IN its campaign for the death penalty, the Bush administration has asked the Supreme Court to allow the survivors of murder victims to participate in the sentencing of convicted killers. Under the requested procedure, survivors would be permitted to testify or otherwise introduce evidence about a murder victim's character and the loss the survivors have suffered. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh argued before the high court last week in support of such ``victim impact'' evidence in capital cases. It's a bad idea. The Supreme Court should reaffirm its previous decisions in 1987 and 1989 barring victim-impact evidence in death-sentence proceedings.
This newspaper continues adamantly to oppose capital punishment, for reasons we've frequently stated. But as long as the death penalty is used in this country, it should be applied fairly.
The survivors of murder victims have, of course, experienced grievous loss, and they have an interest in seeing that justice is done. But more than that of a disinterested person, their idea of justice is likely to be ``an eye for an eye.'' Emotional evidence of a victims' good qualities and the devotion of their family can serve no possible purpose other than to increase jurors' inclination to avenge the survivors.
The only morally defensible rationale for capital punishment is the (wholly unproven) assertion that it deters violent crime. Revenge is no rationale at all.
Proponents of victim-impact evidence in capital cases say that murderers should be held accountable for the full extent of the harm they have caused. But that's a standard for monetary damages in a liability case, not for a capital case. Murder is murder, and a killer is equally culpable in taking the life of a leading citizen or a street person. Our society does not value some lives more highly than others.
The use of victim-impact evidence in capital cases can only lead to arbitrary and capricious applications of the death penalty by emotionally inflamed juries, applications that are ``cruel and unusual punishments.''
A laudable trend is developing in this country in favor of victims' rights. Traditionally victims have been ignored by the criminal-justice system except as prosecution witnesses. Crime victims, it's correctly said, often are victimized twice - once by the criminal, and again by the system.
There surely is a need for more considerate treatment of victims by police and prosecutors, for better ways to compensate victims of crime, and for counseling to help victims overcome the psychological effects of crime. It also is appropriate that victims be kept apprised of developments in their cases, be consulted on plea bargains, and be notified when their former victimizers are released from prison.
Victim-impact evidence can also be appropriate in many sentencing proceedings, to help jurors and judges understand the full consequences of crimes. But such evidence does not belong in death-penalty cases.