Shifting standards


Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 5:41 p.m.

Debates over the fine points of capital punishment continue to rage in the courts and in state governments, with the U.S. Supreme Court causing much of the confusion.

Actually, it's Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy who keep the confusion going. The other seven justices seem pretty well set in their ways, split almost evenly.

Last week, for example, the court refused to consider the constitutionality of executing someone for a capital crime committed when the perpetrator was under the age of 18. Five justices had to agree to hear the case, but O'Connor and Kennedy refused.

However, when similar issues were raised concerning the execution of mentally retarded inmates, O'Connor and Kennedy joined in a majority in ruling against such executions only last June. Neither offered any explanation for what appears to be a contradiction. Thus, the issue remains muddled, with some states setting an 18-year-old age threshold and others permitting younger defendants to be sentenced to death.

That's not the only case of court muddling. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the death sentences of two men who had execution dates set earlier this year. The executions were blocked when the U.S. Supreme Court tried to get itself out of a procedural box by declaring invalid death sentences meted out by judges rather than juries.

But then the Supreme Court lifted the stays of execution on the two Florida inmates -- even though they had been sentenced by judges rather than juries. The Florida Supreme Court took up a new appeal in an effort to determine what the U.S. Supreme Court was trying to say, but ultimately decided it could not do so. Now the inmates will have to make another last-ditch plea to the nation's highest court to explain what it meant in the earlier case.

Adding to the capital-punishment confusion is the unprecedented situation in Illinois, where outgoing Gov. George Ryan is holding amnesty hearings for every inmate on the state's death row -- all 159 of them -- to decide whether he will commute their sentences before he leaves office at the end of the year.

Ryan's says he is unlikely to grant blanket commutations but he remains concerned about the manner in which capital cases are tried and appealed. Several condemned inmates have been exonerated in recent years, and Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions until the Legislature adopts an extensive package of reforms.

Back in Florida, which also has had some wrongful convictions in capital cases, voters will decide on Nov. 5 whether to approve Constitutional Amendment 1, which will limit the Florida Supreme Court's powers to set standards different from those set by the U.S. Supreme Court. As we have previously pointed out, the Amendment is really a thinly disguised attempt by the Legislature to undermine the Florida Supreme Court's role in capital punishment cases, and voters ought to reject it.

Especially since no one can say for certain what the U.S. Supreme Court's standards are.

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