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On Death And Justice, Or, What If The Death Penalty Could Be Fair? June 28, 2009

Those who support Progressive causes are in an odd position these days: we’re often in the majority on issues that matter; and we’re seriously talking about how to turn what, just a few years ago, was a wish list…into a “reality list”.

Staying in the majority, however, requires the assistance of centrist voters–and that means, from time to time, finding philosophical compromise with voters we’d like to keep “in the fold”.

In years past, the issue of the death penalty has created a considerable chasm between Progressives and centrists; with the one side concerned about the misapplication of capital punishment, and the other convinced that, for the most heinous of crimes, the only way to achieve a truly just outcome is for the guilty party to face the most severe of punishments.

What if we could bridge that gap?

In today’s discussion we propose to do exactly that: to create a death penalty process that only executes those who are truly guilty and excludes those who might not deserve to be put to death…in fact, those who might not be guilty of any crime at all.

Before we proceed further, a bit of “full disclosure”: I am personally inclined to end the death penalty. The reason for this change in personal philosophy is related to the work of The Innocence Project, who would want you to know that as of the date of this writing 240 people convicted of various crimes were later exonerated in the United States through the use of DNA testing (17 of those being inmates who were on various Death Rows at the time).

It occurs to me that the only acceptable level of error in executions is zero, which has also led me to support the option of life without the possibility of parole as an effective death penalty substitute; the thinking here being that a wrongly convicted individual can always be released from life without parole…but until Dr. McCoy returns from his five year mission, the odds that an accidental execution can be reversed are quite low indeed.

“On the other hand, the worst nightmare of a death penalty supporter and of everyone who believes in our criminal justice system is to execute an innocent man.”

–From A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush

As you are no doubt aware, in order to obtain a criminal conviction in the United States a prosecutor must prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”.

This standard, however, does not guarantee that only the guilty are convicted.

Improper convictions can be obtained for a variety of reasons, which can include eyewitnesses who make mistakes, situations that involve false confessions, the inappropriate use of informants, or even the occasional governmental misconduct.

To reduce the potential for these sorts of failures, I’m proposing that after conviction, and during the “penalty phase” of a trial involving capital crimes, we determine if the evidence presented can meet a higher “burden of proof” than what is required to merely convict a defendant of the crime for which they are facing trial.

That higher burden of proof:

“Guilt beyond any doubt.”

In other words, if, during the penalty phase, the defense could create any doubt at all as to whether the defendant is guilty, or that the conviction is appropriate, that defendant would no longer be death penalty eligible, and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole would be imposed.

This is a good start to reduce the number of improper capital convictions…but there is another important reason the innocent are convicted that this proposal cannot address: incompetent lawyers.

However, there is a way to get at a resolution for this problem: a requirement that all defendants in capital cases be represented by Federally-accredited “death penalty” attorneys, combined with a requirement that each State maintain a staff of accredited attorneys that would be available to defend those individuals who are facing capital crimes and cannot afford private accredited counsel.

All of this could be imposed by Congress with statute law; and an Act defining “cruel and unusual punishment” in part as a failure, in capital cases, to provide the “guilt beyond any doubt review” and accredited attorneys should do the trick just nicely.

Dimitri: I was talking to Zeus the other day, and he thinks you’re a bad influence on me.
Tasso: That’s interesting, because I think he’s a bad influence on you.
Dimitri: In what way?
Tasso: He makes you think the voices in your head are real.

–From Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar…, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

There are two counterarguments that might quickly occur to the reader, and I will attempt to address them both here.

First, it is indeed true that this will not absolutely guarantee that there will be no further improper executions…and it is also true that the only way to make such an absolute guarantee is to end the use of the death penalty altogether.

However, this is a great compromise, in that is reduces the odds of such an execution to near zero while still leaving open the potential for executions in cases where no doubt of any kind can be established by the defense.

Secondly, there will be concerns that this proposal will only allow the death penalty to be imposed under the most extreme and unusual circumstances, to which I would reply: that’s exactly correct.

The idea here is that virtually everyone who is accused of a capital crime would end up sentenced to life without the possibility of parole…except in those most rare of circumstances where there can be no doubt whatever as to the guilt of the accused.

This is also a great compromise—after all, does even the most conservative Christian voter amongst us really want to take the chance that innocent people are executed?

To help this process along, I would further propose that Congress enact legislation that allows anyone facing Federal crimes or capital crimes, in any State, the right to obtain and introduce, post-conviction, evidence that could absolutely prove the innocence of a convicted person…and I would encourage Congress or the State Legislatures to pass legislation that would apply this protection to those convicted of all crimes in all States.

We might consider creating “Review Magistrates” to conduct an initial, less formal, review of such claims, with claims deemed appropriately credible advancing to a more formal Court setting for final disposition.

