A federal appeals court overturned an Arizona death sentence Thursday because the defendant, Robert Douglas Smith was intellectually disabled at the time of the offense and trial and thus cannot be put to death.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on a 2-1 vote, ordered Smith’s 34-year-old sentence reduced to life in prison.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, joined by Judge Mary Schroeder, held the state court’s factual determination that Smith was not intellectually disabled was not supported by the record and was not entitled to the appeal court’s deference.
An Arizona jury convicted Smith in 1982 of the kidnap, sexual assault and murder of Sandy Owen. Smith was traveling with Joe Lambright and Lambright’s girlfriend in 1980 when they decided to find a girl for Smith to have sex with, according to court records. They picked up Owen hitchhiking near Tucson. She was raped by Smith and stabbed by Lambright as Smith held her down, according to published accounts.
Both men were sentenced to death, although Lambright’s sentence was overturned in 2007 by the 9th Circuit because his lawyer spent less than five hours preparing for the case.
In dissent, Judge Connie Callahan said the federal court should have deferred to the state court holding on Smith’s intellectual capacity.
Reinhardt wrote separately to call into question the constitutionality of Arizona’s law that considers the mental disability or mental retardation that would foreclose applying capital punishment. “The constitutional infirmity of Arizona’s statute creates a recurring problem with potentially far-reaching consequences,” he said.
He suggested the standard of proof required was too low. But he did not get the vote of another judge on the panel.
Case: Smith v. Schriro, No. 96-99025