Supreme Court Rules on Exxon Oil Spill, Child Rape

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D.C. Gun Ban Ruling

The Supreme Court will rule Thursday on the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns. Read a Q&A detailing that case.

The Supreme Court is wrapping up its term, which means blockbuster decisions coming down all at the same time. The justices issued two major rulings early Wednesday. They ruled against the death penalty for people convicted of child rape. And they reduced punitive damages against Exxon for the Valdez oil spill.


The Supreme Court is wrapping up its term. That means several blockbuster decisions coming down all at once. In the past hour, the justices have issued two major rulings. One deals with the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The other: the death penalty for the rape of a child. NPR's Ari Shapiro covers legal issues, and this week, you're hearing him hosting this program. And Ari, I'm going to have you switch back to your old hat…



MONTAGNE: And talk to us about both of these cases. Let's begin with Exxon Valdez. This - at issue here was huge punitive damages.

SHAPIRO: That's right. They were the largest punitive damages ever upheld by a federal appeals court. Exxon was asked to pay - told to pay, rather - two-and-a-half-billion dollars for the oil spill that took place almost 20 years ago in Alaska. That was in addition to $3.4 billion in criminal fines, clean up costs and compensation payments. And so the question in this case was is the two and a half billion in punitive damages too much?

MONTAGNE: And the justices said yes.

SHAPIRO: Yes, they did. It was 5-3 ruling. Justice David Souter was in the majority. He wrote the opinion. And he said the punitive damages have to equal the compensation payments. And so when you do the math in this case, it means that instead of paying two-and-a-half-billion dollars, Exxon Mobil will just have to pay a little over 500 million. Small change, right?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But for Exxon Valdez, probably - certainly a better deal than the previous one.

SHAPIRO: Than the two and a half billion. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Now the death penalty case. Here, we are talking about a death penalty in the rape of a child.

SHAPIRO: Right. It was a challenge to a law in Louisiana that said child rapists could be executed for their crime. And the question was is that excessive? Does it violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment? And in 5-4 ruling, the justices said yes. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote this opinion. He's been the swing justice for the last couple of years. And it was a pretty broad ruling. He said if a crime does not result in death, it cannot lead to the death penalty for the criminal. So the Louisiana law is invalidated by this ruling, and there's a very similar law that recently passed in Texas that may be invalidated by this ruling, as well.

MONTAGNE: And inappropriate meaning cruel and unusual?

SHAPIRO: That's right. It's an unconstitutional law based on the fact that according to Justice Kennedy's ruling today, you cannot give somebody the death penalty for a crime that does not result in death.

MONTAGNE: One more major decision we're still waiting for this morning.

SHAPIRO: That's right. And this is perhaps the biggest Constitutional question of the year, of a very long time. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a weapon, or whether it's a collective right. In fact, this is the first Second Amendment the Supreme Court has heard in nearly 70 years. When the justices issue a ruling, it will be a huge earthquake in the Constitutional law world. This case came about as a challenge to the District of Columbia's gun control law, which is one of the strictest gun control laws in the country. At oral arguments, the justices suggested that a majority believe there is an individual right to own a gun. The chief justice has just said that that ruling will come down tomorrow, so watch this space.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is a legal expert for NPR on most days, talking to us about two major Supreme Court decisions that came down this hour. The court ruled against the death penalty for people convicted of child rape, and it reduced the punitive damages against Exxon Valdez for the oil spill.

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Supreme Court Cuts Damages in Exxon Valdez Spill

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Workers clean oil-covered rocks in Alaska near the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. i

Workers clean oil-covered rocks in Alaska near the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Natalie Fobes/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Natalie Fobes/Corbis
Workers clean oil-covered rocks in Alaska near the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Workers clean oil-covered rocks in Alaska near the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Natalie Fobes/Corbis

Another Key Ruling

After nearly 20 years, Exxon Mobil Corp. will have to pay punitive damages for the massive Valdez oil spill in Alaska. But in its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court slashed those damages to about $500 million.

The plaintiffs — fishermen, landowners and native Alaskans — had hoped for much more.

