Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment

The American Bar Association is having its annual meeting in Chicago. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens spoke to the Group Saturday, and was sharply critical of the death penalty:

Stevens stopped short of calling for an end to the death penalty, but he said there are many problems in the way it is used. Stevens said DNA evidence has shown "that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously. . . . It indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice," he said.

It is death penalty cases, not abortion cases, that dominate the caseload of the Supreme Court.

In their last term, which ended in June, justices overturned the death sentences of four inmates, ruled that states cannot put to death killers who were not at least 18 years old at the time of the crime and held that it is unconstitutional to force defendants to appear before juries in chains during a trial's penalty phase.

Stevens was also critical of the death-qualifying jury selection process, the admission of victim-impact evidence and the lack of competent counsel in death cases.

He said Supreme Court cases have revealed that "a significant number of defendants in capital cases have not been provided with fully competent legal representation at trial." In addition, Stevens said he had reviewed records that showed "special risks of unfairness" in capital punishment.

Juries might not be balanced because people who have qualms about capital punishment can be excluded by prosecutors, he said. He questioned whether potential jurors are distracted by extensive questions about their death penalty views.

A statement from a victim's family, Stevens said, sometimes "serves no purpose other than to encourage jurors to decide in favor of death rather than life on the basis of their emotions rather than their reason."

Justice Stevens' comments could not come at a better time. With the confirmation hearings of Judge John Roberts less than a month away, it is critical that Senators question him on his views of the death penalty. There are four death cases on the Court's October calendar. Information released so far indicates Roberts has a hostile view towards death penalty appeals.

In 1992, Judge Roberts helped prepare a brief arguing that if a defendant was convicted in a fair trial, it was constitutional to execute him regardless of new evidence suggesting his innocence. A 6-3 Supreme Court agreed, and the Texas inmate was executed four months later.

...Judge Roberts's office fought to help states speed executions by limiting appeals and to reverse a state-court ruling that such victim-impact statements violated the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees protection from "cruel and unusual punishments."

< Judge John Roberts: Staunch Law and Order Man | Rita Cosby's 'Live and Direct' Debuts on MSNBC >
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    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#1)
    by roger on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    The criminal justice system as a whole is massively unfair, with judges who just can't keep themselves from prosecuting. Throw in a "death qualified" jury and defendants dont have a chance.

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#2)
    by Mreddieb on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    As soon as a potential Juror states he or she would be capable to inflict the death Penalty they automaticaly display a bias. If a pontential juror is against the Death penalty why should that disqualify them.

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    two areas i've never been real clear on: 1. victim impact statements at sentencing hearings. 2. victim's "rights". certainly, i would agree that the victims of a crime, any crime, have been adversely affected by that event, that should be self-evident. what that should have to do with sentencing is where it loses me. i was under the (apparently erroneous) impression that sentences were a matter for both the legislatures and the courts to decide, not the victims. for a strict constructionist, the concept of "victim's rights" must be truly anathema: nowhere in the constitution is such an idea to be found, either explicitly, or wrenched out of the bowels of an amendment. while we have an explicit right to be secure in our persons and our property, presumably this is taken into account by both the courts and the legislatures, in determining appropriate sentencing guidelines. both of these items, to me anyway, seem to negate the whole basis of our system of justice: a dispassionate, objective review of the facts, with sentences determined according to the deemed severity of the crime, and the convicted party's criminal history. am i missing some critical element here?

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#4)
    by wishful on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    cpinva, What you might be missing is the two-tiered nature of our justice system. Look around for a while and it becomes crystal clear. Wealthy and well-connected Americans are afforded deference at all costs (with rare exception), and the rest of us are afforded the "guilty until proven innocent" form of justice. I am particularly reminded of the Rhenquist opinion that says actual innocence is no reason not to execute a citizen if said citizen misses a filing deadline. In my observations, well-paid lawyers usually avoid capital convictions for their clients (in the rare instance things get that far), and similarly they don't miss life-and-death technical deadlines. Those oversights are reserved for the poorly served among us. I believe people like Bush call this justice. What I am missing is what can be done to fix it, if anything.

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#5)
    by DawesFred60 on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    Laws are a joke. inside the empire, all laws are used against people of good will in order to control and murder the culture of real laws and real order, arms can make you free. " See It For what it is".

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#6)
    by Dadler on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    i may disagree with him every once in awhile, but i have to say this to any diety who exists: please let this man live and work until he's at least a buck-o-five.

    Re: Justice Stevens Blasts Capital Punishment (none / 0) (#7)
    by Al on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    Victim's rights = revenge. The death penalty doesn't even make sense from a practical standpoint. It certainly is not a deterrent. People who approve of state-sanctioned killing do so simply out of a desire for vengeance. It's primitive, it's uncivilized, and it's useless. Get rid of it.