Sunday, July 17, 2005

Sunday Comment: Is it Unconstitutional to Execute an Innocent Person?

You might think that this is a silly question - that the answer must be "yes." You might think that, if your rights to due process and equal protection and against cruel and unusual punishment mean anything, surely they must mean that the government can't kill you unless you've committed a crime. But in fact, you'd be wrong. In 1993, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision (Herrera), flatly rejected the proposition that "the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit the execution of a person who is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted." Specifically, the Court held that the Constitution did not require the state of Texas to afford a convicted murderer a forum in which to assert his claim to actual innocence based on newly-discovered evidence.

The Court essentially reasoned that the defendant got a trial and was found guilty: evidence of innocence discovered after this point, if not accompanied by some procedural error such as the state's failure to disclose it, is basically irrelevant.

The Court didn't rule that he was guilty; it ruled that whether the defendant was guilty or not made no difference.

Justice Blackmun, writing for the dissent, expressed what must be the intuitive feeling of many on the issue:

"We... are being asked to decide whether the Constitution forbids the execution of a person who has been validly convicted and sentenced, but who, nonetheless, can prove his innocence with newly discovered evidence. Despite the State of Texas' astonishing protestation to the contrary, I do not see how the answer can be anything but 'yes.'"

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case, House v. Bell, that provides it with a forum to reconsider the issue. Defendant House claims that newly discovered DNA evidence - that semen found on the victim was not his, but the victim's husband - demonstrates his innocence. The question is not whether House is innocent, but whether House should even be given an opportunity to prove that he's innocent.

The Court should overrule Herrera and adopt the position of Blackmun's dissent: "nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency or more shocking to the conscience than to execute a person who is actually innocent."

Juries make mistakes. Some Justices apparently believe that willful blindness to this fact is necessary to preserve confidence in and respect for our criminal justice system. If a convicted killer can prove that, more likely than not, he did not commit the crime, he must be set free. This Court should worry less about confidence in criminal justice than about justice in criminal justice.


At 3:07 PM, Blogger ats54 said...

I don't really know what else to say other than:

That's awful...


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