Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens issued an unusually stinging criticism of capital punishment Saturday evening, telling lawyers that he was disturbed by "serious flaws."
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.
Recent exonerations of death row inmates through scientific evidence are significant, he told the American Bar Association, "not only because of its relevance to the debate about the wisdom of continuing to administer capital punishment but also because it indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice."
While many justices in the past have spoken out on different issues, this was a very sweeping statement that I cannot see much of a positive in - even if I did agree with it. The bigger issue, however, is what this may show us of Justice Stevens' attitude toward whether a judge should be "activist" or not in their rulings. It seems clear that Justice Stevens feels that capital punishment should rarely, if ever, be given to a convicted criminal. Therefore, regardless of whether or not any individual criminal deserves and has been convicted of capital punishment, Justice Stevens would fail to enforce this because of his own personal convictions.
This is wrong. Judges' jobs are to judge. While they obviously must take into account the overall effect any decision has on society, their primary responsibility is to
"...administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [title] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God."
In addition, the issues Justice Stevens brings up are horribly one-sided in their presentation. One issue he raises is DNA evidence that has sometimes shown the defendant may not be guilty - often after the defendant has already been killed. This, admittedly, is tragic; however, there are a number of responses to this: The defendant was given a full trial, in which it a judgement of guilty is only possible with enough evidence to convict the defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt". This requires an incredible amount of evidence against the defendant - many of us have read, heard, or seen stories in which criminals receive not guilty verdicts, despite the overall probability [and seeming obviousness] that they are guilty, because the evidence was not enough to clear all reasonable doubts.
Second, most (if not all) capital punishment cases go through a series of appeals, often reaching their respective State's Supreme Court - if not the United States Supreme Court. This is a long, exhaustive process, in which any DNA evidence in favor of the defendant should be clearly presented, and which actually should have already been presented at trial. While I believe DNA evidence is not yet considered conclusive in either direction (please correct me if I'm wrong), it does carry quite a bit of weight. The length of time from the beginning of the appeals process to the final plea with a state's governor to remove the sentence is a lengthy period of time, ranging from a few years to over a decade. If during this period, the defendant [and his lawyers] cannot either find enough evidence or convince any of the courts or the governor that the sentence is unjust based upon the evidence, then there is no good reason for them not to receive the sentence meted out to them by their fellow citizens.
As a side note, it is interesting to note potential Justice Roberts' own take on similiar issues, based on past cases he has argued.
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.Roberts argued many cases intended on limiting criminals' rights, and "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.'" This is in direct contrast to Justice Stevens' take on the issue.
Juries might not be balanced because people who have qualms about capital punishment can be excluded by prosecutors, he said. And he questioned whether potential jurors are distracted by extensive questions about their views on the death penalty.To say that juries might not be balanced because lawyers have a number of exclusions is ridiculous and stupid. The lawyers on each side have an equal number of exclusions, and the defendant's lawyers can strike those in favor of capital punishment just as easily as the reverse.
In addition, Stevens said a statement from a victim's family "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."
Further, to claim that potential jurors are 'distracted by questions on their views of the death penalty' is extremely unclear, and does not explain how the distractions would somehow make the juror further in favor of the death penalty as opposed to the opposite. It seems to imply that jurors are predisposed against the death penalty, but that lawyers somehow convince them to switch their minds; I would argue that if anything, the opposite is true: People tend to see the wisdom in capital punishment, yet become afraid to carry it out in practice because of fears instilled in them by others, such as lawyers, that perhaps they are wrong in this instance.
Finally, the statement from a victim's family serves a multitude of purposes, and emotion being one of the primary ones is extremely important. The statement is meant to remind the jurors just what it is they are judging - the murder of an innocent, the murder of a friend, the murder of a parent, a sibling, even a child. If they are to find the defendant guilty, or if they already have (statements such as these are often given in the sentencing phase of the trial, which is after a finding of guilty), this type of statement is to remind the jurors of their responsibility: To mete out punishment equal to the crime, and to ensure that crimes such as these remain as rare as possible. How can one give a punishment which fits the crime if they do not understand the crime itself? How can one understand the crime itself if they cannot appreciate, on some small level, the loss which occured?! Emotions sometimes can affect reason - and at times such as these, they should.
We live, not just with our minds, but with our hearts. In life, we strive to serve the greater good; and sometimes we must remind ourselves that the best way to serve the greater good in the long-term is to allow our reason to overcome emotion in the short-term. But to always exclude emotion is to defeat the whole purpose. There are times when heart matters, and the sentencing of a convicted murderer is one of them. To say otherwise is just plain heartless.