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Court ‘Troubled’ By Texas Law Death Penalty Statute Stands Despite Jury-Instruction Qualms

The Supreme Court voted Monday to let stand a controversial Texas sentencing law that four justices said “unquestionably tips the scales” in favor of the death penalty in capital-punishment cases.

The court’s most liberal justices - John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - said they found the statute “especially troubling.”

The law requires juries be told in non-capital cases when a defendant will become eligible for parole. But Texas law prohibits juries from hearing the same information when the choice is a life sentence or death.

Juries that learn a defendant faces a very long term without parole might be more inclined to favor life over death, critics of the Texas law say.

Though the court’s action appears to affect only one state, the issue is important because Texas leads all states in death row population (441) and executions (31 this year).

Texas has executed more convicted murderers in 1997 than all other death-penalty states combined, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

The justices spurned a petition filed on behalf of Arthur Brown, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting four people in Houston in drug-related killings in 1992.

In the petition, Tom Moran, a lawyer for Brown, said the Texas law prevented the jury from learning that a life sentence would make Brown eligible for parole in his mid-50s, after he had spent 35 years in prison. (Current Texas law says a life term for a capital felony makes a prisoner ineligible for parole for 40 years.)

In Texas, prosecutors in capital cases are permitted to produce evidence of a convicted defendant’s “future dangerousness.” But the law bars defense lawyers from calling experts to testify older people are less likely to commit additional crimes.

Moran called the law “irrational” and said it violated constitutional guarantees of fair legal procedures, equal protection of the laws and punishment that is not cruel and unusual.

Under Supreme Court rules, four votes are needed to accept a case. But in issuing an opinion Monday, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer did not explain why they did not force a review. They urged further study by lower courts instead.

“My primary purpose in writing … is not to comment on the merits of (Brown’s) constitutional claims,” Stevens wrote for the four, “but to reiterate the important point that the court’s action … does not constitute either a decision on the merits … or an appraisal of their importance.”

Nevertheless, Stevens made it clear he believes the Texas law to be constitutionally questionable. He wrote a lengthy footnote showing polls show jurors informed about parole eligibility are less likely to vote for the death penalty.