Stevens: Where High Court Went Wrong On Capital Punishment


In what the New York Times calls “a detailed, candid and critical essay” in The New York Review of Books, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens explains why he decided to oppose capital punishment in 2008. Stevens says that personnel changes on the court, along with “regrettable judicial activism,” created a system of capital punishment that is permeated with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics, and tinged with hysteria.

With the correct procedural safeguards, Stevens wrote, it would be possible to isolate the extremely serious crimes for which death is warranted. He said the Supreme Court had instead systematically dismantled those safeguards. He said the court took wrong turns deciding how juries in death penalty cases are chosen and what evidence they may hear, not looking closely enough at racial disparities in the capital justice system, and failing to police the role politics can play in decisions to seek and impose the death penalty.

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