The case involves Arizona and eight other states that still give the total responsibility to judges or judge panels.
In 1990s Walton v. 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 v. 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.
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 Magosh, 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 him 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. The judge acted after Ring's co-defendants testified that he was the triggerman and ringleader.
Relying on Supreme Court precedent, the judge ruled there were "aggravating" circumstances that justified the extreme penalty, and no "mitigating" circumstances that would lessen the penalty.
When the Arizona Supreme Court agreed, Ring's attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
Speaking for the death row inmate Monday, Phoenix attorney Andrew Hurwitz pointed to the central holding in Apprendi of jury involvement in "enhanced" sentences, and told the justices, "We submit that principle controls this case."
At that point, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that if the court rules along those lines, "we'd have to overrule a number of (high court) precedents."
Hurwitz conceded that some case law would have to be reversed.
Speaking for Arizona, state Attorney General Janet Napolitano relied on those precedents -- including the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, which outlawed the death penalty throughout the United States simply because there was no "aggravating" and "mitigating" circumstances assessment.
The Supreme Court should hand down a decision in the current case before it recesses for the summer in late June or early July.
(No. 01-488, Ring v. Arizona)