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Key Rulings on Death Penalty, Damages, Witnesses


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Steve Inskeep is on vacation.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The Supreme Court is pushing toward the end of its term, and this morning, the justices issued a raft of important decisions. They deal with the death penalty, punitive damages and confronting witnesses. NPR's Nina Totenberg joined us from the court. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First, the death penalty ruling. In the case before the court, the death penalty was applied to the rape of a child.

TOTENBERG: That's right. There was no death. This only involved the rape of a child. Now over 30 years ago, the court ruled that it's unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone for the non-homicide rape of an adult woman. So this was a question only involving the rape of a child, and the court said that, too, is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment and is not permitted by the Constitution.

MONTAGNE: And what was the court's reasoning in invalidating this particular death penalty law?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're - the court said that first of all, it violates what the consensus on what is acceptable, that only six states have this - have such a law, and none of them have used it. Nobody's been executed for child rape since more than 10 years before even the Supreme Court struck it down, that the only state in which anybody is on death row for child rape is Louisiana, and that it's a disproportionate crime - it's a disproportionate penalty for a crime in which nobody dies, in addition to the fact that it adds to problems about reporting child rape and that an execution would be based in these cases on child testimony, which we know can sometimes by unreliable and presents special problems.

MONTAGNE: Another big quite different case that the court ruled on involved the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Now this was nearly 20 years ago in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The case involved huge punitive damages against Exxon.

TOTENBERG: Well, it involved a huge oil spill, 11 million gallons and the despoiling of that area in a manner that's not - it's still not recovered from. And a jury initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to fishermen and other people who said they'd been harmed by the oil spill. The courts then reduced that to 2.5 billion, and today the Supreme Court reduced it even further to an amount equal to the compensatory damages, which were about a half a billion. So, in the end, after 20 years, the fishermen and others get pretty - not a lot of money for their economic harms. The company had to pay for environmental damage. It had to pay a couple of billion dollars for the clean up. But in terms of punitive damages for whatever it did, it doesn't really have to pay very much, the court said, because it would subject the company to too much uncertainty to have the potential of maritime damages - and this only involves federal maritime damages - for an uncertain amount of damages, an open-ended amount of damages. It should be a one-to-one ratio.

MONTAGNE: The last question, Nina, that the court dealt with involves the confrontation clause of the Constitution. And please explain that.

TOTENBERG: Well, let's talk about the facts. This case involved a guy who was accused and convicted of murdering his wife. And at trial, some of the evidence against him were the statements of his wife previous, several weeks before the killing, in which she told police that he had threatened her and tried to choke her. He claimed that that was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. Now a Justice Scalia said today, writing for the Supreme Court, the Sixth Amendment provides all - in all criminal prosecutions, that the accused shall have the right to confront the witnesses against him. Justice Scalia said that does not provide any sort of open-ended exception. The only exception is if you can show that somebody was murdered to shut them up. Otherwise, he said, you would consistently have a situation in which a judge could admit evidence - because he thinks somebody's guilty - ahead of a jury trial verdict. And therefore, the conviction was thrown out. The testimony of the witness cannot be introduced at trial. It's a big win for the rights of criminal defendants and a loss for prosecutors.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, reporting from the Supreme Court. Tomorrow, the court will rule on the constitutionality of Washington, DC's ban on handguns. Questions and answers about that case are at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.