Friday, November 19, 2004

Supreme Court Scolds Texas Criminal Court

My final installment on divorce is coming -- probably this weekend. In the meantime, I want to begin to make good on our promise that this blog would provide a social gospel perspective on law.

Earlier this week the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Texas man. The sentence had been affirmed by Texas's highest criminal court -- The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The defendant's sentence was based on an unfair jury instruction (which didn't allow the jury to adequately consider "mitigating factors") that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found unconstitutional. In fact, the law was so clear and the defendant's sentencing hearing so clearly unfair, that our moderate Supreme Court (actually conservative on criminal justice issues) decided the case in the inmates favor without even hearing oral arguments on the issue - scolding the Texas Court for its insubordination in permitting a jury instruction which the Supreme Court has "unequivocally rejected."

The Supreme Court, which only has the time to hear about 100 cases a year, has spent its valuable time having to overturn numerous Texas death sentences in the past few years (last year overturning a conviction from my own home town of Texarkana) -- all the while expressing its frustration with Texas Courts that refuse to apply objectively the law of capital punishment.

What is wrong with the Texas Courts?

The first thing to understand is that the judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are elected. This means that they must answer to an electorate that is much more concerned with being "tough on crime" with the fairness of criminal trials.

So the question of what's wrong with the Texas Courts is really a question of what's wrong with Texans? Texas judges are just doing what they have to to get elected. Reversing death sentences because someone's trial was unfair is seen as being "soft" on crime. If they want to stay in office, they can't get that image.

Texas boasts one of the most avowedly Christian populations in the nation. I find it unbelievable that such a Christian population is comfortable -- not just with state-sponsored killing -- but with the application of state-sponsored killing without sufficient procedural safeguards to ensure that it is fairly applied to only the guilty and most culpable. Such staunch support for the death penalty, indeed, for its irrational application, can only be explained by a deep demand for social vengeance, a social vengeance which is profoundly inconsistent with Jesus' message of love and redemption.

The Supreme Court of the United States, with its limited resources, can not ensure against irrationality and excessive vengeance in the Texas criminal justice systems. This responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Texans, Texas Christians in particular, who elect the state and local judges responsible for assuring that the system of criminal justice lives up to its name.

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