Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens issued an unusually stinging criticism of capital punishment Saturday evening, telling the American Bar Association that he is disturbed by "serious flaws."
Stevens stopped short of calling for an end to the death penalty, but he said there are many problems in the way it is used.
Stevens said DNA evidence has shown "that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously. . . . It indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice," he said.
Death penalty cases dominate the work of the high court. Week after week justices deal with final emergency appeals, sometimes filed late at night.
In their last term, which ended in June, justices overturned the death sentences of four inmates, ruled that states cannot put to death killers who were not at least 18 years old at the time of the crime and held that it is unconstitutional to force defendants to appear before juries in chains during a trial's penalty phase.
Justices have four capital cases on their docket when they return to work in October, including a potentially significant issue of letting inmates have a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA evidence.
Other Supreme Court justices have also spoken out about concerns that defendants in murder cases are not adequately represented. But Stevens made a much harsher condemnation.
He said Supreme Court cases have revealed that "a significant number of defendants in capital cases have not been provided with fully competent legal representation at trial."
In addition, Stevens said he had reviewed records that showed "special risks of unfairness" in capital punishment.
Juries might not be balanced because people who have qualms about capital punishment can be excluded by prosecutors, he said. He questioned whether potential jurors are distracted by extensive questions about their death penalty views.
A statement from a victim's family, Stevens said, sometimes "serves no purpose other than to encourage jurors to decide in favor of death rather than life on the basis of their emotions rather than their reason."