The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

New U.S. Supreme Court Rulings:
Legal Cover for Continued State Executions

Jul 1, 2002

At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court made two rulings about the death penalty. First, the court ruled that people who are judged to be mentally retarded cannot be executed. Four days later, the court ruled that a jury and not a judge must decide whether there are “aggravating factors” to supposedly justify executing someone.

According to the editorial writers of The New York Times, these rulings were “a big change” and “landmark.”Of course, if this were the case, then they would signal that the Supreme Court was at least moving away from or putting a brake on the use of the death penalty. But in both decisions, the nine justices on the court unanimously upheld the death penalty in general.

On the contrary, the limits that they placed on the use of the death penalty were very vague and open to interpretation. In both cases, they left it up to the states to write their own laws, and decide “appropriate ways” how they would be implemented.

Certainly, it might sound very “humane” that the court finally ruled that it is unjust to execute someone who is considered to be mentally retarded (reversing its own bloodthirsty 1989 ruling that it was perfectly constitutional to execute someone who was mentally retarded). But then the question becomes: Who is mentally retarded? In the case that was brought before the court, the state of Virginia maintained that Daryl R. Atkins was not mentally retarded... even though he scored a 59 on his IQ test.

According to the Supreme Court decision, this is perfectly legal–as long as the states say that they set some standard–no matter how rotten it is.

The second ruling, that a jury and not a judge must decide on whether someone convicted of a capital crime should be executed, also has no teeth. If the court meant what it said, then it would void the 800 death sentences throughout the country that have already been imposed by judges. But the court did not at all do that. They let those death penalties stand. The ruling only specifies that the state legislatures change their laws for the future. And again, the Supreme Court set no standards. They leave it up to the same, blood-thirsty state legislatures.

What one can conclude is that these decisions will have little impact on the actual use of the death penalty, that they were only for show. The fact is that most countries in the world consider that the U.S. is totally barbaric and inhumane in its use of the death penalty. A brief to the Supreme Court filed by the governments of 15 countries of the European Union, along with a group of senior U.S. diplomats stated that the U.S. practice of executing retarded people is a political embarrassment for the U.S. government.

No, the Supreme Court, which more than a decade ago made the absolutely astounding ruling that a person can be innocent and still be executed, has not suddenly discovered a shred of decency. Instead, it is merely providing the legal cover for the continued use of a barbaric death penalty in this country.