The Supreme Court has fundamentally reshaped the nation’s capital justice system, says the New York Times: “It has narrowed the class of people eligible for execution, excluding juvenile offenders yesterday as it had previously the mentally retarded. It has rebuked lower courts for sending people to their deaths without adequate safeguards. And it has paid increasing attention to the international opposition to capital punishment.” The change has occurred since the early 1990s, when “we reached the high point in deregulating death,” said law Prof. Franklin E. Zimring of the University of California at Berkeley, alluding to decisions in which the court refused to hear defendants’ claims of innocence because they were raised too late.
Opinions vary about where the process will end. “The trend seems to be pushing toward the abolition of capital punishment,” said Rory K. Little, a former Justice Department official now at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. “But it would be a mistake to predict that these decisions are leading inexorably to abolition. It could be that they cut out all the edges and leave the core that everyone is comfortable with.” Death penalty supporters are braced for further, incremental attacks on the use of capital punishment – whether it should be applied to the mentally ill, older teenagers, and defendants claiming racial discrimination. “The next battle is the mentally ill,” said Prof. Robert Blecker of the New York Law School.