NEW VOICES: Justice Stevens Warns of Increased Risk of Mistakes in Death Penalty Cases

In a recent address to lawyers and judges at a judicial conference, retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens explained the evolution of his views on the constitutionality of the death penalty. Regarding his 2008 assertion that the death penalty should be abolished, Justice Stevens elaborated, “The risk of an incorrect decision has increased,” and that because of advances in DNA testing that have led to freeing some innocent convicts, “we’re more aware of the risk than we might have been before.” Justice Stevens also said that capital juries are dominated by people who favor the death penalty, and that the brutality of the murders that often lead to a capital trial can put pressure on prosecutors. While concurring with the majority opinion upholding the use of lethal injection as a method of execution in Kentucky in 2008, Justice Stevens nevertheless concluded that “the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions” to society. (Baze v. Rees (2008), quoting Furman v. Georgia (1972)).

(D. Banks, “Stevens: Risk of wrongful sentences higher,” USA Today, May 5, 2010). See also U.S. Supreme Court and New Voices.