Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Stevens' Dissent in Juror Selection for Death Penalty Case

Representing the liberal contingent of justices on the Court, Justice Stevens read aloud his dissent in a case which affected juror selection for death penalty cases. It is the third time that a justice has read aloud a dissent this term.

The dissent in this case by Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Souter and Justice Breyer seems to be quite flawed. The case was about juror selection for a trial that had the death penalty as one possible punishment. The law regarding juror selection was that jurors had to be able to consider the death penalty even if they were against it. The juror that was replaced had said that only if the person on trial had the possibility to walk free would he consider the death penalty. Prosecutors argued that this amounted to an automatic favoring of the life sentence over the death penalty and therefore would unfairly bias the verdict, giving the death penalty no chance at all of becoming the punishment.

The logic of that argument is sound. Steven's dissent is questionable when it comes to jurisprudence in addressing the issue at hand. He begins his dissent by writing, "Millions of Americans oppose the death penalty. A cross section of virtually every community in the country includes citizens who firmly believe the death penalty is unjust but who nevertheless are qualified to serve as jurors in capital cases. An individual’s opinion that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is the severest sentence that should be imposed in all but the most heinous cases does not even arguably 'prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'"

First of all, it does not matter what "millions of Americans" think. They may in fact be wrong. It would not be the first time that the majority of Americans would be wrong about a legal issue such as this.

Second, this case is not about the death penalty itself, but rather about the laws governing selection of jurors for a particular type of case. If the juror cannot consider one type of punishment, then that severely impedes his or her ability to serve as an impartial juror in deciding the fate of the person on trial.

Had the case been about the actual death penalty, perhaps Steven's comments would have been more appropriate. But until that issue comes before the Court Steven's jurisprudence should focus on the issue at hand.

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