[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----FLA., ALA.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Thu Mar 3 10:43:06 CST 2005
Too many ifs dealing with death penalty
Old Sparky's gone. Convicted killers on Florida's death row now get a
lethal injection. It's all very tidy, and one could argue that the victims
they killed never had it so good.
So there's a part of me that understands why some people are upset that
teenage murderers now can't get the death penalty in Florida or any other
state. The U.S. Supreme Court this week drew the line at 18 and older.
Florida remained among 19 states that allowed the death penalty for
juvenile killers -- a distinction shared only by Somalia until the
Supremes put a stop to it.
Justices, in the 5-4 ruling, reasoned that young people who can't even
vote or serve on juries are "categorically less culpable than the average
criminal" facing the death penalty. Other reasons backed by scientific
studies: Youth display "a lack of maturity and an undeveloped sense of
responsibility," and they "are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative
Here's the other part that Florida and the nation need to own up to: Even
for adults, the death penalty is imperfect, costly, no deterrent to other
would-be killers and sometimes racially charged. Innocent people have been
sent to death row because their conviction was based on unreliable
witnesses (often other criminals who have something to gain, like reduced
time, by fingering somebody). Or trumped-up charges by cops willing to
falsify information to close a case. Or bad evidence, now often exposed by
DNA tests, and even racial undertones in jury decisions, particularly when
the crime is black against white.
Death-penalty supporters will argue that most of Florida's death-row
inmates are white, but even that classification is suspect because the
state often classifies Hispanics as white even when that person is of
mixed race or black.
Which brings me to Juan Melendez, a death-row survivor whose darker skin
might have made him an easy target to convict. At least one juror who
wasn't sure of Melendez's guilt changed her mind after the foreman, during
deliberations, pointed to Melendez's Afro hairdo in a photo.
In 2002, the Afro was long gone. A 50-year-old man with cropped hair
walked out of Union Correctional Institution -- more like floated out on a
cloud of optimism -- after spending 17 years, 8 months and 1 day on death
row. Melendez was convicted of a murder in which there was absolutely no
physical evidence linking him to the 1983 slaying of a cosmetology school
owner in Polk County. All prosecutors had was another con's allegation
that Melendez told him he did the crime -- they were getting high on
cocaine at the time. The eyewitness testimony was questionable, at best.
Melendez had a credible alibi, and prosecutors at the time had questioned
another man who actually fessed up. It turned out that Vernon James told
at least four investigators and lawyers working the case that he was the
killer, but that wasn't allowed in court testimony. Only after the
transcript of James' confession was discovered years later was a judge
swayed to order a retrial. By then, James had died, as had one of the
witnesses who had pointed to Melendez.
Prosecutors dropped the case. Had Melendez's defense team not kept up the
fight the Puerto Rican man would be dead instead of traveling around
Florida speaking up against the death penalty. (Check out Floridians for
Alternatives to the Death Penalty at www.fadp.org.)
Melendez's case isn't an aberration. He was the 99th death-row inmate to
walk free in the nation because new evidence cleared him. Not everyone
gets that chance. There are too many ifs in a death-penalty case. Life
without parole is not only the cheapest alternative -- when innocent lives
are at stake, it's the only morally defensible verdict.
(source: Orlando Sentinel)
Lely Students Take On Cause of Death Row Inmate
A death row inmate is getting some unexpected support from a group in
Collier County. Gregory Capehart was sentenced to death in 1989 for the
murder of a 62 year old Pasco County woman. Some students from Lely High
School believe there may be evidence hes innocent.
The students learned about Capeharts case in a honors English class. There
are questions on whether Capeharts trial was fair. In 1989, they didnt
have technology to test for DNA. A new could exonerate Capehart. "All we
want is a DNA test," said student Lionel Decius. "Just to give the man a
Decius has lead a student movement to gather signatures on a petition and
send them to the judge who sentenced Capehart to death. In class, during
lunch, and after school, Decius has been asking his fellow classmates to
sign the petition. So far hes collected more than 400 signatures. More
importantly hes gotten the attention of his classmates. Many students at
Lely have joined his cause.
