WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court dismissed an appeal Monday from a Louisiana man who claimed that most of a seven-year delay between his arrest and murder trial was the result of a breakdown in the state’s system for paying defense lawyers in death penalty cases.
The court’s conservative justices prevailed in a 5-4 vote to say they should never have taken the case of Jonathan Edward Boyer, who eventually was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. The outcome leaves his conviction and sentence in place.
The case was argued in January to address whether a state’s failure to pay lawyers for indigent defendants can violate the Constitution’s guarantee of a speedy trial.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Boyer’s case is illustrative of systemic problems in Louisiana and the court should have ruled in his favor.
The justices occasionally agree to take up a case and then think better of it after the case is argued. When that happens, there is no decision from the high court and the lower court ruling that was appealed is allowed to remain in place.
In rare instances, like Boyer’s case, the court’s internal disagreements erupt into public view. In addition to Sotomayor’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately in support of the outcome.
Alito said that the argument and the record in the case suggest that Boyer’s lawyers were responsible for most of the delay, rather than the state.
Boyer was arrested for the murder of a driver who authorities say picked up Boyer and his brother in Sulphur, in southwestern Louisiana.
He was indicted for first-degree murder and prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty. For the next five years, the two sides fought over money to pay Boyer’s lawyers.
Finally, the state reduced the charge to take away the prospect of a death sentence, which also made the cost of Boyer’s defense cheaper.
Still, it took another two years for his murder trial to take place.
One footnote to the case was that the jury that convicted Boyer was not unanimous, according to court papers.
Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states that allow for divided juries for all but the most serious crimes. The Supreme Court has rejected several appeals challenging the constitutionality of non-unanimous verdicts.
The case is Boyer v. Louisiana, 11-9953.