(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Death penalty At the end of its most recent term, the Supreme Court decided two important death penalty cases: Atkins v. Virginia (holding that a state cannot, under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, execute a retarded person) and Ring v. Arizona (holding that the Constitution requires that the findings of aggravating circumstances, in a death penalty case, must be made by a jury rather than a judge).

Critics of decisions like these often say that they will result in the overturning of a vast number of death sentences. That's not really the case, as this news item from Alabama shows. Ring, for example, clearly means that many, and I believe all, of Alabama's existing death sentences are unconstitutional. Yet the State AG is trying hard to get the executions underway nonetheless.

There are a whole array of procedural traps and hurdles, as well as substantive rules of law, that a convicted defendant must prevail on, before getting the benefit of such a ruling -- even though his death sentence was very clearly imposed in violation of the U.S. Constitution under one of these rulings. This means that, when one of those defendants fails one of those procedural hurdles (and it happens quite often), we have an execution that is carried out despite the fact that it violated the Constitution in a substantive sense. This does not make me feel good.

posted by sam 7:28 AM 0 comments


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