Earlier this week the Supreme Court, hot on the heels of a long-overdue decision in against partial birth abortions, took a step backwards by overturning the death penalty sentences in three Texas murder cases.
The rulings in the cases of LaRoyce Smith, Brent Brewer and Jalil Abdul-Kabir said the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals incorrectly analyzed whether faulty jury instructions prevented Texas juries from considering mitigating evidence that might have persuaded them to spare the men from execution.
Smith was convicted in the 1991 slaying of a worker at a Dallas Taco Bell. Brewer was convicted of fatally stabbing a man during a 1990 robbery in Amarillo, and Abdul-Kabir, also known as Ted Calvin Cole, was convicted of strangling a San Angelo man during a robbery in 1988.
When Brewer, Abdul-Kabir and Smith were tried, jurors determining their sentences were asked two yes-or-no questions: whether the murder was deliberate, and whether the killer would continue to be dangerous in the future. Two “yes” answers meant a death sentence. One or two “no” answers meant a life prison term.
In later years, after the Supreme Court found those instructions inadequate because they prevented jurors from properly considering mitigating evidence, Texas judges began crafting additional instructions. They told jurors that if they thought there was any mitigating evidence that warranted sparing the killer’s life, they could simply change one of their “yes” answers to “no.”
The high court also rejected that approach, and now Texas jurors must answer a third catch-all question, asking whether any mitigating evidence in the case is strong enough to spare the killer’s life.
The instructions, which were meant to help jurors weigh evidence such as a defendant’s low intelligence, mental illness or childhood abuse, have not been used in Texas since 1991. But they were used during the trials of many current death row inmates.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office estimates the number of cases that could be affected by Wednesday’s ruling at close to 50, while defense attorneys say the number could total 70 or more.
Justice John Paul Stevens, part of the 5-4 majority, wrote that the 5th Circuit’s conclusions
“fail to heed this court’s repeated warnings about the extent to which the jury must be allowed not only to consider mitigating evidence, or to have such evidence before it, but to respond to it in a reasoned, moral manner and assign it weight in deciding whether a defendant truly deserves death.”
Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed:
saying the lower courts had done the best they could to follow Supreme Court guidance.
He called Wednesday’s majority opinions by Stevens and Kennedy “utterly revisionist.”
“We give ourselves far too much credit in claiming that our sharply divided, ebbing and flowing decisions in this area gave rise to ‘clearly established’ federal law,” the chief justice wrote.
Instead, Roberts said, the high court has provided “a dog’s breakfast of divided, conflicting, and ever-changing analyses.”
An American has a better chance of getting struck by lightning than hearing Stevens admit there are valid uses for the death penalty. It’s all about ideology, even on the SCOTUS. Witness Justice Ginsburg’s outrageous comments about the partial birth abortion case as a prime example.
What’s even more irritating about Steven’s pompous self-righteousness than his brazenly illogical failure to think is the fact that it’s utterly irrelevant.
Juries are told repeatedly by judges and lawyers that they are only allowed the barest possible leeway in their decisions. Guilty or not. This evidence can be consider. This cannot. You can discuss this but not that. You can ask this question but not that one. The idea is to control the jury into following a specific path of action so that individual input is minimized.
This is necessary to keep verdicts somewhat standardized in similar cases. Justice, after all, should be predictable as well as blind.
However, we should all recognize that these instructions are usually ignored. The fact that a man or woman in a black robe gives a juror an instruction that as much as says he/she is a voting robot does not mean that juror will accept the admonition.
I believe that the jurors in these cases considered mitigating evidence when rendering their verdict of guilty + the death penalty. I believe it because that’s what people do, on or off of the jury. The judge’s exact phrasing of the instructions are meaningless for this reason.
But Stevens, a die-hard liberal whose vote is as predictable as it is wrong, would never accept that reasoning, not when his liberal bias demands otherwise.
Given these predators’ insistence on killing again, it’s ludicrous to put law-abiding citizens in harms way by allowing them the opportunity to be paroled, escape, or be sprung on appeal. Let’s hope that the respective D.A.’s do the right thing and make sure that they won’t get those chances.
My perspective: The victims deserve our empathy, not the killers.