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Over Easy: Tinkering With the Machinery of Death

“[f]rom this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”

United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, dissenting, in an order denying Petition for certiorari, in a routine death penalty case in Texas, Callins v Collins.

Good morning and welcome to Over Easy. Yesterday in Connecticut, the State Supreme Court heard arguments “in a high-stakes case that could see Connecticut’s prospective abolition of the death penalty thrown out.”

Nearly a year ago to the day, on April 25, 2012, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a bill that repealed the death penalty, “making his state the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to abolish capital punishment.” If the death penalty was repealed, obviously, the repeal would apply to all future convictions, hence the term “prospective” in the phrase “prospective abolition.” The legal issue is, does the law apply to people who were convicted and sentenced to death before the new law? Is it, or is it not, retroactive? I reject the following morally indefensible arguments: 1. that the change was a mere procedural change in sentencing, which would not reach back in time, and 2. the change did not affect substantive rights.

We are talking about whether people have the right to live or die. How is execution not affecting a substantive right? Furthermore, how could and why would anybody manipulate the language or anything else surrounding killing, for political gain or for lessening political losses? Unacceptable.

Connecticut Supreme Court Considers Executions After Death Penalty Repeal

On April 23, the Connecticut Supreme Court will consider whether the 11 inmates who remained on the state’s row after the legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2012 can still be executed. Mark Rademacher, an attorney for one of the inmates, argued that the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty demonstrated the punishment is no longer necessary and, hence, executing his client would be cruel and unusual punishment. Rademacher also asserted that the law’s prospective nature violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution because it singles out a small group of defendants for the death penalty, while dictating a life sentence for defendants in similar situations. Brian Stull, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, noted in his amicus brief that, “No state has executed a prisoner after repealing the death penalty. We just think it’s so important for the court to know Connecticut would be the first state to, and that’s not a stat any state wants to take.” The state has argued it was the clear intent of the legislature to only have the law apply to future cases.

I honestly feel as if we are living in a lunatic asylum, with an argument before a state’s highest Court, about whether abolished state-sponsored execution is still okay, for some people. Consider the last statement in the above blockquote. It says: “The state has argued it was the clear intent of the legislature to only have the law apply to future cases.” Legislative ‘intent’ does not matter, unless there is language in the statute, but apparently, there is language. With that language, however, is also the following reported lawmaker ‘concession:’

Assistant Public Defender Mark Redemacher argued that the death penalty, which continues to apply to the 11 men on death row, but not for any future murderers, is unconstitutional because it is arbitrary and abolition of the death penalty should apply across the board.

Lawmakers have conceded, however, that the prospective aspect was necessary in order to ensure enough votes at a time when adjudication of the two defendants in the triple murder of the Cheshire Petit family home invasion case was still raw.

This article reports today that the repeal occurred “after Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes were sentenced to lethal injection for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire that made national headlines.”

The horrendous home invasion triple murder occurred close in time to when the lawmakers wanted to repeal the death penalty. Considering it politically unpalatable to not have the death penalty apply to this egregious ‘poster-child-for-the-death-penalty’ triple murder, they settled for half a loaf and survived politically by crafting some incredibly fucked up language where they got caught up tinkering with the machinery of death.

While Justice Blackmun is well-known for the words framed in blockquotes, he actually said more:

[February 22, 1994]

Justice Blackmun , dissenting.

On February 23, 1994, at approximately 1:00 a.m., Bruce Edwin Callins will be executed by the State of Texas. Intravenous tubes attached to his arms will carry the instrument of death, a toxic fluid designed specifically for the purpose of killing human beings. The witnesses, standing a few feet away, will behold Callins, no longer a defendant, an appellant, or a petitioner, but a man, strapped to a gurney, and seconds away from extinction.

Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere, another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel–someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less than vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the
protection of defendants’ rights–even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished.

The rest of Justice Blackmun’s short but powerful dissent is here.

Best place for updates on this topic is likely the Death Penalty Information Center.

Here is the page with ten links to news articles published in the last couple of days.

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