Shaken Baby and SC injustice

Why does being conservative have to mean that you are inured to gross injustice?  Back this summer I blogged on the increasing controversy about shaken baby syndrome and the dubiousness of the cases against many people currently serving prison sentences for killing babies who, in all likelihood, never did anything wrong at all.  Sure, there are legitimate cases of this, but there’s also cases with not just reasonable, but probable doubt, where there have been convictions.  In light of the rapidly-evolving scientific understanding, you’d like to think the Supreme Court might be a little more sensitive to issues of injustice in cases like this, but apparently that would be asking too much.  Far more important to follow the precise letter of a very imperfect law than to let a probably innocent person go free– right?  Emily Bazelon has the details:

The Supreme Court released a decision last month that will easily be the most vindictive of the term. And hardly anyone noticed.

That’s because the case didn’t go through the full treatment of oral argument and a signed majority opinion. Instead, the court quietly went about sending a grandmother back to prison for a crime she probably did not commit, to bring a lower court to heel. It’s a decision that treats the technicalities of appellate review as paramount, and the task of doing justice as beside the point.

[details about a highly dubious conviction.  Read them, you should]

The California Supreme Court declined to review the case. So Smith turned to the federal courts. At this point, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act kicks in. This is perhaps my least-favorite law. AEDPA tells federal courts that they can’t overturn state courts except in a narrow set of circumstances: If a conviction is contrary to or unreasonably applies clearly established federal law, or if it’s based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. AEDPA is a straitjacket. The federal courts are supposed to put it on and quit worrying about whether innocent people have been put in prison.

A panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit refused to do that. They looked at the medical testimony against Shirley Ree Smith and how badly it holds up to the light of current knowledge, and they said that Smith had spent enough years in prison…

Normally, that would be that. AEDPA or no AEDPA, the Supreme Court doesn’t usually reach out and grab sad, fact-bound cases like this one. But liberal 9th Circuit judges are a thorn in the side of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices. Last month, after twice sending the 9th Circuit pointed warnings about this case, the Supreme Court  reversed the circuit court’s decision. The majority’s brief and unsigned opinion concedes that “doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable.” But according to six justices, it’s not the 9th Circuit’s job to do anything about that…

In Shirley Ree Smith’s case, Justice Ginsburg concludes, “I would not ignore Smith’s plight and choose her case as a fit opportunity to teach the 9th Circuit a lesson.” That’s exactly right, too. There is only one lesson worth learning from this case, and it is about the power of mercy.

Bazelon concludes that California’s governor, Jerry Brown, still has the chance to do the right thing.  Since he is a Democrat, maybe he actually will.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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