Life and death justice issues face court, draw faith leaders' voices

Patricia Zapor

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In separate cases, the Supreme Court will consider persistently unsettled angles on criminal sentencing, including death sentences for people with mental disabilities and life sentences for juveniles.

The court heard oral arguments Monday in a Louisiana case that challenges the death sentence of Kevan Brumfield, who his attorneys say should be exempt from capital punishment because he is intellectually disabled. The case asks the court to allow evidence of disability to be considered in a reconsideration of his death sentence.

In that argument, much of the discussion among the justices and attorneys on either side revolved around whether evidence of Brumfield's mental limitations was properly heard -- or not -- in lower courts, and whether he was entitled to a rehearing and to have the state pay for his mental evaluation.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to add additional death penalty cases to its docket for the fall. Those cases will consider Kansas Supreme Court rulings that overturned the death sentences of three men who were convicted of murder. The state court had reversed the death sentences of two brothers convicted of robbing and murdering four people in Wichita in 2000 and the death sentence of another man convicted of killing a couple in Great Bend in 2004.

In April, the court will hear oral arguments in another type of death penalty case on whether the lethal injection protocol used in Oklahoma is constitutional. In Glossip v. Gross, being heard April 29, the court will review the constitutionality of a lethal injection process that is shown to provide no pain-relieving properties before drugs that may cause pain and suffering are given.

That case was brought by four Oklahoma death-row inmates, although one of them was executed before the court took the case. Florida uses the same drugs for executions.

On March 23, a divided court declined to hear a Texas man's appeal of his death sentence on multiple grounds, including that others were responsible for the murder for which he was convicted and that executing him more than 30 years after his conviction would be unconstitutionally cruel punishment. Three justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor -- said they would have thrown out the death sentence of Lester Bower of Arlington, Texas, because the jury never heard evidence that might have led them to impose a lighter sentence.

The same day, the court agreed to hear another Louisiana case that seeks to define how far back a ruling may be retroactively applied. The court in 2012 prohibited life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. Montgomery v. Louisiana, which will be heard in the fall, involves a man sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for his role in the 1963 killing of a deputy sheriff. Henry Montgomery was 17 at the time of the crime.

Since the 2012 ruling, lower courts have split as to whether the ruling should be retroactively applied. In Montgomery, the court will first consider whether it has jurisdiction to weigh in on how states decide such cases.

The court's consideration of criminal justice issues comes soon after Pope Francis on March 20 urged worldwide abolition of the death penalty, calling it "cruel, inhumane and degrading," and saying it loses all legitimacy in legal systems where judicial error is possible.

After meeting with a delegation from the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, the pope issued a letter urging abolition and saying it "does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge."

On March 27, meanwhile, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition became the first national association of evangelical congregations to support repeal of the death penalty. In a statement after the announcement, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the organization, said that after prayer, reflection and dialogue with death penalty abolition groups including Equal Justice USA, "we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue."

As followers of Christ, Salguero said, "we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always evenhanded. The death penalty is plagued by racial and economic disparities and risks executing an innocent person. Human beings are fallible and there is no room for fallibility in matters of life and death."

In Brumfield v. Cain, the court will consider whether Brumfield was entitled to a hearing in which a District Court found that he is intellectually disabled to a degree which would disqualify him from capital punishment under the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. In that case, the court ruled that executing people with intellectual disability is unconstitutional.

Brumfield was convicted in the 1993 murder of Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers during a robbery. Brumfield has always maintained his confession to police was coerced and that he was not responsible for the officer's death.

Brumfield's conviction preceded the court's 2002 ruling about intellectual disability being a barrier to death sentences. After Atkins was decided, Brumfield's pro bono lawyer raised several facts from his trial that suggested he might be intellectually disabled. The state court declined to provide funding for evaluation or a hearing to consider his abilities.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that he was not entitled to any further evaluation, and that evidence of intellectual disability provided after his trial must be disregarded, in keeping with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, out of deference to the state court which convicted him and sentenced him to death.

In a briefing for reporters March 26, Brumfield's attorneys said there is clear evidence that he meets the criteria for disability and that the Supreme Court's decision will be unlikely to have far-reaching impact.

One attorney, Nicholas Trenticosta, acknowledged that part of the reason why Louisiana has persisted in seeking the death penalty for Brumfield despite his disability is that "Louisiana judges are elected," and therefore the death of a police officer carries significant weight in how such cases are prosecuted.

Rulings in Brumfield and Glossip are expected before the court recesses for the summer in late June.

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