SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
SHAWN PATRICK LYNCH v.
on petition for writ of certiorari to the supreme court of arizona
No. 15–8366. Decided May 31, 2016
Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, dissenting.
Petitioner Shawn Patrick Lynch and his co-conspirator, Michael Sehwani, met their victim, James Panzarella, at a Scottsdale bar on March 24, 2001. The three went back to Panzarella’s house early the next morning. Around 5 a.m., Sehwani called an escort service. The escort and her bodyguard arrived soon after. Sehwani paid her $300 with two checks from Panzarella’s checkbook after spending an hour with her in the bedroom. Lynch and Sehwani then left the house with Panzarella’s credit and debit cards and embarked on a spending spree.
The afternoon of March 25, someone found Panzarella’s body bound to a metal chair in his kitchen. His throat was slit. Blood surrounded him on the tile floor. The house was in disarray. Police discovered a hunting knife in the bedroom. A knife was also missing from the kitchen’s knifeblock. And there were some receipts from Lynch and Sehwani’s spending spree.
Police found Lynch and Sehwani at a motel two days after the killing. They had spent the days with Panzarella’s credit and debit cards buying cigarettes, matches, gas, clothing, and Everlast shoes, renting movies at one of the motels where they spent an afternoon, and making cash withdrawals. When police found the pair, Sehwani wore the Everlast shoes, and Lynch’s shoes were stained with Panzarella’s blood. A sweater, also stained with his blood, was in the back seat of their truck, as were Panzarella’s car keys.
A jury convicted Lynch of first-degree murder, kidnaping, armed robbery, and burglary, and ultimately sentenced him to death.[1
] But today, the Court decides that sentence is no good because the state trial court prohibited the parties from telling the jury that Arizona had abolished parole. Ante,
at 1; see Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §41–1604.09(I) (1999). The Court holds that this limitation on Lynch’s sentencing proceeding violated Simmons
v. South Carolina
512 U. S. 154 (1994)
. Under Simmons
, “[w]here the State puts the defendant’s future dangerousness in issue, and the only available alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, due process entitles the defendant to inform the capital sentencing jury—by either argument or instruction—that he is parole ineligible.” Id.,
at 178 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment).
Today’s summary reversal perpetuates the Court’s error in Simmons
. See Kelly
v. South Carolina
534 U. S. 246,
(Thomas, J., dissenting); Shafer
v. South Carolina
532 U. S. 36,
(Thomas, J., dissenting). As in Simmons
, it is the “sheer depravity of [the defendant’s] crimes, rather than any specific fear for the future, which induced the . . . jury to conclude that the death penalty was justice.” 512 U. S., at 181 (Scalia, J., dissenting). In Simmons
, for example, the defendant beat and raped three elderly women—one of them his own grandmother—before brutally killing a fourth. See ibid.
The notion that a jury’s decision to impose a death sentence “would have been altered by information on the current state of the law
concerning parole (which could of course be amended) is . . . farfetched,” to say the least. Id.,
Worse, today’s decision imposes a magic-words requirement. Unlike Simmons
, in which there was “no instruction at all” about the meaning of life imprisonment except that the term should be construed according to its “ ‘[plain] and ordinary meaning,’ ” id.,
at 160, 166 (plurality opinion), here there was an instruction about the nature of the alternative life sentences that the trial court could impose:
“If your verdict is that the Defendant should be sentenced to death, he will be sentenced to death. If your verdict is that the Defendant should be sentenced to life, he will not be sentenced to death, and the court will sentence him to either life without the possibility of release until at least 25 calendar years in prison are served, or ‘natural life,’ which means the Defendant would never be released from prison.” App. S to Pet. for Cert. 18.
That instruction parallels the Arizona statute governing Lynch’s sentencing proceedings. That statute prescribed that defendants not sentenced to death could receive either a life sentence with the possibility of early release or a “natural life” sentence: “If the court does not sentence the defendant to natural life, the defendant shall not be released on any basis until the completion of the service of twenty-five calendar years,” but a defendant sentenced to “natural life” will “not be released on any basis for the remainder of the defendant’s natural life.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §13–703(A) (2001).
Even though the trial court’s instruction was a correct recitation of Arizona law, the Court holds that Simmons
requires more. The Court laments that (at least for now) Arizona’s only form of early release in Arizona is executive clemency. Ante,
at 3. So the Court demands that the Arizona instruction specify that “the possibility of release” does not (at least for now) include parole. Due process, the Court holds, requires the court to tell the jury that if a defendant sentenced to life with the possibility of early release in 25 years
were to seek early release today
, he would be ineligible for parole under Arizona law. Ante,
at 3–4. Nonsense. The Due Process Clause does not compel such “micromanage[ment of] state sentencing proceedings.” Shafer
at 58 (Thomas, J., dissenting).
Today’s decision—issued without full briefing and argument and based on Simmons,
a fractured decision of this Court that did not produce a majority opinion—is a remarkably aggressive use of our power to review the States’ highest courts. The trial court accurately told the jury that Lynch could receive a life sentence with or without the possibility of early release, and that should suffice.
I respectfully dissent.