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Use of death penalty: Justice Stevens dissents

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, considered one of the most liberal justices, issued a ringing, stinging criticism of capital punishment Saturday in Chicago, telling lawyers that he was disturbed by ‘serious flaws’ in its application.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivers the keynote address Saturday at the American Bar Association's 2005 Thurgood Marshall Awards Dinner in Chicago.Aynsley Floyd / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens issued an unusually stinging criticism of capital punishment Saturday evening, telling lawyers that he was disturbed by “serious flaws.”

Stevens stopped short of calling for an end to the death penalty, but said that there are many problems in the way it is used.

Recent exonerations of death row inmates through scientific evidence are significant, he told the American Bar Association, “not only because of its relevance to the debate about the wisdom of continuing to administer capital punishment but also because it indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice.”

Other justices, including Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have also spoken out about concerns that defendants in murder cases are not adequately represented at trial.

But Stevens, 85, detailed a much harsher and sweeping condemnation.

He said the jury selection process and the fact that many trial judges are elected also work against those accused of murder.

Stevens, named to the high court by President Ford in 1975, is considered one of the most liberal justices.

In recent years he has been influential in votes that barred states from executing mentally retarded killers and those who were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

The Supreme Court frequently splits 5-4 in capital cases, and often O’Connor is the pivotal vote.

Laments O'Connor's departure
O’Connor, 75, announced last month that she was retiring, and Stevens told lawyers that her departure will be difficult. “It’s really a very wrenching experience,” he said.

Stevens, a Chicago native, made the comments as his wife, two daughters and the widow of the late Thurgood Marshall, Cecilia, watched from the audience.

Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first black member who retired in 1991, was a critic of the death penalty and argued that it was unconstitutional under any circumstances.

“Since his retirement, with the benefit of DNA evidence, we have learned that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously,” Stevens said during his keynote address at the 2005 Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner.

He said Supreme Court cases have revealed that “a significant number of defendants in capital cases have not been provided with fully competent legal representation at trial.”

In addition, Stevens said he had reviewed records that showed “special risks of unfairness” in capital punishment.