Thirty years since Gary Gilmore became the first person to be executed under modern U.S. capital punishment laws, the Supreme Court heard 3 death penalty cases from Texas yesterday, says the Washington Post. The complicated legal process that attends executing a murderer — the balance of state laws and federal constitutional guarantees — can take decades to unspool. The cases of at least nine death row inmates nationwide — who are not proclaiming innocence but are protesting their sentences — are on the court’s docket in this term. Just as the justices scrutinized Virginia’s system for carrying out the death penalty several years ago, they are examining four cases from Texas this year, including the three heard yesterday.
Ohio State law Prof. Douglas Berman said the decisions in most death penalty cases affect only a handful of people in the states from which the cases arise. He would like to see the court spend time on other sentencing disparities “that affect thousands of people every day.” The Texas cases heard yesterday had all been decided more than 15 years ago, when Texas juries were asked to answer only yes or no to two questions when deciding whether to impose death. They were asked whether the killing was deliberate and whether the killer constituted a continuing threat to society. Supreme Court decisions have said that jurors also need to consider mitigating evidence, such as the IQ of the defendant or an abusive background. Most current death penalty cases come from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers much of the South, and the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. “The Ninth looks so clearly from a defendant’s perspective, and the Fifth looks at it from a prosecutorial perspective,” Berman said.