Tilting Toward Death


Posted: June 14, 2007

THE U.S. SUPREME Court's recent decision to make it easier for prosecutors to exclude people who express reservations about the death penalty from juries in capital cases reveals the court's own reservations.

In a ruling that reverses a recent trend in which this court has restricted the application of the death penalty, the court on Monday upheld the exclusion of a juror who was removed after he began to equivocate about his willingness to apply the death penalty.

The ruling settles an issue that has troubled legal experts for years - the seating of what are called "death-penalty-qualified" juries.

In capital cases, prosecutors are allowed to strike for cause any juror who cannot apply the death-penalty laws. Monday's ruling extends the prosecutors' prerogatives to allow them to strike even jurors who would do so, but only reluctantly.

Most experts agree that death-penalty-qualified jurors are more likely to convict than are those who oppose the death penalty.

Prosecutors are entitled to a jury that will apply the laws as written. To allow less would deny the state a basic right.

But in the case the high court decided on Monday, a juror who had pledged to apply the death-penalty law later expressed reservations only after learning that a sentence of life in prison was also possible.

Our fear is that the ruling could effectively make death-penalty juries the exclusive province of people not only comfortable with, but committed to, the death penalty.

A study released yesterday by the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocate for abolition of capital punishment, shows that 39 percent of Americans say they have a moral objection to the death penalty.

When you add the percentage who have concerns like the juror excluded in the case the Supreme Court ruled on, more than half of all Americans could be excluded.

Reducing the pool of potential jurors to those who are most inclined to impose death penalties is certain to raise the risk of wrongful convictions. It's hard to see how that could work in the interest of justice.

Capital punishment is the law of the land and the state is entitled to a fair trial under the law. But in matters of life and death, it has always been the American way to err on the side of life. *

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