WASHINGTON, Junew 12 (AP)--A sharply divided Supreme Court made it harder for convicted killers to challenge their death sentences in federal court after they were barred from telling jurors they would be ineligible for parole if sentenced to life in prison.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the justices said Virginia killer Bobby Lee Ramdass' death sentence was valid even though he was not allowed to give jurors such information.

The court's four dissenters said the decision condones ``an acute unfairness.''

The ruling clarified the court's 1994 decision that said defendants the right to tell jurors about their ineligibility for parole whenever prosecutors urge jurors to impose a death sentence based on ``future dangerousness.''

During a weeklong crime spree in 1992, Ramdass robbed two pizza restaurants and a convenience store in Fairfax County, Va. During one episode, he killed convenience store clerk Mohammed Kayani.

In separate trials, juries found him guilty of all three crimes. He was sentenced to death for the murder after a state court jury found he was ``a continuing threat to society.''

After all appeals were rejected in state courts, Ramdass sought help in federal court. He argued that he wrongly was barred from telling jurors about his ineligibility for parole under Virginia's three-strikes law.

The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that the three-strikes law did not apply to Ramdass when he was sentenced for the murder because he had not yet been sentenced for one of the three separate crimes for which he had been convicted. In other words, he technically had only two strikes.

A federal trial judge ruled that Ramdass was entitled to a new sentencing trial, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that decision. The appeals court said federal courts are bound by state courts' characterization of the relevant state laws.

Monday, the Supreme Court said the 4th Circuit court was right.

In the court's main opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said federal courts could not help Ramdass because ``the Virginia Supreme Court's decision to deny (him) relief was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application, of'' the Supreme Court's 1994 decision.

He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote separately but joined in the result.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

``There is an acute unfairness in permitting a state to rely on a recent conviction to establish a defendant's future dangerousness while simultaneously permitting the state to deny that there was such a conviction when the defendant attempts to argue that he is parole ineligible and therefore not a future danger,'' Stevens wrote for the four.

``Even the most miserly reading of the opinions in (the 1994 decision) supports the conclusion that (Ramdass) was denied one of the hallmarks of due process,'' Stevens said.

Kennedy, who in announcing the decision from the bench went into considerable detail about the cold-blooded manner in which Ramdass committed his murder, said the lack of a final judgment in a previous conviction was more than a formality.

On the Net: For the decision: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supctClick on ``this month's decisions'' or

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