No Justice Scalia

October 5, 2011

The L.A. Times article read like a blurb for a dystopian novel, or a story from a third-world country:

A death-row inmate is denied an appeal because his attorneys had switched law firms. A letter the court sent to the inmate’s lawyers’ old firm is returned, and the deadline to file an appeal expires before they can respond. The state and an appeals court ignore the clerical miscommunication by saying it’s the state’s prerogative to bar such appeals if the deadline has passed. The man may be executed before all his appeals are heard.

This is no Orwellian nightmare. It’s a real case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving an Alabama man named Cory Maples who’s in jail for murder. Maples is an admitted murderer whose appeal aims to avoid the death penalty, not prison. Even so, all prisoners in the U.S. criminal justice system should get hearings as far as their rights allow – especially when it comes to capital punishment. U.S Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia apparently disagrees.

There are at least three reasons this case should make you shudder. One is that Antonin Scalia, one of the nine U.S. citizens (presumably) hired to ensure some semblance of fairness in our legal system, responded to the draconian earlier rulings by saying (to Maples):

“You have a lawyer. It’s up to the lawyer to follow what goes on it court.”

So, Justice, a man’s life now rides on his lawyer’s diligence in monitoring his former employer’s clerical staff to ensure they forward mail in a timely fashion? I wonder how many people in the United States make regular contact with their former employers to insist they get their mail.

Hell, Alabama will still probably lethally inject the guy even if he does get a proper hearing. Alabama, although ranked only the 23rd most populous state, is ranked 6th in executions since 1976 with 54. (This is many times higher than all of Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Japan combined.) One must wonder why Alabama has such a high proclivity toward the highest punishment.

The third reason this case is problematic is the death penalty itself. It is sentenced unevenly throughout the U.S. – state by state, and racially, at least, and I’d bet by the economic status of the accused. (Are there many wealthy accused murderers executed?)

There are many reasons the death penalty has been outlawed in most of the civilized world. The callousness by which it is enforced is only one of them. Antonin Scalia, in opposition to other conservative Justices Roberts and Alito, is the embodiment of such callousness. Shame on him.

And shame on the 34 states who still hold the power of life and death over their inhabitants. This ancient, fatally flawed system must go.

p.s. A ray of hope appeared in another L.A. Times story across the page from the above. After serving 25 years for allegedly murdering his wife, a Texas man was freed after DNA evidence showed that another man was responsible. He’s lucky Antonin Scalia didn’t sentence him.