Friday, March 12, 2010

On Evolving Standards of Decency and the Death Penalty

The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice.
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If the meaning of [the Eighth Amendment] had been frozen when it was originally drafted, it would impose no impediment to the execution of 7-year-old children today. ... The evolving standards of decency that have driven our construction of this critically important part of the Bill of Rights foreclose any such reading of the Amendment. In the best tradition of the common law, the pace of that evolution is a matter for continuing debate; but that our understanding of the Constitution does change from time to time has been settled since John Marshall breathed life into its text. If great lawyers of his day Alexander Hamilton, for example were sitting with us today, I would expect them to join Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court. In all events, I do so without hesitation

-- John Paul Stevens, U.S. Supreme Court Justice,


One searches in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strate of our society.

-- William O. Douglas, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice.


Why, when we have bravely and nobly progressed so far in the recent past to create a decent, humane society, must we perpetuate the senseless barbarism of official murder?

-- Abe Fortas (1910-1982), former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, New York Times


The deliberate institutionalized taking of human life by the state is the greatest conceivable degradation to the dignity of the human personality.

-- Arthur J. Goldberg (1908-1990), former Supreme Court Justice, The Boston Globe, 8/16/1976, p. 17.


From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies.
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I am more optimistic though, that this court will eventually conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness in the infliction of [death] is so plainly doomed to failure that is -- and the death penalty -- must be abandoned altogether. I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that eventually it will arrive.
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I cannot see any of these death penalty cases where there hasn't been a violation on the ground of either poverty or race. If we can ever get that straightened out, it will help. But, of course, the real answer to it is to do away with the death penalty.
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Of one thing, however, I am certain. Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent. The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.

-- Harry A. Blackmun, former U.S. Supreme Court Judge, (1) & (2) Callins v. Collins, 114 S.Ct.1127 (1994); (3) PBS Online NewsHour, 3/5/2004; (4) Herrera v. Collins 506 US 390 (1993).


It's just really tragic after all the horrors of the last 1,000 years we can't leave behind something as primitive as government sponsored execution.

-- Russ Feingold


The profound moral question is not, "Do they deserve to die?" but "Do we deserve to kill them?"
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Money and influence decide who is considered for a parole hearing, what the decision is likely to be and what the Governor's decision is likely to be. It is that, not your behavior in prison that decides your release.
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Government ... can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.

-- Helen Prejean


Since I was a law student, I have been against the death penalty. It does not deter. It is severely discriminatory against minorities, especially since they’re given no competent legal counsel defense in many cases. It’s a system that has to be perfect. You cannot execute one innocent person. No system is perfect. And to top it off, for those of you who are interested in the economics it, it costs more to pursue a capital case toward execution than it does to have full life imprisonment without parole.

-- Ralph Nader, Meet the Press interview, Jun. 25, 2000


A humane and generous concern for every individual, his health and his fulfillment, will do more to soothe the savage heart than the fear of state-inflicted death, which chiefly serves to remind us how close we remain to the jungle.

-- Ramsey Clark, New York Times, Jul. 3, 1968

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