Death penalty rul­ing may pave way for US abo­li­tion­ists


A sweep­ing de­ci­sion this week by the Supreme Court of the north­east­ern U. S. state of Con­necti­cut that found the death penalty no longer meets so­ci­ety’s evolv­ing stan­dards of de­cency could be in­flu­en­tial across a na­tion that is in­creas­ingly ques­tion­ing the prac­tice, le­gal ex­perts said.

Thurs­day’s rul­ing f ound cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment vi­o­lates the Con­necti­cut con­sti­tu­tion, but the jus­tices backed their de­ci­sion by cit­ing what abo­li­tion­ists say are uni­ver­sal prob­lems with the death penalty, in­clud­ing eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties in its use, the costs in­volved with ap­peals, the in­her­ent cru­elty in­volved in lengthy waits for ex­e­cu­tion, and the risk of ex­e­cut­ing in­no­cent peo­ple.

“It reads as a mis­sive to the U. S. Supreme Court,” said Kevin Barry, a Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on death penalty law. “It is a blue­print for our na­tion’s high court to strike down the death penalty na­tion­ally.”

Thirty- one states still have cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, but seven states have elim­i­nated it in the past decade, in­clud­ing Ne­braska in May and Mary­land in 2013, which both passed leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing the death penalty.

Con­necti­cut’s abol­ish­ment is dif­fer­ent be­cause it comes in the form of a court rul­ing, one that found the 2012 state law that banned ex­e­cu­tions for fu­ture crimes did not go far enough, ex­perts said.

The rul­ing could also in­flu­ence courts in states such as Mary­land and New Mexico, which, like Con­necti­cut, elim­i­nated the death penalty only for fu­ture crimes, said Robert Blecker, a pro­fes­sor at New York Law School and a pro­po­nent of the lim­ited use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. States in­clud­ing Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, New Hamp­shire and Washington are also con­sid­er­ing re­peal­ing the death penalty only for fu­ture crimes, he said.

The death penalty was widely used in the United States for decades un­til the 1960s, when ques­tions about its fair­ness reached the U. S. Supreme Court, which even­tu­ally ruled cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment un­con­sti­tu­tional in 1972. Af­ter states re­worked their laws, the Supreme Court re­in­sti­tuted the death penalty in 1976.

In re­cent years, the num­ber of death sen­tences and ex­e­cu­tions in the U. S. has plum­meted as ju­ries take ad­van­tage of new laws of­fer­ing life with no chance of pa­role and as pros­e­cu­tors hes­i­tate to bring cap­i­tal charges be­cause of the cost, es­pe­cially at the ap­peals stage. In the past five years, ex­e­cu­tions have slowed again while the sup­ply of lethal drugs has dried up as man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­spond­ing to ac­tivist pres­sure, have put them off lim­its for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

The num­ber of death sen­tences im­posed last year marked a 40- year low in the coun­try, said Robert Dun­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, which tracks in­for­ma­tion about the use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in the United States.

There have been re­cent in­di­ca­tions that the U. S. Supreme Court may be pre­par­ing to take its first broad look at the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the death penalty since 1976, per­haps as early as this fall.

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