Supreme Court restricts appeals from death row

January 26, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The nation's governors -- and not federal judges -- have the authority to spare the lives of death row inmates who, after their convictions are final, come up with proof that they are innocent, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 yesterday.

Condemned state prisoners, it declared, cannot get their cases reopened by a federal judge merely because the inmates have new evidence showing that someone else committed the crime.

In practical effect, that means some who are found guilty of murder but who might well be innocent will be executed unless governors grant clemency. One study, cited by the dissenting justices yesterday, found that 23 innocent individuals had been executed this century.

But the court tried to dispel speculation that executing an innocent person would be constitutional. Five of the justices said explicitly that it would be unconstitutional, and the other four said they assumed so, too. The issue was not decided in a final way.

Even if the court should rule in the future that such a constitutional right is created, the court majority made clear that no inmate could gain that protection against execution unless evidence of innocence was so strong that it was undeniable.

The 6-3 split in the court resulted from the majority's ruling that the federal courthouse is closed to a death row inmate claiming to be innocent, unless the inmate also can prove that the trial in state court leading to the guilty verdict was unconstitutional. An innocence claim alone is not enough to justify a federal challenge to execution, the majority said.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissent he read aloud for 12 minutes, treated the case as if it involved "execution of a person who can show that he is innocent." That, he said, would come "perilously close to simple murder."

The decision was one of three the court issued yesterday on the death penalty; all three gave states more discretion to impose capital punishment without being second-guessed by federal courts.

In an ironic turn of history, the rulings came on a day when the court opened its public session by noting the death on Sunday of Justice Thurgood Marshall, a determined foe of the death penalty in all circumstances. The court, in fact, dedicated a recess that it was beginning to "his memory."

There was further irony when the justice who replaced Mr. Marshall, Justice Clarence Thomas, used one of the new death penalty decisions to spell out his views fully for the first time. He argued that states should have much wider discretion to impose capital punishment.

Justice Thomas said states should be left free to impose death as a mandatory penalty for some crimes, no matter what the individual circumstances -- a suggestion the court had rejected almost 17 years ago.

The new justice also contended that states should be allowed to limit the kinds of evidence a convicted murderer could put before the jury to convince it not to impose the death penalty -- a suggestion the court turned down 11 years ago.

The court's most significant ruling yesterday was the 6-3 decision barring claims of innocence by death row inmates as they seek to overturn their murder convictions in pleas to federal courts.

That case involved an Edinburg, Texas, man, Leonel Torres Herrera, who has been sentenced to death for one of two murders of police officers in southern Texas in 1981. He was convicted of one of those murders and pleaded guilty to the other. Herrera now says he has evidence to prove that his brother, Raul, did the killings. The brother has been dead for eight years.

The Herrera case has sometimes been viewed as a test of whether it was unconstitutional for states to execute someone who insists, and has proof, that someone else committed the crime. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's main opinion assumed that such an execution would be unconstitutional but indicated the issue was not before the court now.

Instead, the majority said, the only issue was whether a death row inmate claiming to be innocent has a right to federal court review of that evidence, long after the inmate has been convicted at a state trial -- a trial that had no constitutional defects.

Unless the inmate can show there was something unconstitutional about the way the trial was conducted, the court declared, a claim of innocence after the conviction has become final cannot be considered by a federal court.

"The trial," the chief justice wrote, "is the paramount event for determining . . . guilt or innocence." The trial verdict wipes out the notion that the accused individual is presumed innocent, and thus a later claim of innocence to a federal court carries no special weight to justify a federal judge's second-guessing of the verdict, the majority said.

Generally, state laws do not allow a convicted individual to return to court with a claim of innocence, after a verdict of guilt, unless a plea for a new trial is filed within a specified time period. In Maryland, for example, a new trial plea based on new evidence must be made within one year after the verdict.

The decision yesterday --es the hopes of death row prisoners who have missed those state deadlines and who wanted to go to federal court with their innocence pleas.

In Herrera's case, the court majority ridiculed the new evidence, saying it was far weaker than the evidence of guilt at his trial, including a letter he had written admitting both killings.

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