February 27, 2017 / 4:43 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. top court snubs challenge to death penalty constitutionality

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, rejecting an appeal by a Louisiana death row inmate convicted of killing three brothers.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer objected to the court's decision not to hear the appeal by Marcus Reed, a drug dealer convicted in the 2010 shooting deaths of the three brothers, including a 13-year-old, over the theft of marijuana and an Xbox videogame console from his home.

Separately on Monday, the justices agreed to take up a different capital punishment case involving a convicted murderer from Georgia who said a lower court wrongly dismissed his bid to overturn his death sentence.

The Supreme Court's action came at a time of deep divisions among the eight justices over the death penalty, with Breyer and other liberals expressing doubt about whether capital punishment remains acceptable under the U.S. Constitution four decades after the court reinstated it.

Breyer, renewing his concerns over how the death penalty is administered in America, noted that Reed was sentenced to death in Louisiana's Caddo Parish, a county that he said has apparently sentenced more people to death per capita than any other county in the United States in recent history.

Breyer wrote that "the arbitrary role that geography plays in the imposition of the death penalty," with certain places much more likely than others to use it, helped him "conclude that the court should consider the basic question of the death penalty's constitutionality."

Reed, 39, asked the justices to determine whether the death penalty represented cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

"The standards of decency have evolved since this court last considered the broad question of the constitutionality of capital punishment," Reed's petition said.

The Supreme Court upheld the death penalty as constitutional in a landmark 1976 ruling, but has in more recent years imposed some limits in its application for juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities.

Reed was convicted in 2013 of murdering 18-year-old Jarquis Adams and his brothers Jeremiah, 20, and Gene, 13. The jury rejected his self-defence argument.

According to prosecutors, Reed believed Jarquis Adams had stolen his Xbox and marijuana from his home in a rural, wooded area outside Shreveport, and used an assault rifle to gun down the brothers, spraying their car with bullets.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Reed's conviction and death sentence last September.

In the Georgia case, Marion Wilson, 40, was convicted in the 1996 death of a man in Milledgeville, Georgia, who was shot in the back of the head at close range, his skull filled with metal shotgun pellets and a spent shotgun shell, according to court papers.

Wilson argued that his trial attorneys were incompetent and that evidence pointed to his co-defendant in the case as the shooter.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

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