Capehart has been on death row for about 17 years. While an execution date
hasnt yet been set, the students are concerned a date could be picked
soon. They are hoping a new trial with DNA evidence could prove his
innocence or confirm his guilt.
The DNA test will prove him 100 % guilty or 100 % innocent.
High court rules on death penalty----Minors taken off death row in Alabama
James Matthew Hyde. Timothy Charles Davis. Mark Anthony Duke.
These are just a few of the incarcerated 16- and 17-year-old Alabamians
who are biding their time on the state's death row. But not anymore.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to outlaw the death penalty for
convicts who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes.
According to information provided by Alabama Attorney General Troy King's
office, the ruling vacates 72 death sentences, including 13 cases in
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that offenders under the age of 18 had
not reached adulthood and therefore should be shielded from capital
punishment. The court cited scientific and sociological studies that
suggest that juveniles are too immature, irresponsible and vulnerable to
negative influences to make sound decisions about their behavior.
Bryan Fair, a UA constitutional law professor, said the high court
decision establishes a standard of fairness.
"Children do not have the same capacity to appreciate the consequences of
their actions as adults," Fair said. "This is about our nation looking at
its constitution and deciding on a modern standard of decency that makes
it inappropriate to execute children."
Fair said the Roper v. Simmons decision, an appeal out of Missouri that
reverses a 1989 Supreme Court decision, ensures that the U.S. Constitution
is consistent with the court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, a
provision that bans cruel and unusual punishment.
"The decision, in effect, identifies what is cruel and unusual punishment
and what's not. It defines what is humane and not humane," said William
Stewart, former chairman of the UA political science department.
Stewart and Fair both said the ruling is not a progressive mandate from a
more liberal federal court, even though the 19 states that had upheld
capital punishment for minors were mostly conservative Southern states.
The high court is mostly Republican, Fair said.
Stewart said he does not anticipate widespread backlash, though he
believes many attorneys general from these areas will likely come out
against the ruling.
Alabama's attorney general is no exception. Troy King maintains his
support for the execution of juveniles who commit "heinous" crimes and
said in a Wednesday statement that he thinks the ruling may lead to more
tragedy, brutality and victims.
"Our fight against these crimes and those who commit them has one less
tool today," he wrote. "The arbitrariness of this ruling concluding that
the death penalty will not be available to punish those who plot and
execute crimes with murderous brutality is a denial of the justice I have
taken an oath of office to pursue."
Fair said he believes King's stance is wrong but said he is comforted by
the fact that the attorney general must uphold the federal court's
interpretation of the Constitution.
He said the decision is a step in the right direction but does not
"resolve all problems."
"People are still serving life without parole for things they did as
children. They are not as culpable for their crimes as adults," Fair said.
"It makes no sense to incarcerate them for 70, sometimes 80, years.
"In resolving one problem, we have not resolved another."
Fair said he hopes to see the issue challenged in the future. He said he
is also frustrated with the "capricious" use of the death penalty and said
that mostly poor, minority convicts who cannot amass the resources to
defend themselves effectively spend their days on death row.
Stewart said the ruling is an effective effort to standardize the use of
the death penalty. Fair said receiving capital punishment varies by
circuit, district and court in general.
The law was once so unregulated, Stewart said, that Alabama even issued
the death penalty to convicted rapists.
"Rape is, of course, a horrible thing," he said. "But it doesn't warrant
the death penalty."
Stewart said federal courts have historically set the standard in criminal
justice since the 1930s when black defendants often did not have adequate
counsel in the court. He said Tuesday's high court ruling is simply a part
of the evolution of what is appropriate in criminal justice.
Fair said he hopes the evolution continues to include life without parole
for those under the age of 18.
"The attorney general has to do what he has to do," he said. "He is not
the first politician to get elected by coming out in opposition to a
federal court order. But those of us in support have to continue
(source: The (Univ. of Ala.) Crimson White)
Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile Death Penalty
The Supreme Court ruled March 1 that the execution of convicts who were
under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes constitutes the sort of
"cruel and unusual" punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.
The high court's decision overturns one of its own cases from less than 16
years ago and means that several dozen 16- and 17-year-old offenders
currently on the nation's death rows will receive a new lease on life.
