Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Supreme Court Justice Blasts Georgia's Death Penalty

To say this was odd is an understatement. The "blast" from Justice Stevens came in a case the court (and the justice himself) voted to deny cert.

U.S. Justice criticizes Georgia's death penalty appeals and review:

A U.S. Supreme Court justice on Monday criticized the way the Georgia Supreme Court considers capital appeals, calling its review faulty and superficial.

The likely result, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “is the arbitrary or discriminatory imposition of death sentences.”

Stevens went out of his way to criticize the [Georgia] Supreme Court’s “proportionality review” in the high court’s rejection of death-row inmate Artemus Rick Walker’s appeal. The review is supposed to make sure a death sentence is not disproportionately severe when compared to similar cases.

Though Justice Stevens agreed that the court should not have heard the case, he wrote that it pointed to an important issue. State courts, he said, have an obligation to review capital cases to make sure that death sentences are not being imposed arbitrarily.

To do this, he said, courts must compare the murders that gave rise to death sentences with how similar murders were treated. Lawyers call this “proportionality review.”

Justice Stevens criticized the Georgia Supreme Court for conducting “an utterly perfunctory review” in the case of Artemus R. Walker, who had been convicted of luring a man from his home, killing him for money and then trying to break into the home, where the man’s wife and daughter were. The court, he said, had considered only other cases in which the death penalty had been imposed to satisfy itself that the death sentence was warranted.

It's odd when a justice votes to deny hearing a case yet issues such a strong "opinion" on the matter regardless. Perhaps he was reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's excellent series on this matter, which the paper published last spring, entitled "A matter of life or death."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented the same problem with the state Supreme Court’s review a year ago. Walker’s lawyers cited the AJC’s investigation in their appeal to the high court.

The newspaper found that the state Supreme Court’s review typically compares death cases only with other death cases, not similar cases in which a life sentence was imposed. The AJC also found that, since 1982, 19 percent of the death cases cited by the court to justify other death sentences had already been thrown out on appeal.

While it's true that the Constitution does not explicitly call for "proportional review" of death penalty cases, the idea that a disproportionate application of death sentences would not violate the 14th (or 8th) amendment is, indeed, "without foundation."

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