In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state, as stated in the Sixth Amendment. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such a right includes who determines to impose the death penalty on a prisoner.
In Ring v. Arizona the court held that only a jury, not a judge, could make this determination. Earlier this week, an appellate judge in California applied the Supreme Court decision retroactively, overturning more than 100 death sentences imposed by judges.
Previous circuit decisions made only prisoners whose appeals had not run out eligible under the Ring v. Arizona decision. Because the 9th Circuit decision, Summerlin v. Stewart, differs from two previous rulings, it created a split in the circuits, a disagreement the Supreme Court will now be required to settle.
Ring v. Arizona and Summerlin v. Stewart improve the judicial system. Jury trials are a fundamental part of democracy because a jury is more representative of people’s values than a judge. Many believe that a judge, who sentences countless people each week, might tend to treat even a capital murder question as just another day’s work. For these and other reasons, the role of the jury as fact-finder is a fundamental pillar of our justice system.
Who sentences inmates is still just a small part of the death penalty debate, however. It continues to assume capital punishment is just, which is problematic. In their arguments, death penalty supporters cite the “eye for an eye” rationale, the procedure’s value as a crime deterrent and the tax dollars it saves.
While vengeance has a certain simplistic logic, one can counter it with various other cliche moralistic axioms such as “judge not, lest ye be judged.” In any case, a handful of words from Leviticus is not enough to support the state taking life. Research has consistently shown the death penalty is not a proven crime deterrent. Finally, savings to taxpayers is a myth. In Texas each execution costs the state $2.3 million dollars, which is three times what it would take to imprison an individual for 40 years; in Florida the execution bill totals $3.2 million.
There are many compelling arguments to end the death penalty. Justice, or lack thereof, is a large concern. Where the trial occurs greatly affects execution rates and begs the question: Is someone more guilty if he or she commits a crime in Texas? In some southern states, statistics have shown the race of the victim can increase a prisoner’s chance of being executed. Also, many defendants cannot afford their own attorney. Appointed representation is inconsistent and often incompetent, especially in states that lack public defender offices. The Supreme Court recently overturned a death sentence due to the incompetence of the prisoner’s attorney.
Around the world, more countries have abolished the death penalty than continue to retain it, while the United States executes more people every year. We lecture other countries about their human rights even though our death penalty use puts us in the company of countries such as Sudan and Rwanda. Our practices of executing juveniles and the mentally retarded are heinous and merit their own editorial.
Finally, there is the risk of making errors when using death as the final punishment solution. Authorities differ on how often we execute an innocent man, but all concede it happens. When added to the issues already mentioned, the stubborn insistence on continuing the death penalty is morally and practically problematic, to say the least.
Returning to the instant matter now left to the Supreme Court, the impending decision won’t totally right the abuses of the death penalty, but it is a start. The court will first need to determine whether Ring v. Arizona was a change in substantive or procedural law. If it is the latter, grandfathering death row inmates under Ring v. Arizona will be a harder argument to make. However, even if the court determines the case is procedural, the decision should be important enough to warrant retroactive application. Otherwise, executing men simply because their state government failed to recognize their constitutional rights would strain reason.