Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Texas-sized smackdown!

Some people might wonder why I write about Texas so much. It's not because Texas is my home state, although I guess that's part of the reason.

The more important reason is this: of the 943 people executed (as of this hour) since 1976 in the United States, 335 are from Texas. That's higher than the next six states combined.

Fortunately, there's some good news coming out of Texas these days. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a very unusual smackdown, served notice that it is going to be monitoring Texas' use of the death penalty very carefully. The Supreme Court, on a 7-2 vote (Scalia and Thomas dissenting) issued what is called a summary reversal. They outright reversed one death sentence and remanded another to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Today there is an awful lot of coverage in the media explaining the Court's actions. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

From Jordan Steiker, law professor at the University of Texas at Austin:

Steiker said the justices' willingness to slap the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals without hearing arguments in the case "reflects a growing disenchantment and impatience" with the lower court's death penalty rulings.

"This is aimed at that court's recalcitrance," he said. "The high court is sending a clear message that even if it's not willing to hear a case, it's going to supervise the Court of Criminal Appeals' application of its decisions. ... It is saying the court is not only wrong, but it is so wrong that it requires our intervention and supervision."

From Rick Broughton, law professor at Texas Wesleyan University:

"If we had any doubt that the court was serious about these issues surrounding death penalty issues, it's pretty clear now. He added that the court's ruling sends a clear signal that "the court isn't going to tolerate anything short of a total overhaul of the [Texas] death sentencing instruction scheme."

And from the Supreme Court itself:

In their opinion in Smith's case, the justices said that despite several of their previous rulings, the Texas court failed to get the message that juries in capital murder cases should fully consider mitigating evidence.

"There is no question that a jury might well have considered petitioner's IQ scores and history of participation in special-education classes as a reason to impose a sentence more lenient than death," the court said in a 12-page opinion. The justices said the state court "erroneously relied on a test we never countenanced and now have unequivocally rejected."

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