The Supreme Court is reviewing final arguments that helped lead to the death sentence of a man convicted of the execution-style murder-for-hire of a federal drug witness, says the New York Times. St. Louis County, Mo., prosecutor George Westfall told the jurors that they were like soldiers on a battlefield of the war on drugs. “It's your duty” to sentence William Weaver, to death, Westfall said, to send a message to “all the dope peddlers and the murderers in the world.” He told the jury that “you've got to look beyond William Weaver” because “it's not personal; it's business.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that these and other statements were “improperly inflammatory,” violating the constitutional requirement for capital sentencing to be “an individualized decision-making process.” The question for the Supreme Court in arguments yesterday was whether the appeals court had properly placed Weaver in the shrinking category of state prisoners whose habeas corpus petitions meet the restrictive test set by the 11-year-old federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. A federal court can grant habeas corpus to a state prisoner only if a previous state court decision that rejected the prisoner's appeal was “contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Supreme Court decisions stretching back for decades have disapproved of prosecutors' closing arguments that appeal to juror's emotions or that suggest a larger “duty” to society beyond the facts of the individual case.