WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will decide whether Billy Joe Magwood should be put to death for fatally shooting an Alabama sheriff 30 years ago, a case that will determine whether the state’s death penalty law was constitutionally applied.
The court yesterday agreed to hear Magwood’s appeal. He was convicted of gunning down Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham in the jail parking lot on March 1, 1979. He was sentenced to death June 2, 1981.
The Supreme Court refused to hear Magwood’s appeal of his conviction in 1997.
But a federal judge overturned his death sentence that year, saying Alabama had changed its laws to make Magwood’s crime a capital offense after it had been committed. A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta reversed that ruling, saying Magwood should have brought up that issue in his first round of appeals.
Magwood is appealing the decision to reinstate his death sentence at the Supreme Court.
Separately, the justices turned down an appeal from another Alabama death row inmate. Thomas Whisenhant challenged an appeals court ruling that left his death sentence for the 1976 rape and murder of a Theodore woman in place. Whisenhant argued that the judge colluded with prosecutors and denied him a fair trial.
In other actions yesterday:
■ Indian name: The court said it won’t hear an appeal from a group of Native Americans who think the name of the Washington Redskins football team is offensive.
The justices turned away an appeal from Suzan Shown Harjo. That ends the latest round in the 17-year court battle between the Redskins and a group of American Indians that wants the team to change its name.
Harjo and her fellow plaintiffs have been working since 1992 to have the Redskins trademarks declared invalid. They initially won - the US Patent and Trademark Office panel canceled the trademarks in 1999. But US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned the ruling in 2003 in part because the suit was filed decades after the first Redskins trademark was issued in 1967.
■ Book banning: The court decided to stay out of a dispute in Miami between school officials and civil libertarians over a book about Cuba that depicts smiling children in communist uniforms but avoids mention of problems in the country.
The Miami-Dade County School District board wants to ban the book, intended for children ages 5 to 8, because it does not mention Cuba’s alleged lack of civil liberties, political indoctrination of public school children, food rationing, and forced child labor.
■ Religious speech: The court rejected an appeal from a student who complained that high school officials violated her constitutional rights when they turned off her microphone during her religion-tinged graduation speech.
The justices said they will not revive a lawsuit filed by Brittany McComb of Henderson, Nev., challenging the actions of Clark County school officials. A federal appeals court previously ruled against her.