Texas Two-Step in a Death Penalty Case

If ultimately the Supreme Court puts a temporary end to the use of the death penalty in this country-- no, I'm neither predicting that or endorsing it-- no doubt it will be in part because of silly rulings like this one by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which by a 2-1 vote yesterday refused to hear a condemned man's reasonable appeal on its merits. This is the same appellate court that has in the past shown a remarkably pointed disdain for its superiors in Washington and I would be very surprised if the Justices don't once again get involved to protect a defendant's constitutional rights from the cramped ruling of this stubborn lower court.

This is not a case about a man's guilt or innocence. This is a case about what sort of defense a capital suspect may have. The man, James Jackson, confessed to murdering his wife and two children but wanted during the sentencing phase of his trial to allow jurors to hear from his family and friends about the impact his execution would have on their lives. The request was denied by his trial judge and then denied again by the state appellate court and that's how the federal appeals court got to hear about it.

The 5th Circuit majority ruled that because the mitigating evidence Jackson wanted to share with jurors did not reflect upon his "background or character, or on the circumstances surrounding the crime" the state court judges were within their rights to refuse to allow Jackson's jurors to hear it. It is a ruling that is so narrow, and so against the most recent Supreme Court trend broadening procedural protections for capital defendnats, that some legal beagles are practically apoplectic. They shouldn't be. This appellate court and many of the judges on it are simply hostile to the rights of criminal defendants and have been for many years.

What possible justification could there be to refuse to allow a capital defendant to offer to jurors his friends and family to discuss the ramifications of his death? Why in the world would a trial judge refuse to permit such testimony in a case that obviously was going to ultimately result in a capital sentence anyway? And if by some chance the testimony from the defendant's family and friends were to sway jurors into a life sentence rather than a death penalty then wouldn't that switch be proof alone of the materiality and relevancy of the evidence?

As the lone dissenting judge wrote in the Jackson case, "the Supreme Court has required the liberal admission of mitigating faxtors in death cases that may be relevant to the deathworthiness or 'culpability' of defendants, and these holdings conflict with the idea that there are limited categories of admissible evidence in death cases to which evidence can be neatly fitted." Moreover, Judge James Dennis wrote, "If the value of the victim's life is permitted to be brought before the jury, however, then I see no option under Supreme Court jurisprudence but to permit the defendant to counter this evidence with evidence of the value of his own life."

The 5th Circuit has again snubbed the Supreme Court. It has once again afforded the Justices with an opportunity to shape death penalty law in a way that allows better procedural rights for defendants. When will these lower court judges learn that their narrow views in these cases ultimately end up broadening the law?

By  |  May 31, 2006; 3:00 PM ET
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One of the reasons I'm opposed to the death penalty is that I think it's too much responsibility for a government. Cases like this are illustrate that point nicely. They could have heard from the relatives, and if that was a typical Texas jury, the guy would be out of appeals by now and on his way to whatever way Texans like to kill their inmates nowadays. Even in a gimme case in the most execution-happy state in the country, they managed to screw up multiple times.

Posted by: Cujo359 | May 31, 2006 07:19 PM

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