This will also cause some to object to the added burden imposed on the legal system…but the goal of the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses is not to round up a few of the innocent in order to get all the guilty incarcerated…instead, it’s just the opposite: to let a few of the guilty go free in order to ensure that the odds of the innocent being convicted remain as low as possible.

And with all that said, let’s wrap this thing up:

In order to find a way to compromise between the philosophies of those who seek to end capital punishment and those who support its application, I’m proposing that we review the evidence after conviction in capital cases, as part of the “penalty phase” of such trials, and if the defendant can create any doubt at all, of any kind, as to the propriety of that conviction, that defendant shall be sentenced to life without parole.

I’m also proposing that all defendants facing capital crimes be represented by accredited “death penalty” attorneys, and that defendants have the opportunity, post-conviction, to present exculpatory evidence if it should become available.

The use of the death penalty, not unlike the issue of abortion, has pulled people of good conscience to diametrically opposite sides of a national debate that is not easily resolved.

This set of proposals tries to find the compromise between those two sides, and in doing that we hope to convince centrist voters that Progressives are more than just wild-eyed dreamers—that, instead, they’re realists who seek solutions that represent the interests of all Americans, even those with whom they might not always agree.

In a political world where one side seeks fairness and compromise and inclusion and the other side seeks a ever-crazier brand of moral purity…which they can’t quite seem to live up to…it seems to me that the side seeking compromise is hugely advantaged in elections…and that, as far as I’m concerned, sounds pretty good.

Special Note: We have become aware of concerns related to the health of Walter Cronkite, and we hope he is as hale and hearty as he would want to be.

WARNING—Self-Promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation Scholarship, and I was not selected in either the first or second rounds. There is one more chance…and while I’m not inclined to use the “hard sell”…I guess I will today.

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All of us here thank you for your kind attention, and we now return you to your regular programming (which, in keeping with the “hard sell”, is rated PG, instead of the usual G).

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On Judicial Empathy, Or, Random Roadblocks Aren’t Annoying. Really. May 7, 2009

So a Supreme Court justice that hardly anyone noticed has announced his retirement and all of a sudden the lips of The Experts are all a-flutter with the word “Empathy”.

President Obama reports he wants his nominee to have it; and Republicans are convinced that the word is a secret code for something that eventually ends in the death of free speech, massive roundups of guns by the Secret United Nations World Police, and the Internment Of All The White People In Reeducation Camps Run By Americorps And ACORN And Gay People Who Want To Marry And Are Funded By George Soros.

It is suggested that Evil Activist Judges will trample the Constitution as they create Law out of whole cloth; and that only those who interpret the Constitution just as it was written can bring the proper attitude to the Court.

It sounds like somebody needs to come along and provide a couple of cogent thoughts about this whole empathy thing…and lucky for you, Gentle Reader, we have before us today specific examples of how the quality of empathy can express itself in Court Doctrine.

So right off the bat, a few words about how cases are interpreted by the Supreme Court are in order:

A lot of the talking heads on the tee-vee frame the Court’s job as one of basically hearing the arguments in a case, reviewing the record, and deciding whether some action of Government violates someone’s constitutional rights.

That framing ignores two huge elements of the Court’s job: resolving the conflicts between the protected rights of two groups of private citizens (for example, does the right of all citizens to have access to the “public square” for purposes of political campaigning override the right of shopping center owners to control who has access to their private property?)…and creating rulings that attempt to discern what the mood or motivation of the public might be regarding aspects of potential Court Doctrine (for example, does a particular item of pornography violate “prevailing community standards”?).

The obvious example of how all this can play out might be found in the way the Court saw things when they ruled in Plessy v Ferguson, followed later by Brown v Board of Education; in which the Supremes first ruled that “separate but equal” was just fine and then ruled it wasn’t fine after all. Lots of others will examine these cases in detail, so, instead, we shall take a different tack.

The Fourth Amendment, in requiring that searches not be “unreasonable” and that warrants be justified by probable cause, guaranteed that Justices would forever be required to interpret without clear definitions to guide them.

Let’s now examine how “empathy’ has affected those interpretations.

If you are driving north from San Diego to Los Angeles…and you’re not a Marine…you’ll be inspected by Customs and Border Protection officers manning an immigration checkpoint on I-5. It’s possible that you might be directed to a “secondary inspection” area for a search of the contents of your vehicle, based on nothing more than the hunch of the Inspector on duty.

In 1975, the Court, showing one kind of empathy, unanimously ruled that:

“The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents…”

United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891

However, Chief Justice Burger, who generally joined in the concurrences of the other Justices, had his own “empathetic” point of view:

“Like MR. JUSTICE WHITE, I can, at most, do no more than concur in the judgment. As the Fourth Amendment now has been interpreted by the Court, it seems that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is powerless to stop the tide of illegal aliens — and dangerous drugs — that daily and freely crosses our 2,000-mile southern boundary….Perhaps these decisions will be seen in perspective as but another example of a society seemingly impotent to deal with massive lawlessness.”

