The Bill of Rights may have been passed over 220 years ago, but it seems to still not have been fully enacted. “Missouri executed this man while his appeal was pending,” in The Atlantic, tells the story:
It is 2014, not 1964 or 1914, and yet on Wednesday night [January 2014] a black man in Missouri, a black man convicted by an all-white jury, was executed before his federal appeals had been exhausted. He was executed just moments after reportedly being hauled away by prison guards while he was in the middle of a telephone call discussing his appeals with one of his attorneys. He was executed even though state officials knew that the justices of the United States Supreme Court still were considering his request for relief.
The sixth amendment guarantees all people “the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury” in “all criminal prosecutions,” yet the state of Missouri has denied not just this man, but three others that same right.
Asked repeatedly not to execute Smulls while appeals were pending, state officials failed even to respond to emails from defense attorneys that night while corrections officials went ahead with the execution. Smulls thus was pronounced dead four minutes before the Supreme Court denied his final stay request. This was not an accident or some bureaucratic misunderstanding and did not come as a surprise to Smulls’ lawyers. They say it was the third straight execution in Missouri in which corrections officials went ahead with lethal injection before the courts were through with the condemned man’s appeals.
That the Supreme Court sent a refusal for the appeal is irrelevant. The fact of the matter remains that the state lawyers completely undermined the power of the Supreme Court and the entire concept of equal representation in the American justice system by executing a man before his case was fully considered.
What happened in Missouri this week is unacceptable in a nation that purports to worship its rule of law. It ought to be unacceptable even to the most ardent supporters of capital punishment. And the worst news of all is that there is no reason to think the problem is going to get better anytime soon. Missouri wasn’t punished for its zealotry. And that surely signals officials in other death penalty states, like Louisiana, that they won’t likely be punished, either, if they execute someone while his appeals still are pending. Herbert Smulls may have deserved to die. But surely not before the Supreme Court was through looking at his case.