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Friday, September 13, 2013

Calif. prison guard murder defendants challenge death penalty

SacbeeThe 2008 killing of a prison guard in Atwater, Calif., has prompted the latest challenge to the federal death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.

The sweeping new legal challenge seems like a long shot, especially with a conservative majority controlling the U.S. Supreme Court. The challenge, though, elevates the slaying of correctional officer Jose Rivera by two intoxicated prisoners into the realm of constitutional conflict, a place where justices often struggle.

“There’s some value to alerting the judge to these constitutional issues,” Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in an interview. “These broaden things, and get the court thinking about these other issues.”

Besides, Dieter added, “you never know what’s going to stick.”

In at least two prior cases since 2002, federal trial-level judges have found the death penalty to be unconstitutional. One, New York-based U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, reasoned that the possibility that an innocent inmate could be executed made the death penalty “tantamount to state-sponsored murder.” In Rakoff’s decision and another one, from a Vermont-based judge, appellate courts later reversed the trial-level judges.

Separately, the Supreme Court continues to confront lingering death-penalty questions, including an upcoming challenge by a Georgia inmate who’s contesting the state’s standard for proving mental retardation. continue reading...

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