A lower court had ordered the company to pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages, but in its opinion, the Supreme Court found that amount excessive.

The high court said that under federal maritime law, punitive damages shouldn't be any larger than the compensatory damages the company had already been ordered to pay. In other words, the company shouldn't have to pay more in punishment than the actual damage it caused.

The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in March 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil — the largest spill on record in North America.

Exxon had asked the high court to reject the punitive damages judgment, saying it already has spent $3.4 billion in response to the accident, which fouled 1,200 miles of Alaska coastline.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

High Court Bans Death Penalty for Raping Children

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Another Key Ruling

D.C. Gun Ban Ruling Pending

The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Thursday on the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns. Read a Q&A detailing that case.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday banned the death penalty for people convicted of raping a child.

In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled that executing someone convicted of child rape violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Anthony Kennedy penned the opinion for the majority, writing: "The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child."

The opinion makes it clear that the court believes the death penalty is appropriate only in cases where the crime results in death. The ruling overturns laws in six states that allowed the death penalty for the rape of a child and commutes the death sentences of two men on death row in Louisiana to life in prison. The case was based on one of those men, Patrick Kennedy, who was convicted of brutally raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998.

Initially, Kennedy called 911 and said the girl had been raped by two boys. "I need an ambulance," Kennedy told the 911 operator. "I need police. My little girl ... is 8 years old. She was off in the yard, and she said two boys grabbed her and raped my child, and I'm trying to find these motherf***** because I am going to kill them."

The girl initially stood by that story, but police were unconvinced. Later on, she changed her story and implicated her stepfather.

The court has been limiting the use of capital punishment somewhat in recent years, ruling that juveniles and those suffering from mental retardation cannot be put to death. In 1977, the court also ruled that a man who raped a 16-year-old girl would be spared execution. This case takes that ruling a step further.

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote: "The court concludes that there is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder, on the one hand, and non-homicide crimes against individuals, even including child rape, on the other. The latter crimes may be devastating in their harm, as here, but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, they cannot compare to murder in their severity and irrevocability."

Kennedy argues that allowing the death penalty for raping a child opens the door for execution to be considered in less severe rape cases. And while juries and judges could take into account how egregious the rape is, Kennedy says that a few less brutal rape cases are sure to slip through. The girl in the Kennedy case was so severely injured by the rape, she required immediate surgery.

Kennedy noted that the capital cases put an additional burden on witnesses — especially if those witnesses are children, who would be required to testify and retestify for years to come. He also pointed out that these cases would have a particular susceptibility for wrongful execution, because child testimony is occasionally unreliable or even imagined.

Many victims' rights groups surprisingly joined Kennedy's defense in this case. They said because so many rapes of children are perpetrated by family members, it's unthinkable to ask a child to implicate a parent or relative, when doing so means possible execution.

The court's four more liberal justices joined Kennedy in the ruling, while his four more conservative colleagues dissented. No one has been executed in the United States for a crime not involving murder in almost a half-century.

Victim's Prior Statements Barred at Trial

In a separate decision issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a convicted killer deserves a new trial because jurors heard testimony that should have been excluded — the statements of his ex-girlfriend, shortly before he shot and killed her.

In Giles v. California, prosecutors said Dwayne Giles shot his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Avie, outside his grandmother's house in 2002. Giles' niece and grandmother apparently heard gunshots and found Giles standing near his ex-girlfriend with a gun in his hand. Giles claimed to have shot her in self-defense. He said she was jealous and had charged him, and he had killed her by accident.

Prosecutors introduced a domestic violence report to refute that. Avie had filed the report with police about three weeks before she was killed. She had told police that Giles had accused her of having an affair and had beaten her up. She said he then threatened to kill her if he found her cheating on him.

Giles' attorneys said the domestic violence report was inadmissible in court because the Sixth Amendment guaranteed Giles' right to face his accuser, and since Avie was dead, he couldn't. The high court agreed in a 6-3 vote. It said that a criminal defendant must be able to confront witnesses against him, even if the defendant is responsible for the witness' absence.

With additional reporting by NPR's Dina Temple-Raston



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