Kansas’ death penalty law went before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, with both sides facing tough challenges from justices trying to decide whether the law is constitutional, reports the Wichita Eagle. “Other things being equal, this (Kansas law) is a presumption in favor of death,” Justice David Souter said to Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. When Lawrence public defender Rebecca Woodman tried to explain the role that mercy plays as a factor for a Kansas jury to weigh when it decides on a sentence of life in prison over death, Justice Antonin Scalia commented, “I have no idea what that means.”
The decision could affect the sentences of Kansas’ eight death row inmates and a dozen current cases. Kline maintains it could also touch death penalty laws in perhaps a dozen other states. The Kansas law was overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court in December 2004. The state court said the law unfairly tips the scales in favor of the death penalty. The law says, in effect, that if factors favoring the death penalty, such as the heinous nature of the crime, are equal to factors weighing against the death penalty, juries must sentence a defendant to death. The state disagrees; Kline argued yesterday that Kansas’ law gives jurors enough leeway to decide for or against the death penalty. “The Kansas death penalty statute is one of the most narrow in the nation” and does not unfairly encourage death sentences, he said.