Justice Thomas focuses on victims in 2 death penalty cases

AP News
Posted: Jun 18, 2015 3:54 PM
Justice Thomas focuses on victims in 2 death penalty cases

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Clarence Thomas took unusual steps Thursday in calling attention to crime victims as the Supreme Court ruled in two death penalty cases.

Thomas dissented from the 5-4 majority that barred Louisiana from executing a convicted killer who is mentally disabled, and at the end of his opinion, included a photo of Kevan Brumfield's victim, off-duty Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers.

Thomas took the majority to task for its "disrespect for the human cost of its decision," noting that Brumfield "deprived the people of Baton Rouge of one of their police officers and six children of their mother" when he shot her during a robbery.

Thomas also referred to a video of Brumfield's confession that was posted on the Supreme Court's website. He devoted two full pages to discussing the life of one of Smothers' children, Warrick Dunn, who "quickly stepped into the role of father figure to his younger siblings" and would go on to become a star running back at Florida State and later in the NFL.

He noted that Dunn and Brumfield grew up with absent fathers, but "unlike Brumfield, Warrick did not use the absence of a father figure as a justification for murder."

The sentiments are not out of place for Thomas, who consistently takes a tough approach to criminal defendants and openly rejects hard-luck life stories as a reason for criminal behavior. They also reflect Thomas' own experience growing up in poverty after his father abandoned the family.

While Thomas was joined in dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, those three other conservatives declined to join the part of Thomas' opinion that compared the lives of Dunn and Brumfield.

Alito wrote that Dunn's story was "inspiring," but the justice did "not want to suggest that it is essential to the legal analysis in this case."

In a second 5-4 case Thursday, Thomas was in the majority with the court's conservatives in reinstating the conviction and death sentence of a California man convicted in a triple murder. The court ruled Hector Ayala was not entitled to a new trial even though a lower court made mistakes when it considered whether prosecutors illegally excluded blacks and Hispanics from the jury.

Noting that Ayala has been in solitary confinement for most of his 25 years in custody. Justice Anthony Kennedy used the case as an opportunity to repeat his long-held views that "years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price."

In a brief retort, Thomas said "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims ... now rest."