Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Monday, November 13, 2006

SCOTUS Season -- California Death Penalty

Today the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for Fernando Belmontes, who was convicted of first degree murder in 1982. The case is Ayers v. Belmonte, 05-493. According to an old Supreme Court case, states have to let in all evidence that could mitigate the punishment for a crime, even when it wasn't admissible to get the conviction in the first place.

The Court voted 5-4, with Kennedy writing the majority opinion, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito. For those of you who don't care about the intricacies of California death penalty law (i.e. probably all of you), that's the most interesting piece of information about this case: Roberts and Alito continue to reassure me that they are the conservatives we thought they were during the confirmation hearings.

There's more: it's not just the fact that the sentence was upheld, but how the Court reached its conclusion. California law provides a list of factors that a jury can consider in determining whether to be lenient. The last of them, known as "factor (k)" in the opinion, is a general catch-all. Here's the wierd part of the case: the Defendant sought leave to introduce evidence that he had converted to Christianity while in prison and to let prison chaplains testify on his behalf, to show that he was reformed and no longer a danger -- and the court let him introduce that testimony. In other words, this is not a case where he's trying to get in evidence and the Court wouldn't let him. The jury heard the evidence, and handed down the sentence anyway. But the Defendant argues that the jury didn't really consider the evidence, because the statute doesn't apply to forward-looking evidence that the convict is not likely to remain a danger.

The most telling part of the opinion is Justice Stevens' dissent. He admits that the actual language of factor (k) allows the evidence in, and that a jury can consider such forward-looking evidence. His concern is, basically, that factor (k) sounds too "mean":

"And while the eleventh catch-all 'factor (k)' authorized consideration of '[a]ny other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime,' ... factor (k)'s restrictive language sent the unmistakable message that California juries could properly give no mitigating weight to evidence that did not extenuate the severity of the crime.
"Just a year after respondent's sentencing the California Supreme Court evinced considerable discomfort with factor (k)."
Emphasis added.

Let's get this straight: the unambiguous text of the statute allows "any other evidence." Justice Stevens finds the language "any other evidence" to be "restrictive." The statute sends an "unmistakeable message" which is actually contrary to the express wording of the statute. Finally, this conclusion is shored up because a California court expressed "discomfort" (but without actually invalidating the rule, or the statutory scheme).

See, this is why we need more judges like Scalia on the court. Some judges believe that statutes mean what they say and say what they mean. Others think that their personal vibe controls interpretation. The fact that Roberts and Alito signed onto the majority in this case is very good news, regardless of your feelings about the death penalty.

NOTE: I have never practiced criminal law, and have no personal experience with death penalty cases or California law.

More: Clayton Jones agrees: "in the middle of this incredible performance [the dissenters] had the nerve to call the trial judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, and jury 'addled.'" Actually the Stevens dissent is loaded with hilarious, thinly-disguised appeals to emotion.