake and throwing it in the water. DNA evidence, fingerprints and footprints led to Woodall.
A jury imposed a death sentence, but more than a decade later, a federal court found the jury instructions were flawed and overturned that sentence. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in 2012.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan joined Scalia's opinion reversing the appeals court.
To overturn a death sentence, Scalia said, Woodall had to show the decision involved an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law. But that standard can be met "only if the error alleged is so obvious that there could be no fairminded disagreement about its existence," Scalia said. In this case, the majority found the trial judge's decision was not unreasonable.
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, said the "normal rule is that Fifth Amendment protections apply during trial and sentencing." Breyer said the high court's precedent was clear in requiring the no-adverse-inference instruction during a sentencing hearing.
The case is White v. Woodall, 12-794.