The Supreme Court Tugs at Capital Cases

The Supreme Court this morning issued two rulings that open the door-- but just a crack-- to the possibility of major changes in capital punishment law. In one case, the Justices allowed a Florida man to challenge the manner of his execution-- lethal injection-- outside of the normal appellate process. And in the other case, the Justices allowed a Tennessee man to use DNA evidence to challenge his capital conviction 20 years after the fact.

Neither of the two cases guarantees or even suggests that the men will ultimately make it off death row. But both cases suggest that the recent trend on the Court toward ensuring procedural protections in capital cases may have survived the transition from Sandra Day O'Connor to Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. And that bodes well for both proponents and opponents of capital punishment, groups which each have a stake in ensuring that capital suspects are fairly tried and then justly convicted and sentenced.

In the Florida case, the Justices refused the opportunity to end a growing national debate over whether the use of the particular mix of lethal drugs used in executions actually kills people humanely. In the Tennessee case, the Justices were willing to consider how the use of DNA evidence might have made a material difference at trial. Sometimes the Court makes its mark on the law in grand, dramatic sweeps. Sometimes the Court just nudges things along a bit.

By  |  June 12, 2006; 12:35 PM ET
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Just to mention, Alito did not vote in the DNA case, otherwise they probably would not have allowed the attempt to show innocence. Notably, Roberts voted against allowing with the argument that if one juror thinks he's guilty, then he must be... hooray...

Posted by: Chris | June 12, 2006 02:17 PM

Oops, my mistake, it was a 5-3 decison so Alito couldn't have affected the outcome...

Posted by: Chris | June 12, 2006 02:22 PM

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