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Supreme Court justice criticizes death penalty

Associated Press
Published August 8, 2005

CHICAGO - Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens steered the debate over President Bush's nominee to a new subject: capital punishment, sharply condemning the country's death penalty system.

The court has been closely divided in death row cases, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often in the middle.

President Bush's choice to replace her, John Roberts, has a limited track record. Roberts, 50, showed little sympathy for prisoner appeals as a government lawyer, but later did free legal work for a death row inmate.

Stevens used a weekend speech in Chicago to the American Bar Association to underscore the matter's prominence at the court, noting evidence of "serious flaws."

His remarks provide the first sign of internal dismay over the retirement of O'Connor, a 75-year-old pragmatist who has been a key voter in affirmative action, abortion rights and the death penalty.

So far, much of the focus of the Roberts nomination has been on matters like abortion and civil rights - not the death penalty. His Senate confirmation hearings begin Sept. 6.

"It doesn't appear to be shaping up as a major issue," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty.

Scheidegger said that although Roberts' wife is a member of a group that opposes capital punishment, Roberts has had no opportunities to vote on death cases in two years on a federal appeals court.

Stevens said DNA evidence has shown "that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously."

Death penalty cases dominate the work of the high court. Week after week, justices deal with final emergency appeals, sometimes filed in the late-night hours.

They already have four capital cases on their docket when they return to work in October, including a potentially significant issue of letting inmates have a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA evidence.

[Last modified August 8, 2005, 02:45:22]

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