Scalia: Constitution Doesn't Recognize Claims of Innocence After Verdict
Via Left in Alabama, Justice Scalia had this to say about the Troy Davis case, in which he dissented from the majority which ordered Davis get a hearing on his innocence claim. Davis, you may know, has had one of the the most compelling claims of innocence in decades. According to Justice Scalia:
This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "actually" innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged "actual innocence" is constitutionally cognizable.
Left in Alabama responds:[More...]
I'm starting to empathize with those tea-baggers who want their country back. Only we may not want the same country*. I want the one where it's "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
The Coffin case stands for the proposition that at the request of a defendant, a court must not only instruct on the prosecution's burden of proof--that a defendant cannot be convicted unless the government has proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--but also must instruct on the presumption of innocence--by informing the jury that a defendant is presumed innocent. The Court stated,
The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.
In tracing the presumption of innocence, the Court goes on to state:
It is stated as unquestioned in the text-books, and has been referred to as a matter of course in the decisions of this court and in the courts of the several States. See Taylor on Evidence, vol. 1, c. 5, 126, 127; Wills on Circumstantial Evidence, c. 5, 91; Best on Presumptions, part 2, c. 1, 63, 64; c. 3, 31-58; Greenleaf on Evidence, part 5, § § 29, &c.; 11 Criminal Law Magazine, 3; Wharton on Evidence, § 1244; Phillips on Evidence, Cowen & Hill's Notes, vol. 2, p. 289; Lilienthal v. United States, 97 U.S. 237; Hopt v. Utah, 120 U.S. 430; Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 295, 320; State v. Bartlett, 43 N.H. 224; Alexander v. People, 96 Illinois, 96; People v. Fairchild, 48 Michigan, 31; People v. Millard, 53 Michigan, 63; Commonwealth v. Whittaker, 131 Mass. 224; Blake v. State, 3 Tex. App. 581; Wharton v. State, 73 Alabama, 366; State v. Tibbetts, 35 Maine, 81; Moorer v. State, 44 Alabama, 15.
Greenleaf traces this presumption to Deuteronomy, and quotes Mascardus De Probationibus to show that it was substantially embodied in the laws of Sparta and Athens. Greenl. Ev. part 5, section 29, note. Whether Greenleaf is correct or not in this view, there can be no question that the Roman law was pervaded with the results of this maxim of criminal administration, as the following extracts show:
"Let all accusers understand that they are not to prefer charges unless they can be proven by proper witnesses or by conclusive documents, or by circumstantial evidence which amounts to indubitable proof and is clearer than day." Code, L. IV, T. XX, 1, 1. 25.
The noble (bivus) Trajan wrote to Julius Frontonus that no man should be condemned on a criminal charge in his absence, because it was better to let the crime of a guilty person go unpunished than to condemn the innocent." Dig. L. XLVIII, Tit. 19, 1. 5. "In all cases of doubt, the most merciful construction of facts should be preferred." Dig. L. L, Tit. XVII, 1. 56. "In criminal cases the milder construction shall always be preserved." Dig. L. L, Tit. XVII, 1. 155, s. 2. "In cases of doubt it is no less just than it is safe to adopt the milder construction." Dig. L. L, Tit. XVII, 1. 192, s. 1.
Ammianus Marcellinus relates an anecdote of the Emperor Julian which illustrates the enforcement of this principle in the Roman law. Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, "a passionate man," seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, "Oh, illustrious Caesar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?" to which Julian replied, "If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?" Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c.1.
The rule thus found in the Roman law was, along with many other fundamental and humane maxims of that system, preserved for mankind by the canon law. Decretum Gratiani de Presumptionibus, L. II, T. XXIII, c. 14, A.D. 1198; Corpus Juris Canonici Hispani et Indici, R.P. Murillo Velarde, Tom. 1, L. II, n. 140.
Exactly when this presumption was in precise words stated to be a part of the common law is involved in doubt. The writer of an able article in the North American Review, January, 1851, tracing the genesis of the principle, says that no express mention of the presumption of innocence can be found in the books of the common law earlier than the date of McNally's Evidence (1802). Whether this statement is correct is a matter of no moment, for there can be no doubt that, if the principle had not found formal expression in the common law writers at an earlier date, yet the practice which flowed from it has existed in the common law from the earliest time.
