High Court Death Penalty Divide Evident In “Wichita Massacre” Case


The Supreme Court’s first arguments this term over a death penalty issue hinted at how divided the justices are on the subject, NPR reports. At issue were decisions by the Kansas Supreme Court reversing the death sentences of men convicted in two high-profile and horrific murder cases. In one, known as the “Wichita Massacre,” the lower court set aside the capital sentences of two brothers because they were tried together instead of separately. In the other, the Kansas court said the jury instructions had been confusing. While the justices seemed to be in some agreement on the technical questions, the issue of the death penalty remains an open sore, with Justice Antonin Scalia pointedly disdaining Justice Stephen Breyer’s views.

Scalia suggested that “Kansans, unlike our Justice Breyer” favor the death penalty, and that “an election … would not come out favorably for those justices who … would reverse these convictions.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed supportive of the Kansas court rulings, suggesting that her colleagues are willing to uphold a wrongful conviction as long as the state court is “reasonably wrong.” When that court is “wrong on a legal conclusion applying our test, we jump in and reverse them.” She said sarcastically, “What a wonderful system we’ve created.”

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