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Where state and justice intersect

Andrea Laidman | Wednesday, October 11, 2006

This is part two in a three-part series examining capital punishment.

Terre Haute, a city in Western Indiana, is the home of the only federal death chamber in the U.S., where inmates sentenced to death by the federal government are executed by lethal injection.

Just a few miles from the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute is the intersection of State Road and Justice Drive.

More than an intensely ironic image (captured in a photo of the street signs on Amnesty International USA’s website), the literal meeting of State and Justice in such proximity to the only federal death row in the U.S. provides a visible illustration of a current political shift in capital punishment advocacy and decisions.

In his October 2 Viewpoint column, “You, Me & the Death Penalty,” Will McAuliffe emphasized that each time a prisoner is removed from confinement and executed, the supervising state government and judicial system acts on behalf of its people.

Thinking that you and I, and the majority of citizens, endorse state-sanctioned homicide, most states currently uphold capital punishment – in our name. But recent developments and restrictions placed on the death penalty, both within state legislation and on the federal level, suggest that it doesn’t have to be so.

Whether it be the U.S. Supreme Court or the state of Illinois, American institutions are increasingly taking into account both domestic public opinion and widespread disapproval of the international community regarding the death penalty. And the Supreme Court’s rationale in two major and recent capital punishment rulings provides concrete incentive to Americans to speak out on this issue, utilizing grassroots activism to institute change in state laws, which can then translate into federal reform.

Most recently, in 2005 the Supreme Court struck down the legality of executing juvenile offenders in Roper v. Simmons. The Court’s decision took into account the increasing infrequency of the application of the death penalty to juveniles. At the time of the ruling, the juvenile death penalty was legal in twenty states, only six of which had executed prisoners for crimes committed as juveniles since 1989. In seeking a “national consensus,” the Court decided to abolish the death penalty for all citizens younger than eighteen on a national level. This decision aligned with American public opinion, as polls consistently reported that roughly 70 percent of the US population opposed the practice of a juvenile death penalty at the time of Roper v. Simmons.

The international community provided even stronger opposition to juvenile executions. According to Amnesty International, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only other countries in the world that sanction the execution of juvenile offenders. Moreover, the practice directly violates numerous international human rights agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2002, with Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court again took into account both international opinion and state laws.

The Court’s decision stated that the Eighth Amendment should be interpreted in light of the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” which it said were indicated by reforms in state legislation.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in writing for the Court in Atkins v. Virginia, noted that it is not the number of States with laws preventing the execution of mentally retarded murder defendants that is especially significant (though eighteen states have banned it in the past fifteen years), but “the consistency of the direction of change.”

This consistent shift in public opinion and state law regarding the death penalty does not end with mentally-ill death row inmates; rather, it reflects an overall trend in a reforming criminal justice climate in our nation. For the first time since the death penalty’s 1976 re-instatement, momentum has turned against capital punishment not only in public opinion, but also among judges and legislators.

Cases like Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia demonstrate that efforts at the state level can have an impact federally. In working for a moratorium on the death penalty in Indiana, we can embrace this trend, recognizing that local political action and grassroots activism can effect both state and federal decisions on capital punishment.

This reality is a responsibility we must acknowledge as we work for the end of the use of the death penalty in Indiana, and move toward the day when the intersection of Justice Drive and State Road in Terre Haute will no longer be a site of irony.

Andrea Laidman is a junior Political Science and International Peace Studies major. She is co-president of NDASK, a new campaign against the death penalty. Questions about the campaign or comments on this Viewpoint may be sent to alaidman@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.