In yet another 5-4 decision the United States Supreme Court today made it harder for death-row inmates to challenge jury selection by reinstating the death sentence for the man known as the West Coast Killer, Cal Coburn Brown. In 1991 he carjacked 22-year-old Holly Washa, kept her in a motel for two days, whipping and sexually assaulting her before slitting her throat and stuffing her body in a car trunk.
Not satisfied, he then flew to Palm Springs where he tortured and raped another woman, handcuffing her to a bed and slit her throat. She survived.
The court’s conservative majority ruled that federal appellate courts must give more weight to the trial courts than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did when it overturned Brown’s death sentence.
“Federal courts…owe deference to the trial court, which is in a superior position to determine the demeanor and qualifications of a potential juror,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that included Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito.
At Brown’s trial, and at the prosecutor’s request, the judge dismissed a potential juror who said he could only support the death penalty if it wasn’t possible for the offender to commit the crime again. In Brown’s case it was either death or life in prison, but the judge still believed the dismissed juror’s doubt was too great. The defense lawyer did not object to the juror’s dismissal.
The Ninth Circuit rejected Brown’s original death sentence, saying that the trial judge had relied on “misplaced and insufficient” reasons in dismissing the juror. The Supreme Court saw otherwise. Justice Kennedy explained that trial judges – not appellate courts – are usually best suited to evaluating potential jurors’ “demeanor” and “nonverbal communication.”
In what has become increasingly popular in the last few weeks, the lead dissenter read from the bench following the decision. Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority’s ruling seemed to support the inclusion of jurors who’d impose the death penalty while excluding those who wouldn’t vote to execute. He was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer.
“A cross section of virtually every community in the country includes citizens who firmly believe the death penalty is unjust but who nevertheless are qualified to serve as jurors in capital cases,” Stevens wrote.
That’s pretty extreme language as it suggests that the court’s liberals believe jurors should be allowed to serve on a case even if they oppose the death penalty.
If capital punishment is going to be an option then jurors must be open to using it – every time, for every defendant.