SOMETIMES it takes the US Supreme Court to apply common fairness when others fail to do so. In few areas is this as vital as when dealing with the death penalty.
On Friday the court ruled 7 to 2 that when laws allow for a life sentence without parole, juries must be told of that option when prosecutors seek the death sentence - particularly when they argue that the defendant would be dangerous to society if released at some future point.
The ruling's immediate effect is likely to be limited. Besides South Carolina, only two other states allow judges to keep juries in the dark when the law allows for life-without-parole instead of the death penalty. Yet the ruling's margin suggests that the court is likely to continue viewing the death penalty in an invoke-with-care manner.
The ruling overturned a death sentence given to Jonathan Dale Simmons, who was convicted of killing an elderly woman four years ago in Columbia, S.C. Because he had pleaded guilty to two previous violent crimes, Simmons faced a minimum sentence of life without parole. Yet the jury was so unclear on what a term of life in prison actually involved that it sought clarification several times, particularly regarding parole. The judge replied that the issue was not a proper one for the jury's consideration.
With Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting, the court came to its conclusion in three opinions. Writing for a plurality, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that by denying the jury information, it was forced to operate under a ``grievous misperception'' of the law. The judge put the defendant in a ``straitjacket,'' depriving him of his right to due process. Yet Justice David Souter's concurring opinion comes closer to our sense of the issue. To him, the question of cruel and unusual punishment is involved: ``The Eighth Amendment entitles a defendant to a jury capable of a reasoned moral judgment about whether death, rather than some lesser sentence, ought to be imposed.''
We oppose the use of the death penalty. It lacks any demonstrated deterrent value. It represents revenge that allows for no reversal if someone executed later is proved innocent. And it too readily discounts the possibility and value of individual regeneration. As long as it remains, however, defendants and their peers sitting in judgment of them must be guaranteed full access to sentencing options.