Three Supreme Court Justices Later Regretted Supporting the Death Penalty

Three out of the seven Supreme Court justices who voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1976 have since said they regretted those votes and, if given a do over, would have supported abolition of the death penalty.

That means there would have been 5 votes to retain the 1970s era ban on capital punishment, and the USA could have become one of the world leaders in the global movement towards abolition, rather than one of its primary obstacles.  And 1,229 men and women would not have been killed by US states.

“I would vote the other way in any capital case. … I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished.” –Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to his biographer in 1991.

“From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death … the basic question – does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants ‘deserve’ to die? – cannot be answered in the affirmative.” – Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in a dissent in Callins v. Collins (1994)

“I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes … such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel” – Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a concurrence in Baze v. Rees (2008)

“I think there is one vote that I would change and that’s one – was upholding the capital punishment statute.  I think that we did not foresee how it would be interpreted. I think that was an incorrect decision.” – Justice Stevens to NPR this Monday

Sunday, October 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty.  This year, the focus is on the USA, and Amnesty International has just released a short document surveying where the USA is on this issue, and what these Supreme Court Justices and the rest of us have learned.