By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - A Nevada death row inmate will get a second chance to show that his 1996 double-murder conviction was tainted because the trial judge was under investigation at the time for allegedly taking bribes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
The justices sent Michael Rippo's case back to the Nevada Supreme Court to re-examine any evidence related to potential bias on the part of the former trial judge, Gerard Bongiovanni, who was later indicted on federal corruption charges and acquitted.
The ruling set aside a Nevada Supreme Court decision last year rejecting Rippo's claims of judicial bias.
Rippo was sentenced to death in 1996 after a jury found him guilty in the 1992 robbery and murders of two women, Denise Lizzi and Lauri Jacobson, in Las Vegas. According to court papers, Rippo used a stun gun to subdue both women at Jacobson's apartment, bound and gagged them, then strangled them.
During the trial, Rippo sought to have Bongiovanni removed from the case after receiving information that the judge was the target of a federal probe alleging that he took bribes from litigants. The judge refused to recuse himself.
Rippo's conviction and death sentence were upheld in several state-level appeals, despite Rippo's claim, citing details from Bongiovanni's own trial, that the state district attorney's office had participated in the investigation of the trial judge.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, Rippo said that a judge cannot be impartial when he is being criminally investigated by one of the parties in a case. He said his right to a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution's promise of due process was put at risk.
In 2016, the Nevada Supreme Court refused to order a new hearing, ruling that Rippo's claims were speculative and did not show that the trial judge "was actually biased in this case."
In a sharp rebuke on Monday, the nation's top court said that analysis was incorrect. "The Nevada Supreme Court did not ask the question our precedents require: whether, considering all the circumstances alleged, the risk of bias was too high to be constitutionally tolerable," the justices wrote.
Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson, who urged the Supreme Court to turn away Rippo's case, declined to comment. The Nevada federal public defender's office, which is representing Rippo, could not immediately be reached.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)