EXECUTIONS continue in this country, and every four or five weeks the Supreme Court rejects a final appeal and the horrendous sentence is carried out. There is little hope that courts or legislatures will soon abandon this penalty, and the trend may even be in the other direction. The U.S. Senate, for example, will soon consider legislation making a set of federal offenses capital crimes. In these circumstances, opponents of capital punishment find themselves celebrating small victories that limit the scope of the penalty or make it more difficult to impose. The Senate bill, for example, forbids the execution of anyone for a crime committed before his 18th birthday.
Last week, the Supreme Court decided two cases that make it more difficult -- in small ways -- for the state to win a death sentence. Both involved procedural guarantees in the disposition phase of a two-part trial. In a North Carolina case, a death sentence was overturned because the defendant had been denied the opportunity to present evidence concerning his good behavior in jail during the seven months between his arrest and conviction. This had been done in spite of the prosecutor's statement to the sentencing jury that he was a violent prisoner and he would be a threat to other inmates if sentenced to life imprisonment. In the second case, a Virginia court refused to allow a black defendant, charged with killing a white storekeeper, to question prospective jurors about possible race prejudice. Here the Supreme Court held that the question should have been allowed because of the interracial nature of the crime, the broad discretion given the jury and the special seriousness of the risk of improper sentencing in a capital case.
Neither of these two rulings places a major burden on the state. And in both c the defendants could still be sentenced to death at new hearings that meet the court's new standards. The court, though, does seem to be saying that in cases where a man's life is at stake, extreme care must be taken to ensure fair procedures at every phase of trial and sentencing. Two more important capital cases are still pending at the court. One tests the state's right to execute a man who was sane at the time of a crime but became insane after trial. The second challenges a prosecutor's right to exclude from the jury in the fact-finding phase of a capital case those who are opposed to the death penalty. In light of last week's decisions, there is reason to hope that the court will continue to impose every procedural safeguard in these life and death cases.