Saturday, June 22, 2002

death penalty cases

A decision this week from the US Supreme Court receiving a great amount of press attention is Atkins v. Virginia, where the Court held that:
We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our “evolving standards of decency,” we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life” of a mentally retarded offender. Ford, 477 U.S., at 405.
The Court, in a footnote, pointed towards the definition of mental retardation adopted by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR). It will be up to the states to determine how exactly to follow the guidelines that definition describes, and there's some concern over how that will be done.

There's some speculation on the pages of Capital Defense Weekly that the decision may open the doors for other challenges to the death penalty, such as its use against juveniles:
The language of the Court's decision, however, is not tightly drawn to just the issue of mental retardation but was very sweeping and seemed to lay down the gauntlet for additional "per se" challenges. Where the Court may lead next, whether it is just to the issue of juvenile executions (diminished capacity & the rarity of such executions) or as far as Texas's Special Questions Procedure ("The practice [ ] has become truly unusual, and it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it.") is an issue for brighter minds & another day to contemplate.
The Capital Defense Weekly includes a great amount of information about the law involved with death penalty cases. (Amongst many others, one case that they point towards as a "must read" for litigators interested in using possibly exculpatory DNA evidence is the Mississippi Supreme Court case Brewer v. Mississippi.) Another site that includes news and information on the death penalty from the defense perspective is the Capital Defense Network. An article in the New York Times also considers the impact of the ruling, but from a slightly different vantage.

What impact will this decision have on Delaware? One consideration would be whether or not it would be used in an appeal for anyone currently under a death sentence in the State. The State of Delaware Department of Corrections' web site has a section on the History of the Death Penalty in Delaware and includes a list of defendants currently sentenced to death in Delaware. Whether or not any of them will appeal based upon this ruling is unknown. An article citing the reaction of the region's critics of the death penalty tells us that
Nationwide, the mentally retarded make up 2 percent to 3 percent of the general population, but they comprise 10 percent of the inmates on death row.
Participants in future cases will have to consider the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins and make some decisions as to how the AAMR guidelines will be followed in determining whether a defendant is mentally retarded.

An interesting analysis of Justice Scalia's dissent can be found in Howard Bashman's June 21st entry in How Appealing, and it is definitely worth taking some time to read over his thoughts on the case and the links that he provides.

No comments: