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October 9, 2013

Split Tennessee Supreme Court extensively debates capital proportionality review

This local article from Tennessee, headlined "State Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence, Maintains Sentencing Review Standards For Death Penalty Cases," provides an effective summary of an extensive opinion handed down yesterday concerning capital proportionality review. Here are excerpts:

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, has upheld a death sentence for a Memphis-area man who was convicted of first-degree felony murder after he killed an elderly man while stealing his car.While the entire Court agreed that Corinio Pruitt was guilty, the dissenting justices would have modified the sentence to life without parole.

In reviewing a death penalty case, the Court is required by Tennessee law to conduct what is called a “proportionality review” to ensure that the sentence of death is appropriate in comparison to similar cases. Before conducting a proportionality review with the specific facts in the Pruitt case, the Court first considered whether the methods for such review should be modified. In fact, after the case was argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2012, the Court determined that the issue of proportionality review required additional briefing and argument. After receiving supplementary information from the parties, the Court held oral arguments a second time earlier this year.

The primary issue is the pool of cases used to conduct the comparison in a death penalty case. In conducting its proportionality review, the Court looks at the pool of cases and considers the facts of the crimes, the characteristics of the defendants, and the circumstances of the crimes, with a goal of determining whether a death sentence is excessive or disproportionate.

In 1997, the Court determined that it would compare all death penalty sentences to other cases in which the death penalty was sought. Prior to that, the Court considered all cases in which a defendant had been convicted of first-degree murder, but was not necessarily considered for a death sentence.

The Court on Tuesday rejected the proposal by the defense that it should broaden the pool of cases to include all first-degree murder cases, including those in which the death penalty was never sought. Instead, the Court upheld its previous decisions since 1997 that have conducted a proportionality review by looking only at cases in which the state sought the death penalty and in which a penalty phase was held, regardless of the sentence actually imposed by the jury.

The Court ruled it was inappropriate to review the prosecutors’ initial decisions regarding whether to seek the death penalty at the onset of the case, reaffirming its 1997 Opinion which “noted that including these first degree murder cases in the pool would equate to an implicit review of prosecutorial discretion, that is generally not subject to judicial review.”...

In their separate opinion, Justice William C. Koch, Jr. and Justice Sharon G. Lee, after noting that all murders are serious crimes, stated that comparing all first-degree murder cases would be more consistent with the Tennessee law that requires proportionality review and with the rule that capital punishment is not appropriate for all murders but is reserved for only the most heinous murders and the most dangerous murderers.

The two dissenting justices also pointed to a 2007 American Bar Association study of Tennessee’s death penalty, which stated that the limited pool of cases the Court adopted in 1997 undercut the purpose of proportionality review. After considering Mr. Pruitt’s background and the nature of his crime in light of similar first-degree murder cases in Tennessee, the two justices determined that Mr. Pruitt should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The 50+ page majority opinion in Tennessee v. Pruitt is available at this link, and the partial dissent which checks in at 18 pages is available here.

October 9, 2013 at 09:41 AM | Permalink


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This might seem obvious, but evidently it needs repeating: The only question that matters in deciding if defendant X deserves the death penalty is whether his behavior and circumstances warrant it, not whether someone else with roughly similar behavior and circumstances got mercy or irrational leniency. Any other approach simply creates a one-way, downward ratchet in which irrationally lenient outcomes become the standard, if not the required, outcome.

It's quite true that some defendants who deserve death escape it, because of a single holdout juror who goes his own way, or for some similar reason that's off the beaten bath. A compassionate country reluctantly allows for such a result, lest mercy be altogether expelled from the system.

But to say that mercy should be allowed in some cases is hardly to say that it should become the ironclad rule in all. No litigant -- a criminal defendant or anyone else -- is entitled to mercy from the justice system. He's entitled to justice.

If he gets mercy instead, fine, good for him, but that is absolutely no reason that luck or sentiment should displace sober judgment as the universal outcome.

The dissenters would invite the grace of leniency in some cases to substitute for justice in all. The majority got it right: Tolerate irrational leniency for the cases in which it's granted, but don't let it, in the guise of sprawling "proportionality review," dictate every disposition.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 9, 2013 10:08:13 AM

When those Judges on that Court die and go to the Pearly Gates to meet their Maker they will be asked some touch questions about ordering this guy to be killed. Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. No exceptions for Kraker States like TN which says: Y'all Can.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Oct 9, 2013 10:29:29 AM

"No exceptions for Kraker States like TN"

You are promoting racial prejudice against "whites" with your
creatively spelt, "Kraker".

P.S. The Bible itself notes many such "exceptions", when one
ventures beyond Exodus 20.

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 9, 2013 12:48:13 PM

Liberty1st --

Please stop trying to impose religion on secular law. That goes over fine in Iran, not so much here. Thanks!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 9, 2013 3:18:12 PM

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