Supreme Court to decide constitutionality of three judge-panel

LAS VEGAS - Despite personal misigivings, a district judge upheld the constitutionality of using a three-judge panel to decide death penalty cases when jurors cannot reach a verdict.

District Judge Jeffrey Sobel, who is the trial judge in the quadruple murder case against Donte Johnson, denied a defense motion Thursday to find that the judicial panel is unconstitutional. In effect, Sobel ruled the issue should be decided by the Nevada Supreme Court.

Although Sobel said he is opposed to the three-judge panel system, he also said he will abide by it as long as it's the law in Nevada.

After Sobel's ruling, a defense attorney for Johnson immediately filed an appeal with the Nevada Supreme Court seeking to block the start of a two-day hearing Monday to decide his client's fate.

Jurors found Johnson guilty of killing four people, but couldn't agree on whether his crime deserves the maximum sentence.

Under Nevada law, a three-judge panel that will include Sobel will hear evidence and decide the sentence.

Deputy Special Public Defender Dayvid Figler said he expects to learn Friday whether the Supreme Court will postpone that hearing while the issue is appealed.

Johnson, 23, was convicted of killing four people during a house robbery in August 1998. Authorities think Johnson fired a single bullet into the back of the head of each of the four victims, who had been bound with duct tape. The robbery netted about $240, a pager, a videocassette recorder and a home video game system.

Sobel is also the trial judge in the murder trial of Zane Floyd, who was convicted July 13 with killing four employees of a Las Vegas supermarket.


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