RIGHTS-US: High Court Ruling Could Mean More Death Sentences
By Srabani Roy
NEW YORK, Jul 3 (IPS) - A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the disqualification of a juror who expressed doubts about the death penalty, combined with an increasing number of U.S. citizens who say their moral convictions make them ineligible to serve as jurors in capital trials, could mean future juries will be less representative of the country's diversity and more likely to hand down convictions, death penalty opponents say.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed by a trial court in Washington State in the case of Cal Brown, convicted of raping and killing a woman in a Seattle motel in 1991. The Court ruled the trial judge was correct in disqualifying a man from serving as juror because he had expressed doubts about the death penalty. The Court's 5-4 decision overturned an earlier one by a federal court of appeals.
In May, Juan A. Luna Jr., who was found guilty of killing seven people in a fast food restaurant in Illinois in 1993, was spared the ultimate punishment because one juror voted against sentencing him to death. In Illinois, as in most of the 38 states which have the death penalty, a death sentence must be unanimous.
"We are observing a decline in the use of the death penalty in the last six to ten years," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, a group opposing the death penalty. "Much of this is due to a change in public opinion about the death penalty."
Disqualified and dissenting jurors reflect this trend. Jurors are less willing to impose the death penalty, a fact illustrated by justice department statistics showing a steady decline in death sentences. In the 1990s, about 300 people were sentenced to death every year. In 2005, the number had dropped to 128. Last year, the number of death sentences reached the lowest level in 30 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.
A recent poll commissioned by the Centre, sampling 1,000 adults across the country, revealed that almost 40 percent of U.S. citizens felt that they would be disqualified from serving on capital juries. The numbers increase significantly for certain groups: 68 percent of African-Americans would exclude themselves, 48 percent of women, and 47 percent of Catholics. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3 percent.
Dieter and other experts attributed the increasing lack of support for the death penalty to various factors, including reports of DNA exonerations, belief that the death penalty is not a deterrent for future crimes, and moral objections to taking a person's life.
Among citizens in general, 87 percent said they believed that an innocent person had been executed in recent years, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre poll. Concern about the possibility of executing the innocent was also found to be a significant reason for drawing back from imposing a death sentence. "Among jurors, innocence continuously came up," Dieter told IPS.
The availability since the 1990s of a life sentence without the possibility of parole is another major factor in the drop in the number of death sentences. But citizens are almost evenly split between their support for the death penalty and life without parole as a punishment for premeditated murder, according to a Gallup poll last year.
The "single biggest" reason for imposing the death penalty was to prevent the convicted person from killing again, Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and an expert on the death penalty said, adding: "The effect of life without parole is permanent incapacitation."
But Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and a supporter of the death penalty for the "worst of the worst" offenders, disagrees.
"Even in life without parole, a person can kill again," Blecker told IPS. "He can kill fellow prisoners, officers, or medical personnel. Life without parole doesn't mean isolation. And life without parole sentences can be commuted by the executive."
Blecker also disagrees with poll findings. He argues that if people were asked about specific, concrete examples of the worst crimes, instead of only about the appropriate punishment for "murder", polls would show a much greater support for the death penalty.
He believes the Supreme Court was right in its recent ruling, acknowledging that it could have long-term consequences on decisions in capital punishment cases.
In capital cases jury selection occurs under a process known as "death qualification". Potential jurors are asked about their views and willingness to impose the death penalty. If their unequivocal opposition or endorsement of the death penalty is considered likely to impair their ability to follow the law, judges can exclude them from serving as jurors.
"Under pre-existing Supreme Court law, people who were opposed to the death penalty could be excluded. But if a juror simply expressed doubts, the juror had to be allowed to serve on the jury because they represented the majority of the country," said Freedman. "With the recent Supreme Court decision, we're more likely to get people on juries who are inclined to convict in the first place."
Brooke Butler, a legal psychologist at the University of South Florida who studies capital punishment juries, would agree. She has found that "death qualified" jurors tend to be "male, Caucasian, moderately well-educated, politically conservative, Catholic or Protestant, and middle-class." They also tended to have a high regard for authoritarian beliefs, were more prejudiced, pro-conviction and pro-death.
Country-wide "abolitionists far outweigh pro-death penalty people," Butler told IPS. The Supreme Court ruling was "going to systematically exclude a vast number of people," she said.
Opponents of the death penalty also expressed concern that the resulting un-demographic make-up of future juries not reflecting the diversity of views of the American public, would result in more death sentences and convictions of innocent people.
But they also say that the Supreme Court decision could have a "boomerang" effect over the long-run.
"The impact of this Supreme Court decision is self-defeating," said Freedman. "If prosecutors were to press this case, they would convict more innocent people. And then if that were revealed, it would invalidate the death penalty."