Supremes Uphold Kansas Death Penalty Statute

The Supreme Court today upheld Kansas’ death penalty law, affirming that states have substantial latitude in determining how to apply capital punishment.

New Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito broke a tie Monday to rule that Kansas’ death penalty law is constitutional. By a 5-to-4 vote, the justices said the Kansas Supreme Court incorrectly interpreted the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment to strike down the state’s death penalty statute.

The Kansas court said the state’s death penalty law improperly forced jurors to impose a capital sentence even if they believed that the prosecution and defense evidence were equal in weight. But the justices disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas disputed the claim by critics that the law created “a general presumption in favor of the death penalty in the state of Kansas.”

The ruling affirms the court’s long-held position that states should determine how juries weigh factors presented by the prosecution and defense in capital cases. Fifteen states filed friend-of-the-court briefs, predicting that a ruling in convicted murderer Michael Lee Marsh’s favor would have required states with capital punishment to set up systems for juries to weigh evidence at sentencing.

Updates to follow once the opinion is released.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.