WASHINGTON -- Less than a week after the nation's 1,000th execution since states resumed capital punishment, the Supreme Court devoted its entire session yesterday to the intricacies of jury deliberations in death penalty cases.
In cases out of Oregon and Kansas, the court was presented with questions about jurors who harbor lingering doubts about a defendant's guilt while being asked to impose a death sentence or who believe that evidence for and against execution is equal.
The justices spent a lot of time struggling to understand the legal positions taken by lawyers for the two death row inmates who preferred that the high court stay out of their cases.
The states of Oregon and Kansas asked the justices to find that their respective supreme courts wrongly extended the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to the two cases.
But the lawyers for the inmates threw the justices off by offering little support for decisions by their courts that favored their clients.
''You win on the Eighth Amendment . . . and when you leave the courthouse, you say, 'I don't want it anymore,"' an incredulous Chief Justice John Roberts told attorney Richard L. Wolf, who represents an Oregon inmate.
The Oregon court ruled that Randy Lee Guzek has a constitutional right to present alibi evidence during a sentencing trial.
The Kansas court used Michael Lee Marsh's case to find the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional because it could force juries to impose death sentences if aggravating evidence of a crime's brutality and mitigating factors explaining a defendant's actions are equal in weight.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor waved off Wolf's insistence that Guzek should be able to capitalize on ''residual," or lingering doubts a jury may have after conviction.
''I don't see how it's relevant to go in at sentencing and say there are all these doubts," O'Connor said. ''By finding [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt, there's not a reasonable doubt left."
In Marsh's case, Justice Stephen Breyer doubted that a jury has ever found that evidence for and against a death sentence was of equal weight. ''This is a lawyer's hypothetical," he said.
Marsh was convicted in the June 1996 killings of Marry Ane Pusch and her 19-month-old daughter, M.P.
The cases are significant because they arise at a time when the court is undergoing one of its biggest shake-ups in decades.
The court has a new chief and it is losing O'Connor, one of its most influential members, to retirement.
O'Connor has often been the swing vote in capital cases, including a 5-4 decision earlier this year that overturned a ruling against a Pennsylvania inmate by appeals court Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's pick to replace O'Connor.
In 1972, the high court struck down the death penalty because of arbitrary sentencing procedures used by states. Four years later, justices said states could use the death penalty if they added safeguards to sentencing procedures.
But in recent years, O'Connor and other justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, have expressed concerns that capital defendants are not getting adequate legal representation.
Guzek was convicted by an Oregon jury in the June 1987 slayings of Rod and Lois Houser, the uncle and aunt of his former high school girlfriend.
His murder convictions have been upheld by the state's highest court. But changes in Oregon law and mistakes by the trial judge led the Oregon Supreme Court to overturn his death sentence three times.
Oregon Solicitor General Mary Williams argued that allowing Guzek to offer evidence of his innocence during the sentencing hearing is improper because it will force prosecutors to prove his guilt all over again.