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Wednesday, September 3, 2003 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Court Reconsidering Case of 12 Year-Old Sentenced to Life...
2003-09-03

Federal Court Overturns Over 100 Death Sentences in 3 States

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Over 100 death sentences in Idaho, Arizona and Montana may be thrown out after a Court of Appeals in California ruled that only juries not judges alone can choose between life and death. And a Minnesota Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional to impose death sentences on people younger than 18. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Over 100 death sentences in Idaho, Arizona and Montana have been overturned by a federal court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled 8 to 3 yesterday that only juries not judges alone can choose between life and death and defendants condemned to death by judges should have their sentenced commuted to life in prison.

A federal public defender in Phoenix praised the decision as "fundamental justice."

Arizona, Idaho and Montana are the only states in the California court’s jurisdiction to have used judges, not juries to impose death penalty convictions. Nebraska and Colorado have similar laws but fall under the jurisdiction of another circuit court.

The ruling was guided by a Supreme Court ruling last year that gave juries, not judges the power to convict people to the death penalty. That June 24,2003 ruling left unanswered the question of whether appeals in death penalty sentences could be retroactive.

Yesterday’s ruling takes the issue one step further and says all death row inmates who were sentenced by judges must be spared. Legislators say the decision may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In related news, the Missouri Supreme Court last week ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose death sentences on people younger than 18 during the time of their crimes. The state court struck down the death sentence for Christopher Simmons, who was 17 years old when he was convicted of murder.

TRANSCRIPT

Amy Goodman: Over 100 death sentences in Idaho, Arizona and Montana have been overturned by a federal court. The 9th circuit court of appeals in California ruled 8:3 yesterday that only juries, not judges, can choose between life and death and defendants condemned to death by judges should have their sentences commuted to life in prison. A federal public defender in Phoenix praised the decision as, "fundamental justice."

Arizona, Idaho and Montana are the only states in California courts jurisdiction to have used judges not juries to impose death penalty convictions Nebraska and Colorado have similar laws, but fall under the jurisdiction of another circuit court.

The ruling was guided by a Supreme Court ruling last year that gave juries, not judges, the power to convict people to the death penalty. That June 24th decision left unanswered the question of whether appeals and death penalty sentences should be retroactive.

Yesterday’s ruling in California takes the issue one step further and says all death row prisoners who were sentenced by judges must be spared. Legislators say the decision may be headed to the Supreme Court.

In related news, the Missouri Supreme Court last week ruled that it’s unconstitutional to impose death sentences on people younger than 18 during the time of their crimes. The state court struck down the death sentence for Christopher Simmons who was 17 years old when he was convicted of murder.

We go now to David Elliot who is the spokesperson for The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Can you talk about the significance of the California court’s ruling yesterday?

David Elliot: Indeed, Amy. Yesterday’s ruling indeed was a landmark decision. The 9th circuit court upheld the bedrock principle that juries and only juries may decide an issue as important as life or death. So this is very good news for nearly 150 people on death row in these three states.

Now, when you consider that there are 3,500 people on death row across the country it might sound to some like this isn’t a huge number. But these 100 plus people on death row have friends, have loved ones and they’re all saying prayers and they’re all very, very happy today.

Amy Goodman: How did this happen? We often, when reading or watching the mainstream media, learn about a decision from either a government official or in this case an appeals court, but don’t learn about the grassroots mechanisms and movements that have been taking place over a long time.
Can you say how this case made its way to the circuit court?

David Elliot: That’s an excellent question. The fundamental principle here is that in some states, judges have been allowed to sentence people to death. And judges who are often elected by the voters are much more likely to sentence people to death than juries are. Juries go in and they hear all of the facts. They don’t only hear about the crime, they also hear about the person and what we call mitigating circumstances: the person’s social history, how he grew up, what sort of abuses he might have faced; issues such as mental retardation, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction.

And so this is basically the result of a growing awareness that this manner of sentencing that has been practiced by a half dozen states in the country is just grossly unfair. And that the phrase, a jury of one’s peers really has to have meaning in order for justice to prevail.

Amy Goodman: How did it happen that in some cases you had juries that determined whether or not a person got the death penalty. You have judges in some cases and juries in others.

David Elliot: It kind of goes to the utter arbitrariness and capriciousness, if you will, of the death penalty system. We have 38 states in the United States that have the death penalty, but every single state’s death penalty laws are different from every other state. There’s no uniform standard. And so the courts through the years are trying to make this system more uniform, but ultimately what they’re finding is that it’s just impossible. You can’t do it. You can’t have a death penalty that is not to some degree arbitrary and capricious.

Amy Goodman: But who determined whether in some cases there would be no jury?

David Elliot: Well, the state legislatures did in passing their death penalty statute. It’s not only these three states that we’re talking about—Arizona, Idaho and Montana plus two others, those being Nebraska and Colorado—but your listeners may be shocked to know that in two of the states with the largest death row population—not the very largest but pretty large—Florida and Alabama. Juries make recommendations but judges often overrule those recommendations. And this could be where we’re headed with this ruling, is to strike down those state statutes as well.

Amy Goodman: We’re talking now about Arizona, Idaho and Montana. You have similar laws in Nebraska and Colorado. Is there a case making its way through the court right now in those states?

David Elliot: There certainly is. There are several cases in fact. The circuit court that governs those states is the 8th circuit court, which is a fairly friendly circuit court. We expect a favorable ruling in those states as well. But ultimately, we’re headed back to the Supreme Court with this.

Amy Goodman: Now, the attorney general of Arizona says he will most likely appeal.

David Elliot: We expect that. We hope that either the U.S. Supreme Court will decline to accept an appeal of this decision, or if it does, then it will simply affirm the simple constitutional logic underlying it and juries and not judges should make these it decisions.

Amy Goodman: And the case of the Missouri Supreme Court last week ruling unconstitutional the imposition of the death penalty on people who commit crimes when they’re under 18?

David Elliot: That was just breathtaking. In this country we don’t let juveniles sign contracts, serve in the military, marry, purchase alcohol or cigarettes or even vote. Yet in some states, 21 states now, we still deem them eligible for the death penalty. And six out of the last seven juvenile offenders that have been executed in this country have all been executed in Texas and every one of them has been African American.

So this is very good news. We think that it puts us closer to a place, we’re perhaps a year or two away, from the Supreme Court taking up such a case and ruling the death penalty unconstitutional for juvenile offenders just as it last year ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for people with mental retardation.

Amy Goodman: This is all happening during the Bush administration. George Bush, when he was governor of Texas, had more people executed, is it true, than any governor in U.S. history?

David Elliot: Well that is true. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it. This is why we have a system of checks and balances. When one part of government goes too far, other parts of government step in and clean it up. And so right now we have seen two courts, the 9th circuit court of appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court cleaning it up.

Amy Goodman: Well I want to thank I very much for being with us. We’ve been talking with David Elliot, who is a spokesperson for The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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