Key Rulings on Death Penalty, Damages, Witnesses

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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 pushing toward the end of its term, and on Wednesday morning the justices issued a raft of important decisions dealing with the death penalty, punitive damages and confronting witnesses.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Steve Inskeep is on vacation.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The Supreme Court is pushing toward the end of its term, and this morning, the justices issued a raft of important decisions. They deal with the death penalty, punitive damages and confronting witnesses. NPR's Nina Totenberg joined us from the court. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First, the death penalty ruling. In the case before the court, the death penalty was applied to the rape of a child.

TOTENBERG: That's right. There was no death. This only involved the rape of a child. Now over 30 years ago, the court ruled that it's unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone for the non-homicide rape of an adult woman. So this was a question only involving the rape of a child, and the court said that, too, is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment and is not permitted by the Constitution.

MONTAGNE: And what was the court's reasoning in invalidating this particular death penalty law?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're - the court said that first of all, it violates what the consensus on what is acceptable, that only six states have this - have such a law, and none of them have used it. Nobody's been executed for child rape since more than 10 years before even the Supreme Court struck it down, that the only state in which anybody is on death row for child rape is Louisiana, and that it's a disproportionate crime - it's a disproportionate penalty for a crime in which nobody dies, in addition to the fact that it adds to problems about reporting child rape and that an execution would be based in these cases on child testimony, which we know can sometimes by unreliable and presents special problems.

MONTAGNE: Another big quite different case that the court ruled on involved the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Now this was nearly 20 years ago in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The case involved huge punitive damages against Exxon.

TOTENBERG: Well, it involved a huge oil spill, 11 million gallons and the despoiling of that area in a manner that's not - it's still not recovered from. And a jury initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to fishermen and other people who said they'd been harmed by the oil spill. The courts then reduced that to 2.5 billion, and today the Supreme Court reduced it even further to an amount equal to the compensatory damages, which were about a half a billion. So, in the end, after 20 years, the fishermen and others get pretty - not a lot of money for their economic harms. The company had to pay for environmental damage. It had to pay a couple of billion dollars for the clean up. But in terms of punitive damages for whatever it did, it doesn't really have to pay very much, the court said, because it would subject the company to too much uncertainty to have the potential of maritime damages - and this only involves federal maritime damages - for an uncertain amount of damages, an open-ended amount of damages. It should be a one-to-one ratio.

MONTAGNE: The last question, Nina, that the court dealt with involves the confrontation clause of the Constitution. And please explain that.

TOTENBERG: Well, let's talk about the facts. This case involved a guy who was accused and convicted of murdering his wife. And at trial, some of the evidence against him were the statements of his wife previous, several weeks before the killing, in which she told police that he had threatened her and tried to choke her. He claimed that that was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. Now a Justice Scalia said today, writing for the Supreme Court, the Sixth Amendment provides all - in all criminal prosecutions, that the accused shall have the right to confront the witnesses against him. Justice Scalia said that does not provide any sort of open-ended exception. The only exception is if you can show that somebody was murdered to shut them up. Otherwise, he said, you would consistently have a situation in which a judge could admit evidence - because he thinks somebody's guilty - ahead of a jury trial verdict. And therefore, the conviction was thrown out. The testimony of the witness cannot be introduced at trial. It's a big win for the rights of criminal defendants and a loss for prosecutors.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, reporting from the Supreme Court. Tomorrow, the court will rule on the constitutionality of Washington, DC's ban on handguns. Questions and answers about that case are at

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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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