Use of death penalty re-examined in the states, at Supreme Court

IMAGE: CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — The United States, with its mixed record on the death penalty, is
about to take a closer look at the issue this fall with two cases before the
Supreme Court and three referendums on state ballots in the November election.

the two death penalty cases before the court, both from Texas, one examines
information given to jurors while the other questions whether the state properly
measured intellectual capability of the accused.

Supreme Court cases this fall are addressing the brokenness of the judicial
system,” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing
Network to End the Death Penalty.

said these cases “address the most troubling aspect of the death penalty,
which is disproportionately used on vulnerable populations.”

v. Stephens will be argued before the court Oct. 5, two days into its new term.
It reviews the 1995 sentencing of Duane Buck, who was given the death penalty for the
1995 murders of his ex-girlfriend and another man.

guilt or innocence is not at stake; called into question is whether he was
given a fair sentence. That’s because during the punishment phase of his trial,
the witness statement of a psychologist, called forth by the defense, said that
because Buck is black, there was a stronger likelihood that he would present a
danger to society.

lawyers will argue that this comment held particularly strong weight, especially
since Texas law states the imposition of the death sentence must come from a
unanimous jury decision that the defendant would pose a threat of future

has acknowledged the error based on similar testimony by the same psychologist,
Walter Quijano, in six other cases and promised to re-examine Buck’s case but
never did.

Ifill, president of NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is
representing Buck, said the bottom line in the case is that racial bias played
a role in Buck’s sentencing. The 20-year-old case still speaks to what is
happening in our country today, she said in a Sept. 30 teleconference with reporters.

is seeking “a new colorblind sentencing hearing,” added Kate Black,
a NAACP attorney.

other death penalty case before the court in October is Moore v. Texas where
the plaintiff, Bobby James Moore, claims he is intellectually disabled, a claim
the state appeals court has rejected. Moore was given the death sentence for
his conviction in a 1980 murder of a grocery store clerk during a botched
robbery, but his attorneys argue the state used outdated medical standards in
their evaluation of Moore’s mental state.

the eight-member court gives a 4-4 ruling on the two cases, the men will be
executed since the lower courts and the appeals courts ruled against them and
those decisions will stand.

in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma will look at the death penalty as
referendum issues.

Nebraska, lawmakers voted in May 2015 to repeal the death penalty and overrode
Pete Ricketts’ veto of their measure, but the measure has not been enforced
because it is being put to the voters. They will have to decide if they want to
retain the lawmakers’ repeal of capital punishment or vote it down.

has an initiative to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the
possibility of parole. Oklahoma has a more nuanced ballot measure — asking
voters if they want to add the death penalty to the state’s constitution, which
would make it clear that if one method of capital punishment is declared
invalid or unconstitutional, another method could be used.

whose group has been working closely with the state Catholic conferences where
the death penalty is coming up for vote, said there is “no question this
election is an important possible tipping point for the death penalty.” If
Nebraska retains the repeal on its use and California repeals the death
penalty, she said, it will “show that the Americans are turning away from
the death penalty. The end is in sight.”

Oklahoma, she said, the “surface is just being scratched,” but she
hopes the “ground is being tilled for future legislative reform.”

a Sept. 29 news briefing in Lincoln, Nebraska, across from the state Capitol,
Father Doug Dietrich, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lincoln, said
priests across the state were gearing up to address the issue from the pulpit
in the weeks before the vote.

are taking a principled pro-life stance and proclaiming that we do not need the
death penalty,” he told reporters.

similarly said state victories against the death penalty “would also be a
very big pro-life win for this country at a time when the dignity of life is
being challenged on many fronts. It would show that even the guilty have
dignity and a right to life,” she added.

bishops have urged voters to support the initiative to outlaw the death penalty
and to say no on a proposal to speed up the judicial review of death penalty
cases, saying: “Any rush to streamline that process will inevitably result
in the execution of more innocent people.”

an Aug. 21 statement, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said Oklahomans
need to consider if they want to “retain a form of punishment that
ratchets up the level of violence, is susceptible to misapplication and is
corrosive of the values of our culture.”

trends and statistics about the application of the death penalty as well as the
alarming incarceration rates in our state point out the urgent need for
criminal justice reform in our nation and in our state,” he wrote.

nation has mixed views on the death penalty. According to the Washington-based
Death Penalty Information Center, 30 states have the death penalty and 20 do

the first time in four decades, public approval of capital punishment is
decreasing. A Sept. 29 poll by the Pew Research Center that shows that 49
percent of Americans favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder and
42 percent oppose it — which puts opposition to the death penalty at its
highest level since 1972. In 2015, 56 percent of Americans supported the death
penalty and 80 percent favored it. The numbers in support of the death penalty
were much higher in the 1990s. In 1994, 80 percent of Americans favored the
death penalty and only 16 percent were opposed to it.

recent poll, based on telephone surveys from Aug. 23-Sept. 2, shows more
support for the death penalty from white mainline Protestants — 60 percent
support it and 31 percent oppose — than Catholics where 43 percent support the
death penalty and 46 percent oppose it.

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