Race against death

Capital punishment has been a recurring high-profile issue in the U.S. Supreme Court for years. Lately, death penalty decisions have been the source of some of the courtâÄôs most talked-about decisions. The high courtâÄôs recent decisions that upheld lethal injection as a means of execution and struck down a Louisiana law that allowed the death penalty in non-fatal cases of child rape were some of the most media-intensive cases from the courtâÄôs spring term. Sometimes, the court stirs up death penalty controversy even when they donâÄôt hear a case. This happened a few weeks ago in Walker v. Georgia , a case involving a capital punishment conviction that the high court denied considering Oct. 20. However, perhaps due to the specific elements in this particular case, two members of the court âÄî one death penalty supporter and one opponent âÄî published additional statements explicating their views. The case itself involved, as most capital punishments do, a heinous murder. The defendant in the case, Artemus Rick Walker, was convicted by a Georgia jury and sentenced to death. Walker was the owner and proprietor of ArtâÄôs Quick Stop convenience store in Montezuma, Ga . He and one of his employees were implicated in the murder of Ray Gresham , the 57-year-old vice president of Columbus Bank & Trust and a former Montezuma City Council member. Gresham, whose bank was located directly adjacent to WalkerâÄôs convenience store, was summoned to the door of his house at 10 p.m. the evening of May 12, 1999. While his wife and blind daughter waited inside, Gresham stepped out to speak with the visitor. He was attacked and stabbed twelve times. He was left to die in the bushes outside his own home as his assailants removed his wallet and keys in an attempt to gain access to his home. Within hours, the police had arrested Walker and Gary Lee Griffin. At the time of the arrest, Walker had GreshamâÄôs blood on his clothes and the keys to GreshamâÄôs house in his pocket. Officials found the knife used to murder Gresham and a pistol nearby. After 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury issued a unanimous conviction against Walker. Griffin was given a life sentence because he was adjudged to be mentally retarded. Walker appealed his sentence to the Georgia Supreme Court, which, in order to meet the requirements of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. ConstitutionâÄôs prohibition against âÄúcruel and unusual punishment,âÄù compared WalkerâÄôs sentence to those in similar cases to insure that the lower courtâÄôs decision wasnâÄôt influenced by arbitrariness or other impermissible factors. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed WalkerâÄôs sentence. Justice John Paul Stevens issued a statement along with the Supreme CourtâÄôs rejection of the case. Although it was not an official dissent, Stevens was critical of the Georgia Supreme CourtâÄôs method of reviewing capital cases. Stevens referred to past opinions regarding GeorgiaâÄôs death penalty, including the observation that âÄúdeath sentences imposed pursuant to GeorgiaâÄôs capital sentencing scheme were cruel and unusual the same way that being struck by lighting is cruel and unusual.âÄù Stevens also reiterated the idea that âÄúthe Eighth Amendment cannot be the infliction of a death sentence under a legal system that permits this unique penalty to be wantonly and freakishly imposed.âÄù To paraphrase StevenâÄôs argument, he essentially said that if the state was going to be responsible for executing people, they should do so fairly. Especially, he said, in cases like WalkerâÄôs that involve black defendants and white victims. Stevens said he found the case âÄúparticularly troublingâÄù and called the Georgia Supreme CourtâÄôs review âÄúutterly perfunctory.âÄù He then cited several Georgia cases involving similar crimes which resulted in life sentences for the convicts. Stevens also said that WalkerâÄôs case was one example of a wide-ranging problem in GeorgiaâÄôs capital punishment system. Justice Clarence Thomas also issued a companion filing in the dismissal of the Walker case, a concurrence with the dismissal that drew a stark contrast to StevenâÄôs statement. Thomas, who is black, argued that Georgia law had already provided more safeguards than the Constitution required, and thus the case was outside the purview of the Court. Thomas also dismissed StevenâÄôs views on the importance of race in capital trials. He referenced previous cases and concluded that although a study âÄúfound that the death penalty was imposed more often when a black defendant murdered a white victim than when a white defendant murdered a black victim âĦ the study at most indicated a discrepancy that appears to correlate with race âĦ apparent discrepancies are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.âÄù The Georgia Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the verdict, has three black members. And so the scenario weâÄôre left with is an 88-year-old white man, having served on the nationâÄôs highest court since the Ford administration, expressing concern that the death penalty is being administered unfairly against black people, while a black judge (from Georgia no less) is willing to chalk up apparent systemic racial unfairness to âÄúa discrepancy.âÄù And although the court did not issue an official opinion in this case, it will decide three cases relating to capital punishment during this term. If these opinions are any indicator, it will be an interesting ride. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]