Amado Martinez-Fuerte, who had been arrested at the same checkpoint, probably thought that the Court would continue to see things as they had in 1975…but by 1976, the Court no longer felt as empathetic towards the concept that consent or probable cause…or even reasonable suspicion…was required for vehicle searches as they had the year before:

“To require that such stops always be based on reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic tends to be too heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car necessary to identify it as a possible carrier of illegal aliens.”

United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543

This ruling is particularly significant in that it allowed the checkpoint to operate under a general “warrant of inspection” (a device usually used only to allow building inspections and the like), and for the evidence obtained there to be admissible against individuals in criminal trials.

However, the plain text of the Fourth Amendment seems to take a different view, stating that:

“…no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

By this time, Thurgood Marshall had left the Court (his empathy demonstrated perhaps best by the fact that in 1954 he had argued—and wonBrown v Board of Education before the Supreme Court); and the new Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Government’s position in Martinez-Fuerte.

You’ll recall that we discussed the fact that the Court often has to determine the public mood. Here’s a very specific example:

The Court, in deciding that the immigration checkpoint was not an “unreasonable” search, felt no empathy toward the idea that being stopped every day would bother any commuter who was legally using I-5 several days a week, nor to the concept that the delay of legal commercial traffic would be bothersome. Their sole concern was that the motorist would view the checkpoint as “legitimate”:

“Routine checkpoint stops do not intrude similarly on the motoring public. First, the potential interference with legitimate traffic is minimal. Motorists using these highways are not taken by surprise as they know, or may obtain knowledge of, the location of the checkpoints and will not be stopped elsewhere….The regularized manner in which established checkpoints are operated is visible evidence, reassuring to law-abiding motorists, that the stops are duly authorized and believed to serve the public interest. The location of a fixed checkpoint is not chosen by officers in the field, but by officials responsible for making overall decisions as to the most effective allocation of limited enforcement resources. We may assume that such officials will be unlikely to locate a checkpoint where it bears arbitrarily or oppressively on motorists as a class. And since field officers may stop only those cars passing the checkpoint, there is less room for abusive or harassing stops of individuals than there was in the case of roving-patrol stops…”

(A quick Fun Fact: the location of the checkpoint near San Clemente appears to have been chosen specifically because it allows the stopping of virtually all traffic between San Diego and Los Angeles. You might think setting up a checkpoint to stop all traffic is a bit arbitrary…and I would agree with you. The Court, obviously, did not.)

The ruling in Martinez-Fuerte also does not display empathy with the Defendants’ assertions that being ordered to “Secondary Inspection” is intrusive…even if there for no reason at all to suspect the vehicle–or even if the reason for the stop is entirely race-based:

“The defendants arrested at the San Clemente checkpoint suggest that its operation involves a significant extra element of intrusiveness in that only a small percentage of cars are referred to the secondary inspection area, thereby “stigmatizing” those diverted and reducing the assurances provided by equal treatment of all motorists. We think defendants overstate the consequences. Referrals are made for the sole purpose of conducting a routine and limited inquiry into residence status that cannot feasibly be made of every motorist where the traffic is heavy. The objective intrusion of the stop and inquiry thus remains minimal. Selective referral may involve some annoyance, but it remains true that the stops should not be frightening or offensive because of their public and relatively routine nature. Moreover, selective referrals – rather than questioning the occupants of every car – tend to advance some Fourth Amendment interests by minimizing the intrusion on the general motoring public…

… Thus, even if it be assumed that such referrals are made largely on the basis of apparent Mexican ancestry…we perceive no constitutional violation…As the intrusion here is sufficiently minimal that no particularized reason need exist to justify it, we think it follows that the Border Patrol…officers must have wide discretion in selecting the motorists to be diverted for the brief questioning involved.”

And with that (and a few cases to supplement the concept), the idea that the police require an actual reason to stop people and then conduct searches and seizures has gradually faded into a quaint anachronism of history.

So where does all this leave us?

Well, how about this: it leaves us more aware of the fact that there are rarely “simple” interpretations of the Constitution. Rather than just relying on the plain text of the document, the Justices, using the sense of empathy they’ve developed throughout their lives, interpret and create new law in each and every case.

It should leave us more aware that the arguments made by those who support “strict constructionists” for the Court reflect less of a desire to remain pure to the principles of the Constitution, and more a desire to advance very specific, and often radical, policies that favor Government over the People who are supposed to be its master—policies that are often based more on a sense of fear than an appreciation of the strength of the system their new policies seek to “save”.

Mr. Obama is absolutely correct in seeking a Justice with “empathy”.

Let’s just hope the one he picks has the kind of empathy that, for a change, advances civil liberties, instead of sending them to the sort of “Guantanamo Chainsaw Massacre” that Justice Scalia finds so in keeping with his sense of empathy.

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