Death penalty: Supreme Court is right to refine the process 
Dallas Morning News 

On Sunday’s edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Sen. John Kerry suggested that America is “beginning to question how we have applied the death penalty.” The prospective 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said that, despite public support for capital punishment, he opposes it. Citing advances in the application of DNA evidence, Sen. Kerry said he favors a moratorium on the death penalty until some troubling questions are answered – including why minorities account for three-fourths of inmates on death row. 

The question posed to the Supreme Court this week was something altogether different, namely whether judges can make the formal determination about whether there exist, in the case of convicted murderers, “aggravating factors” that warrant the death penalty. No, they cannot, said the high court in a 7-2 decision. That is a finding that is best left to a jury. 

That is already the standard procedure here in Texas, where only the 12 peers can impose a death sentence. Not so in nine other states, where the court’s decision could result in new sentences for hundreds of death row inmates. 

The ruling in Ring vs. Arizona came less than a week after the court, in another hugely important decision, struck down executions for the mentally retarded. Taken together, the two decisions seem to signal that the high court – while stopping short of prohibiting the states from carrying out capital punishment altogether – is growing uncomfortable with the manner in which the death penalty is imposed and administered. Perhaps what the court is saying is that the states, and the American people, should be approaching the issue of capital punishment much more thoughtfully than has been the case in recent years and that it is willing to lead the way by setting a more deliberative tone. 

If that is the case, then Americans should sit up and take notice. Even when it comes down from where it should – from juries – the decision to enlist the state in the taking of a human life is serious business. Of course, there are instances where the offenses are so egregious and the offenders so lacking in redeemable human qualities (such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh) that the death penalty is highly appropriate. But even in those extreme cases, there always should be the requisite amount of collective analysis, scrutiny and soul-searching about how far we should go in pursuit of justice. 

Murderers may have trivialized the sanctity of human life in committing their heinous acts, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of society has to follow suit.

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