Fortescue says: "Who, then, in England can be put to death unjustly for any crime? since he is allowed so many pleas and privileges in favor of life; none but his neighbors, men of honest and good repute, against whom he can have no probable cause of exception, can find the person accused guilty. Indeed, one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally." De Laudibus Legum Angliae, Amos' translation, Cambridge, 1825.
Lord Hale (1678) says: "In some cases presumptive evidence goes far to prove a person guilty, though there be no express proof of the fact to be committed by him, but then it must be very warily pressed, for it is better five guilty persons should escape unpunished than one innocent person should die." 2 Hale P.C. 290. He further observes: "And thus the reasons stand on both sides, and though these seem to be stronger than the former, yet in a case of this moment it is safest to hold that in practice, which hath least doubt and danger, quod dubitas, ne faceris." 1 Hale P.C. 24.
Blackstone (1753-1765) maintains that "the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." 2 Bl. Com. c. 27, margin page 358, ad finem. How fully the presumption of innocence had been evolved as a principle and applied at common law is shown in McKinley's case (1817), 33 St. Tr. 275, 506, where Lord Gillies says: "It is impossible to look at it [a treasonable oath which it was alleged that McKinley had taken] without suspecting, and thinking it probable, it imports an obligation to commit a capital crime. That has been and is my impression.
But the presumption in favor of innocence is not to be reargued by mere suspicion. I am sorry to see, in this information, that the public prosecutor treats this too lightly; he seems to think that the law entertains no such presumption of innocence. I cannot listen to this. I conceive that this presumption is to be found in every code of law which has reason, and religion, and humanity, for a foundation. It is a maxim which ought to be inscribed in indelible characters in the heart of every judge and juryman; and I was happy to hear from Lord Hermand he is inclined to give full effect to it. To overturn this, there must be legal evidence of guilt, carrying home a decree of conviction short only absolute certainty." (my emphasis)
The Coffin case was later overruled on other grounds, having nothing to do with these principles.
There's many who don't understand this simple principle and the history behind it. In February, 2000, Al Gore was interviewed in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The article was called "15 Minutes of Al." It's no longer on line, but I quoted from it at the time:
When asked about his support of the death penalty in light of the rising number of innocents on death row, Gore said he is so strongly in support of the death penalty that he's willing to accept a few wrongful executions. Here's a portion of the interview.
"BG: What do you think about the Republican governor of Illinois calling a moratorium on the death penalty because there has been so much evidence that innocent people are on death row?
AG: Well, I support the death penalty.
BG: Well, so does he.
AG: I understand, and I also understand that the high-profile cases that have put a new spotlight on the error in capital convictions have put this issue in a new light. In Illinois, I don't want to make a judgment on what the circumstances are because I don't have the expertise. Nationally, I would not be in favor of a moratorium. The "Hurricane" notwithstanding.
BG: Are there people on death row elsewhere, or federal death row, who are innocent? Isn't that something we should be worried about?
AG: I would hope not. But I'll tell you this: I think that any honest and candid supporter of the death penalty has to acknowledge that that support comes in spite of the fact that there will inevitably be some mistakes. And that's a harsh concession to make, but I think it's the only honest concession to make, and it should spur us to have appreciation for habeas corpus, for the procedural safeguards for the accused, and for the fairness that's a part of the American judicial system and to resist efforts to take away the procedural safeguards. " (emphasis supplied.)
Between Scalia and Gore, it reminds me of what a friend of mine told me, whose job it was to recruit big firms to commit their lawyers to pro-bono work defending death row inmates with no counsel. She said that often, the lawyers' response to her plea to take one of these cases was to almost whisper to her, "Do you have an innocent one I can take?"
They never quite got that there's no way to know if someone is innocent when they didn't have competent counsel at trial, were identified as a result of an overly suggestive eyewitness procedure, had a confession beaten out of them, no DNA testing, were ratted out by a lying jailhouse snitch, may have an IQ below the level establishing mental retardation, or may be incompetent, delusional or otherwise severely mentally incapacitated. The question is not "did they do it?" but were they convicted following a a fair trial at which their constitutional rights were protected? Everyone is presumed innocent until a jury returns a verdict of guilty at the conclusion of a fair and impartial trial at which they are afforded their full panapoly of rights. If we can't trust in the credibility of the verdict, we can't trust in the integrity of the system that delivered it.
There is simply no excuse for executing someone who has a reasonable claim of innocence before providing him or her with a full and fair hearing on their claim. It's not what a civilized nation does, it's contrary to almost every constitutional right we have, from due process of law to the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel, to the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And it's certainly not justice.
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