News 04.16.08

Supreme Court decides lethal injection case, hears arguments on capital punishment for sex offenders

The U.S. Supreme Court today signaled that executions in the United States could resume, with a decision in the high-profile case of Baze v. Rees, which challenged the constitutionality of the country’s most common method of lethal injection. In a decision that split justices among several lines of argument, the final vote was 7-2 to allow lethal injections to continue. The justices adopted a standard that an execution method is only unconstitutional if it poses a “substantial risk of serious harm.”

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has already announced that the state

will resume executions

after the decision.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who voted in the majority that reinstated the death penalty in the U.S. in 1976, joined the majority in Baze v. Rees, but in result only. He wrote in his concurring opinion that “the time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived." He went on to cite

the possibility of executing an innocent person

as another reason the U.S. should reconsider its support of the death penalty.

There has been a de facto moratorium on executions in the U.S. while states waited for the court’s decision in this case. Today’s decision means that the chances of an innocent person being executed are once again very real, as executions will likely resume immediately. One Innocence Project client on death row, Tommy Arthur in Alabama, was scheduled for execution before challenges to lethal injection led to a delay in the execution date. Will Alabama Gov. Bob Riley grant him the DNA testing that could prove his innocence before allowing him to be executed?

Learn more about Arthur’s case here

and

send an email to Riley here

.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck commented on today’s decision, and the irony that it came down on the same day Thomas McGowan is expected to walk free in Dallas.

“It’s a bitter irony that on the same day the Supreme Court paved the way for more executions and is considering expanding the death penalty beyond murder cases, a man is being released from prison in Texas after serving 23 years for a crime that DNA proves he didn’t commit.  The same flaws in the criminal justice system that led to Thomas McGowan’s wrongful conviction exist in countless case where DNA testing is not an option – cases that sometimes end in death sentences.  Our challenge as a nation is not to make it easier to execute people, or make more people eligible for the death penalty, but to do everything possible to make our criminal justice system more fair and accurate.” 


Read more about Baze v. Rees on the SCOTUS blog

.

Also today in Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana, in which death row inmate Patrick Kennedy challenges the constitutionality of capital punishment for child rape. In a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers raised the concern that impressionable witnesses (such as children) increase the chances of wrongful conviction. The Louisiana law, the group says, presents “an intolerably high risk” that innocent defendants will be put to death.



Read more about Kennedy v. Louisiana on the SCOTUS blog

.

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