FEATURED POST

America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Supreme Court to Rule on Judge’s Role in Death-Penalty Case

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court
Justices weigh whether judge who had helped prosecute the case should have recused himself

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready on Monday to raise ethical standards for state courts, with some justices clearly troubled that an elected Pennsylvania justice who voted to uphold a death sentence previously had helped prosecute the case as a district attorney.

“At what point do we give meaning to the constitutional command that you can’t be prosecutor and judge?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “The judge here actually signed his name to his review of the facts and his decision to seek the death penalty.”

Monday’s case came from Philadelphia, where Terrance Williams, then 18 years old, and an accomplice were convicted of the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, 56. The victim was taken to a cemetery, robbed and beaten to death with a tire iron and a socket wrench. The corpse, later set afire, was identified through dental records.

Ronald Castille, as Philadelphia’s elected district attorney, authorized trial prosecutors to seek the death penalty, one of 45 obtained during his tenure. He cited that record in 1993 during his successful campaign for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and eventually served as chief justice.

In 2012, a state court found prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have influenced jurors to spare Mr. Williams the death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where then Chief Justice Castille denied a defense motion to recuse himself and joined a unanimous decision reinstating the death sentence.

In a concurrence, the chief justice called the Williams claim “frivolous,” branded the lower-court decision as “lawless” and castigated the federal public defender’s office, which had taken up the case, for “an obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” designed to “unsettle and undermine Pennsylvania law.” He left the court two weeks later, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

On Monday, several justices at the U.S. Supreme Court probed for a legal standard that could clarify how much prior involvement in a case should trigger a justice’s recusal. Justice Samuel Alito, for instance, asked about whether the situation violated the Constitution. “It’s really not enough to just say what happened here was bad,” he said.


Source: The Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin, Feb. 29, 2016

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