Topeka The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to rehear arguments before ruling on the constitutionality of a Kansas death penalty law pleased some officials who think that might increase its chances of being upheld after it was struck down by the state's highest court.
The justices announced their decision Friday, apparently so new Justice Samuel Alito can break a tie. He replaced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was on the court when it first heard the case in December.
O'Connor was a swing vote in death penalty cases, sometimes joining the four more liberal members in throwing out death sentences.
The 1994 law says if the evidence for and against imposing a death sentence is equal, Kansas juries must impose death instead of life in prison. The state Supreme Court struck it down, invalidating the death sentences of six convicted killers.
The ruling involved the case of Michael Marsh II, sentenced to death for killing a woman and her 19-month-old daughter in 1996.
"I'm pleased that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to rehear arguments in the Marsh case," Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said. "This is not unexpected, due to recent changes in the court."
In his arguments before the justices, Kline said the law meets constitutional standards as long as it allows a jury to consider mitigating factors. He plans to reargue the case.
House Speaker Doug Mays called the court's decision "a good sign for the people of Kansas."
"This means the new court will hear it, and it increases the likelihood they will reinstate the death penalty," said Mays, R-Topeka.
If the justices agree the death penalty law is unconstitutional, Mays said, the Legislature would replace it with a new one because "the sentiment is still pretty strong in the chamber and pretty strong with the public."
Rehearing a case is seen as rare except when the court's makeup changes while a case is pending. The Kansas case is the second one that deadlocked the court following O'Connor's retirement in late January. The other case involves government whistleblowers.
No date has been set for the rehearing, although it could be in April. In the whistleblowers case, the court announced Feb. 17 there would be a rehearing, and a month later it heard arguments.
Donna Schneweis of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty welcomed the rehearing.
"It is a serious matter in a death penalty case when the factors for life are equal to the factors calling for death," she said.
An indication the court was deadlocked was that it ordered the same arguments presented and didn't request additional briefs.
Sen. John Vratil said it was hard to predict what the justices might ultimately decide.
"It's not just an up-or-down situation," said Vratil, R-Leawood. "There's a multitude of things they could do."
But he added, "From what I know about Justice Alito, it enhances the chances of the court overruling the Kansas Supreme Court."