Thursday, May 6, 2010

Judge Sid Thomas, Recent Opinions, Part II

As noted in yesterday's post, the most recent majority opinion of Judge Sid Thomas upheld a death sentence.

In some ways, the case is unremarkable: a garden-variety habeas matter including typical claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel. However, there is one startling aspect, in that the defendant actually requested the death penalty, telling the judge that he was a violent person fascinated with killing who did not believe he could be rehabilitated. Later, the defendant changed his mind, resulting in a chain of appeals nearly thirty years long. Judge Fletcher dissented from Thomas' majority opinion, finding that ineffective assistance of counsel in the case had been prejudicial.

Thomas' opinion may be of some comfort to death penalty supporters, particularly since it was issued over a dissent. By the same token, it may be a source of consternation to opponents, who have a vocal critic of the death penalty in Justice Stevens. However, neither side should take those trajectories too far.

In the last paragraph, Judge Thomas softens the holding somewhat, first mentioning the defendant's apparent reformation over the decades and then noting that he may still have a chance at clemency via the executive branch. The majority's decision to uphold the death sentence was, Thomas states, based only on the "legal issues." As a lower court judge, Thomas is bound by how the Supreme Court interprets "legal issues." The Supreme Court, though, made up of Supreme Court justices, including Stevens' soon-to-be successor, could change the landscape of those "legal issues," including the death penalty (although that would be speculative as to Judge Thomas, based on this decision alone).