Former Justice John Paul Stevens died this week at the age of 99. EJI honored Justice Stevens in 2011 with its Champion of Justice Award at the annual benefit dinner. In his remarks upon receiving the award, Justice Stevens, who had become a vocal critic of excessive punishment and over incarceration in America, called for legal reform that would lead to greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct and flagrant violation of constitutional rights.
In 1995, he was the lone dissenter in a case that upheld Alabama’s judicial override provision, which allowed elected trial judges to override jury verdicts of life and impose death sentences. Nearly 20 percent of the people currently on Alabama’s death row have been sentenced to death through judicial override. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens emphasized that overriding a life verdict allows a prosecutor “who loses before the jury” to get “a second, fresh opportunity to secure a death sentence,” in some cases by presenting “the judge with exactly the same evidence and arguments that the jury rejected.” He wrote, “A scheme that we assumed would ‘provide capital defendants with more, rather than less, judicial protection’ has perversely developed into a procedure” in which a “defendant’s life is twice put in jeopardy.” Years later, his assessment was finally vindicated when the Alabama legislature ended the practice of judicial override.
In 2008, Justice Stevens wrote in Baze v. Rees that the death penalty was unconstitutional: “The imposition of the death penalty represents ‘the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State [is] patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.’”
After retirement, Justice Stevens stated in interviews that the only vote he regretted in his 35 years on the bench, was his vote in 1976 to reinstate the death penalty in the United States.