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February 22, 2006

Innocence claims take a hit in Guzek

As Lyle Denniston explains in this post at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court today rendered a decision in Oregon v. Guzek (04-928) to this effect:

After an individual has been convicted of murder, that person has no constitutional right to try to head off a death sentence by trying to offer new evidence suggesting that the conviction itself was invalid, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday. States thus are free to put limits on the new innocence-related evidence -- such as alibi evidence -- that may be offered at sentencing.

Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court in Guzek can be accessed at this link, Justice Scalia's concurring opinion (joined by Justice Thomas) is available at this link.  Commentary will follow.

UPDATE:  Especially in light of other litigation mania over the death penalty, the most telling part of Guzek is its procedural history recounted at the outset of the Court's opinion:

[At his initial trial in 1988, the] jury disbelieved [Guzek's] alibi, it convicted Guzek, and it sentenced him to death.  Guzek appealed; the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed the conviction; but the court ordered a new sentencing proceeding.  Guzek was again sentenced to death; he again appealed; and the Oregon Supreme Court again ordered resentencing.  Guzek was sentenced to death for the third time; he again appealed; and yet again the Oregon Supreme Court found the sentencing procedures faulty.  Seeking to avoid further errors at the next (the fourth) sentencing proceeding, the Oregon Supreme Court also addressed the admissibility of certain evidence Guzek seeks to introduce at that proceeding, including live testimony from his mother about his alibi.

Notably, the majority in Guzek stresses that "the federal question before us is a narrow one."  Indeed, Justice Scalia's concurrence laments the fact that the majority does not conclusively reject "all Eighth Amendment residual-doubt claims."  Though throwing much dirt on the claim that the Eighth Amendment provides "a capital defendant the right to introduce at sentencing evidence designed to cast 'residual doubt' on his guilt of the basic crime of conviction," the Court's opinion in Guzek ultimately states that it "need not resolve whether such a right exists."

It will be interesting to see how Guzek is viewed by folks especially concerned about innocence issues.  The anti-death penalty crowd might, I suppose, be encouraged that Justice Scalia's opinion garnered the vote of only one of the other seven Justices (Alito did not participate).  Because the late Chief Justice Rehnquist likely would have joined Justice Scalia's concurrence, the absence of the new Chief's name on the opinion seems notable.

February 22, 2006 at 10:50 AM | Permalink

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