The case involves Arizona and eight other states that still give the total responsibility to judges.
In 1990's Walton vs. Arizona, the Supreme Court seemed to settle the question when it ruled that Arizona's sentencing process did not violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of trial by jury and other due process protections.
However, in 2000 the Supreme Court ruled in Apprendi vs. New Jersey that under the Sixth Amendment, the states cannot remove the jury from any court process that increases the penalty for a defendant.
The current case before the Supreme Court will decide whether Apprendi, which has had reverberations throughout the justice system, also affects how a convicted murderer is sentenced.
Does the fact that in some states a judge alone sentences someone to death, instead of some lesser penalty such as life in prison, run afoul of Apprendi and the Sixth Amendment?
In November 1994 in Maricopa County, Ariz., a missing Wells Fargo armored van was found in the parking lot of a Sun City church.
The van's doors were locked, its engine running. The driver, John Magoch, was slumped over the wheel, shot through the head.
Wells Fargo later determined that more than half a million dollars in cash, along with checks and other valuables, was missing from the van.
Suspect Timothy Stuart Ring was eventually captured and a jury convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, armed robbery, burglary and theft.
The trial judge, acting under the state plan without jury involvement, sentenced him to death.
When the Arizona Supreme Court agreed, Ring's attorneys asked the Supreme Court of the United States to intervene.
Though not yet scheduled, argument should be heard in April.
Besides Arizona, eight other states give judges alone the responsibility for sentencing someone to death:
(No. 01-488, Ring vs. Arizona)