Death penalty clarifications
June 27, 2002
Nevada lawmakers are right on target in their extensive review of how the state’s judicial system applies the death penalty.
With two recent, far-reaching decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, Nevada now has a chance to construct laws and procedures in line with the federal court’s rulings. In fact, recommendations from the committee studying Nevada’s death penalty had largely anticipated the issues before the U.S. court.
One was the constitutionality of executing mentally retarded people. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling left some doubt as to the effect on people already on death row, it should give ample guidelines to lawmakers in fashioning standards in Nevada for future cases.
There can be little doubt, as the court ruled, mentally retarded people are less “morally culpable” for their actions. There also is far greater chance they do not understand their rights or the court proceedings going on around them, and so there is a much greater risk of an error or incorrect verdict. While they should be tried and convicted of crimes, the death penalty is an unreasonably severe punishment for retarded people.
How “mentally retarded” is defined, and how that evidence is weighed at trial, will remain the crux of the problem in individual cases.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s second decision said the death penalty must be decided by juries, not judges. This is a much more straightforward issue to resolve for Nevada lawmakers, because it will simply mean the elimination of three-judge panels, who handed down sentences in cases where the defendant had pleaded guilty and waived his right to a trial.
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Some opponents of the death penalty have hailed the two rulings as steps towards its elimination. But we don’t see it that way.
As Nevada lawmakers recognized last session, death-penalty cases are the ultimate irreversible judgment. They demand more attention, more deliberation, more sensitivity than any others. The Supreme Court’s rulings do much to clarify the constitutionality of the death penalty; they do not begin to dismantle it.
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