The US 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.
The 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 US 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.
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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, who is now 39 and was 33 at the time of the murders, asked the US Supreme Court to determine whether the death penalty represented cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the US 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.
Reed's lawyers argued that capital punishment undermines human dignity and public confidence in the fair administration of justice, adding that its use by states has dropped to such low levels that it can hardly be considered an indispensable part of the criminal justice system.
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.
The justices' starkly contrasting views on capital punishment have been on display in recent cases. Last week, after the court turned away a death row inmate's challenge to Alabama's lethal injection procedures, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent saying lethal injection might be the "most cruel" method yet. 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-defense 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. Police arrived at the scene to find blood and gasoline pouring down the driveway, court papers said. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Reed's conviction and death sentence last September.