The 5-4 decision turned on the idea that, since the court last ruled on
this issue in 1989, "the evolving standards of decency that mark the
progress of a maturing society" have changed in regard to executing
"When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact
forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot
extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of
his own humanity," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the court's majority
opinion. "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many
purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at
which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."
The case -- Roper vs. Simmons (03-633) -- originated in Missouri. In 1993,
Christopher Simmons abducted Shirley Crook from her St. Louis-area home,
bound her hands and feet, and threw her from a bridge into the Meramec
River. A coroner's investigation determined that Crook was alive when she
hit the water and that she died of drowning.
Simmons was a 17-year-old junior in high school at the time he committed
the crime. He was arrested after bragging to peers about the murder. A
jury awarded him the death sentence.
But in a highly unusual move, a divided Missouri Supreme Court in 2003
overruled Simmons' sentence, citing cited a then-recent U.S. Supreme Court
decision that barred the execution of mentally disabled criminals.
In that 2002 decision (Atkins vs. Virginia) the justices noted a large
number of states had outlawed execution of the mentally retarded since
they last ruled on the issue in 1989. The March 1 decision applies similar
reasoning to the case of teenage offenders.
A 1988 decision by the justices already outlawed capital punishment for
offenders under the age of 16. But the next year, the court upheld capital
sentences for 16- and 17-year-olds. Kennedy joined the majority in that
ruling but changed his opinion for the latest ruling due to the increasing
number of states outlawing capital punishment for all minors.
While 19 states still officially permitted the death penalty for minors
prior to the March 1 decision, the practice has become exceedingly rare in
recent years -- with only Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma actually executing
16- or 17-year-old offenders in the past decade. Several other states have
outlawed the practice since 1989.
But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- who voted with
the majority in the decision on mentally disabled criminals -- said the
cases are not parallel.
"I would demand a clearer showing that our society truly has set its face
against this practice before reading the Eighth Amendment categorically to
forbid it," she wrote. "[T]he evidence before us fails to demonstrate
conclusively that any such consensus has emerged in the brief period since
we upheld the constitutionality of this practice in Stanford v. Kentucky."
A much smaller number of states have outlawed capital punishment for
juvenile offenders since the court's last ruling on the subject when
compared to the number of states that outlawed the death penalty for
retarded offenders between 1989 and 2002, O'Connor noted.
She also said there was a significant difference between the mentally
disabled as a category and juvenile offenders. "Adolescents as a class are
undoubtedly less mature, and therefore less culpable for their misconduct,
than adults," O'Connor wrote. "But the court has adduced no evidence
impeaching the seemingly reasonable conclusion reached by many state
legislatures: that at least some 17-year-old murderers are sufficiently
mature to deserve the death penalty in an appropriate case."
She said the crime at issue in this case may fit that bill. "Christopher
Simmons' murder of Shirley Crook was premeditated, wanton, and cruel in
the extreme," O'Connor wrote. "One can scarcely imagine the terror that
this woman must have suffered throughout the ordeal leading to her death.
Whatever can be said about the comparative moral culpability of
17-year-olds as a general matter, Simmons' actions unquestionably reflect"
a conscience even more depraved than that of most murderers.
In a separate dissenting opinion, the court's three most conservative
justices -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist and associate justices Antonin
Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- took Kennedy to task for appealing to
international practices in his opinion.
Authoring the dissent, Scalia said the majority's opinion makes a
"mockery" of the founding fathers' understanding of the Constitution and
the judiciary's role in interpreting it. "The court thus proclaims itself
sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards -- and in the course of
discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the
views of foreign courts and legislatures," he wrote.
Scalia continued: "Because I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth
Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our
Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five members
of this court and like-minded foreigners, I dissent."
But Kennedy, in noting that "the United States is the only country in the
world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death
penalty," also said that reasoning did not control the majority's decision
but merely "provides respected and significant confirmation" of the
"It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution or our pride in its
origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental
rights by other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality of
those same rights within our own heritage of freedom," Kennedy concluded.
(sources: Associated Baptist Press & Maranatha Christian News Service)
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