Submitted by Sarah on Mon, 09/28/2015 - 16:32.
By Ursula Bentele
In preparation for the new term of the U.S. Supreme Court, starting on October 5, we will feature an occasional guest column by our newest board member, Ursula Bentele. Ursula is a renowned Supreme Court scholar, who will look at some of the Court’s cases with a particular eye towards those with implications for the death penalty. Once the Court has heard oral arguments and delivers its opinions, she will reflect on those outcomes and comment on how the Court’s resolution of the issues might affect the future of the death penalty in this country.
The first capital cases in front of the Court this term, scheduled for argument on October 7, involve three people whose death sentences were overturned by the Supreme Court of Kansas. Kansas’s highest court ruled that the instructions given to the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial were not adequate, and therefore their sentences are invalid. The fundamental issue in the case is obligation of jurors to consider mitigating circumstances in capital trials.
Specifically, the court ruled that jurors must be explicitly told that mitigating factors, unlike many facts in criminal cases, need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Such mitigating circumstances can be considered as a reason to impose a life sentence even if they aren’t proven by this high standard, and the court said that failure to explain this to jurors created a risk that they would impose a death sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
To understand the Kansas court’s reasoning, which may strike a lay reader as hyper-technical, it is important to understand the role of mitigating circumstances in making the sentencing decision in death penalty trials.