slow end to death penalty
Express Staff Writer
recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions indicate that political momentum is
"nibbling away" at the death penalty in the United States, a
group of lawyers who have tried capital cases, said during a panel
discussion in Ketchum last week.
discussion ó "The Death Penalty, Justice or Injustice?" ó
was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and took
place June 26 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The title was somewhat of
a misnomer, however, as all five panelists weighed in far more heavily
on the "injustice" side of the question than the
panelistsí conclusion was partly confirmed Friday when a U.S. District
Court judge in New York ruled that the death penalty violates
constitutional due process guarantees on the grounds that too many
people on death row have been found to have been wrongly convicted.
3,500 people are on death row throughout the United States. Twenty-two
of those are in Idaho.
20, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded killers canít
be executed. Four days later, it ruled that only juries, not judges, can
impose the death penalty.
got an evolving standard here," said panelist and Boise attorney
Bill Mauk, who ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1998.
contended that if political momentum continues as it has, the Supreme
Court will soon rule that the death penalty is "cruel and unusual
punishment," banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S.
attorney Andrew Parnes pointed out that it was only a little more than a
decade ago that the Supreme Court decided in favor of executing the
retarded and of allowing judges to impose the death penalty.
crucial event that has happened in the meantime, panelists said, is that
scientific advances have shown that innocent people have been condemned
to death. Since 1989, over 100 people convicted of various crimes have
been released from prison due to DNA tests. Twelve of those people had
been on death row.
Mauk said, "have lost a measure of confidence in the system."
District Court decision in New York affects only federal cases, and its
long-term fate is in question. Federal prosecutors pointed out that the
U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Fifth Amendmentís due process
guarantees do not require perfect outcomes. They also pointed out that
exonerations of convicted defendants on death row have all been in state
the panel discussion here, Idaho Falls attorney Fred Hoopes said he
represented a man sentenced to death for killing a 7-year-old girl in
Nampa in 1982. The man was on death row for more than a decade before a
new form of DNA testing on hair samples proved him innocent.
to audience questions about the rights of the families of victims to see
justice done, Hoopes said that a decision to satisfy that impulse must
recognize the "factor of error" in the system.
decided itís not worth it," he said.
agreed that many killers deserve to be put away for life, without any
possibility of parole. Going further, former Blaine County Prosecuting
Attorney Doug Werth said punishment needs to be made harsh enough to
scare kids into staying out of prison.
needs to be a horrible place to be," he said.
said that in the most recent Supreme Court decision, Justice Stephen
Breyer pointed out in a concurring opinion that there is no evidence
that the existence of the death penalty deters crime. Breyer referred to
statistics showing that the murder rate is 48 percent to 101 percent
higher in states that have the death penalty than in states that donít.
retribution," Parnes concluded.
disagreed on how the court decision will affect Idahoís 22 death row
inmates, at least six of whom will have their cases retried. Hoopes
contended that juries will be more sympathetic than judges to stories of
killersí backgrounds or other mitigating factors.
however, argued that they will be at least as sympathetic to the
families of victims.
get this strange mix of emotions taking place," he said. "I
particularly think that in the state of Idaho, there are juries that
will have no reservations whatsoever in imposing the death