Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More Supreme Proof of User-friendly Justice for Inmates under a Roberts Court

In reviewing the latest news from the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts, the Court ruled today that prisoners may sue states "for damages over inhumane cell conditions and other 'cruel and unusual' punishment."

In a unanimous decision, the Highest Court ruled the state of Georgia violated an inmate's constitutional rights under the the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The prisoner, who was wheelchair-bound, claimed his cell was so small he needed assistance to use the bathroom.

The Court affirmed that "Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars any 'public entity' from discriminating against any 'qualified individual with a disability.''' And that includes prisoners in correctional institutions.

A Roberts Court appears to be ready to expand prisoners' rights; and even revisit claims of miscarriages of justice by prisoners and death row inmates.

In yet another decision today, the Supreme Court vacated a Fourth Circuit Court ruling.

The case involved Darrick Demorris Walker, a Virginia man who was tried, found guilty and sentenced to die for killing Roger Beale in November, 1996 and Clarence Threat in June, 1997.

An eyewitness who inititally "told police she did not see the killer in one of the murders," later fingered Walker as the killer and testified before the Court.

In ruling to vacate, the Supreme Court cited "Banks v. Dretke, a Texas case involving prosecutorial misconduct."

In that case, Justice Ruth Ginsburg delivering the opinion wrote, "When police or prosecutors conceal significant exculpatory or impeaching material, we hold it is ordinarily incumbent upon the state to set the record straight….A rule declaring ‘prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,’ is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process.”

No more death-dealing peek-a-boos, so-you-didn't-see, too-late-if-now-you-do!

The Supreme Court resoundingly reaffirmed their 7-2 decision of February 24, 2004. Prosecutors cannot withhold evidence from the defense team.

Jack Payden-Travers of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said, this "ruling sends a message to...prosecutors that they are not allowed to bend and twist the rules in order to secure a conviction."

“The U.S. Supreme Court has sent a pointed message to the state of Virginia: prosecutors must play by the rules, especially when the death penalty is at stake,” Payden-Travers said. “Walker was denied a fair trial and once again, new questions have been raised about the fairness and the accuracy of Virginia’s death penalty system.”

Amen -- Supremes and Brother Jack. Prosecutors cannot promise full evidentiary disclosure, allow a witness to lie to the Courts and then fail to disclose. Something truly rancid has been allowed to go on for too long.

And finally, in the latest round of good news for death penalty opponents, New Jersey legislation has just sent a bill to the governor calling for the suspension of executions while the state "studies the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty."

CNN reports that Gov. Richard J. Codey (who will be replaced by Gov-elect Jon S. Corzine in January, the current senator from New Jersey who ran for governor and won) will sign the bill.

Under the measure, a 13-member commission would have until November to report on whether the death penalty is fairly imposed and whether alternatives would ensure public safety and address the needs of victims' families.

The legislation is ground-breaking in that it marks the very first time a moratorium was passed by both Houses and sent to a governor for signature. Although Maryland and Illinois previously issued moratoriums, they originated by executive order. The executive order was rescinded in Maryland in 2003 shortly after a new governor was sworn in; and since then two inmates have been executed.

My take on capital punishment:

I'm not strongly for or against capital punishment. But I want to take issue with one argument in the debate. Here is 'old faithful' that I hear often: 'The death penalty punishes a murder with another murder. So it's as bad as the crime itself.' The same style of argument works for corporal punishment: My son just hit my daughter. But if I punish him with a smack, my crime is as bad as my son's.

Now think closely and these arguments self-destruct. Take the same logic and apply it to other situations: If we must avoid punishments which are as bad as the crime (my opponent's position), then we must avoid locking up slave traders, since that would be to lock up those who lock people up. We must avoid smacking unruly children, since that would be to hit my son for hitting his sister. Yet to most of us these conclusions are plainly silly. We know that slave-traders should be locked up, and many of us still believe that there is a place for smacking our children.
So how do we lock up slave traders and smack wayward children without becoming hypocrites? We must think differently.

We must see the difference between those who may justly punish offenders and those who may not. Those with proper authority include our judiciary and our parents. They may execute acts of punishment which are criminal in any other context. They may lock people up. They may smack. In fact they must execute such punishments for the common good. No one else may do this, but they must.

So back to 'old faithful' above. We must not push our rhetoric to the point where capital punishment becomes murder, no matter how much we are against the death penalty. If we overstep this line, we will find that much of our valid discipline and judicial sentencing are immoral and hypocritical.
While I have no problem with the idea of capital punishment as a means of both restitution and punishment for the taking of an innocent life, I take serious issue with the idea of the State (that is, government) as the final aribitor of a human being's fate. The advent of advanced DNA testing has shown us, ad nauseum, over the last decade just how careless and cavalier the State and its "justice" system is in deciding a human being's fate.

Can we really say with a straight face that justice is being done when prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence, often with the judiciary's tacit blessing, and face no punishment when their malfeasance is exposed? To assume a "yes" answer to this question is to ignore the facts in evidence.

Unless or until prosecutorial malfeasance is treated as a punishable felony crime in which those who practice it face both criminal and political sanctions, the current travesty will continue unabated. For this reason alone there is ample legal and moral grounds for imposing a moratorium on implementation of the death penulty throughout the nation.
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