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Justice John Paul Stevens, a key vote in upholding the death penalty 30 years ago, now says he believes capital punishment is unconstitutional.

Stevens on Wednesday became the first of the nine sitting justices to say the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"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. A penalty with such negligible returns to the state (is) patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment,'" he said in a concurring opinion rejecting a challenge to lethal injections in Kentucky.

He said, however, that he will respect court precedents in favor of capital punishment, explaining why he voted against the death row inmates in Kentucky.

Stevens' comments are reminiscent of the public conversion of Harry Blackmun, months before his retirement in 1994.

Blackmun repudiated his career-long acceptance of capital punishment and declared himself opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.

"The death-penalty experiment has failed. I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Blackmun wrote.

Two other justices who served many years with Blackmun — William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall — were longtime death penalty opponents who most often were in the minority in capital cases.

Stevens, who turns 88 on Sunday, has given no indication that he plans to retire. He was new to the court when he co-authored the controlling opinion in 1976 that held that the death penalty is constitutional.

On Wednesday April 16th 2008, he urged his colleagues to re-examine the constitutionality of capital punishment because of concerns that it is used in a racially discriminatory way and risks executing the innocent; something that should especially concern Texans in light of the unusual number of exonerations occurring.


INTERNATIONAL: Amnesty International Reports Worldwide Drop in Executions

Amnesty International recently reported that at least 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries and at least 3,347 people were sentenced to death in over 50 countries in 2007.

Amnesty estimates that there are up to 27,500 people on death row worldwide. Their figures represent a drop in executions from 1,591 in 2006, particularly in China which went from over 1,000 executions in 2006 to 470 last year. However, execution figures are considered a state secret in China and the actual number of executions may be higher.

Despite the overall downward trend, executions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan all increased from 2006 to 2007. These countries, along with China and the U.S, carried out 88% of known executions in 2007.

Currently, 135 countries (67% of the total number of countries) have either officially abolished capital punishment or have refrained from using it for at least 10 years. Albania, Rwanda and the Cook Islands, abolished the death penalty last year.

In the U.S., New Jersey was the first state to legislatively abolish capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1976.

The U.S. was fifth in the world in the number of people executed (42), though executions here dropped to their lowest number in 13 years.

Amnesty's report noted that in 2007 the United Nations General Assembly voted - by 104 to 54, with 29 abstentions - in support of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

"The UN General Assembly took the historic decision to call on all countries around the world to stop executing people. That the resolution was adopted in December with such a clear majority shows the global abolition of the death penalty is possible," said Amnesty International.

The Death Penalty Up Close And Personal


Kenneth Foster Update: Texas, the state that executes more people than any in the country, planed to deliver a lethal injection to Kenneth Foster, Jr. While this may of seemed like nothing out of the ordinary for a state that would perform its 400th execution by the summer of 2007, Foster’s case is unique. He killed no one. The state of Texas is the first to admit this.

It seems unthinkable that a man who did not even touch the gun that ended the life of Michael LaHood, Jr. on August 14, 1996 in San Antonio, Texas would be sent to his death for such a crime. What makes this possible is a Texas law known as the “Law of Parties“.

A number of states have laws that enable prosecutors to hold those merely present at the scene of a crime legally responsible. Texas is the only state that applies this statute in capital cases, making it the only place in the United States where a person can be factually innocent of murder and still face the death penalty.

On Thursday, August 30, 2007, Texas Governor Rick Perry blocked Foster’s execution and reduced his sentence to life in prison after weeks of statewide protest and controversy over the law used to convict him. It's the first time in nearly seven years in office that Mr. Perry has stopped an execution, other than in response to Supreme Court rulings that barred the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded.

Foster, the getaway driver in a 1996 armed robbery spree that ended in the murder of a 25-year-old San Antonio man, was scheduled to die Thursday evening. He was not the trigger man in the killing and contends he didn't know it was going to happen. But he was convicted, in the same courtroom and at the same time as the shooter, under the state's "law of parties," which authorizes capital punishment for accomplices who either intended to kill or "should have anticipated" a murder.

That law has drawn international protests, but Mr. Perry indicated he was more concerned about the simultaneous trials. "It is an issue I think the Legislature should examine," the governor said in a written statement.


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