The Supreme Court ruling in United States v Bass (2002) overturning a Sixth Circuit Courts decision allowing the defendants discovery motion was unfair for a number of reasons. The district court had set aside the death penalty motion since the United States refused to comply with the discovery motion. Evidently, the United States had something to hide and was concerned that if the information it had became public knowledge, serious repercussions would follow. Comments by highly placed justice officials lamenting the skewed application of the death penalty with regard to race should have informed the supreme court of a travesty of justice.  Instead, the judges preferred to apply the rules of precedence established by United States v. Armstrong (1996) which placed a huge burden of proof on the defendant.

What the Supreme Court should have considered in deciding the case are the statistics showing the predominance of blacks being charged with the death penalty despite an almost equal number of whites being arrested for the same crime. The issue of racial bias in plea bargaining should have informed the court that the system favored a certain race at the expense of another. On the basis of this fact alone the court should have subpoenaed the United States to produce all relevant documents to assist it in making an informed decision.

By placing the burden of proof on the defendant, the Supreme Court was guilty of obstruction of justice in that it supported the United States defiance of the district court which had ordered discovery of all documents. This data would have enabled the defendant to establish whether a discriminatory intent and effect was present in decisions to commit not only him but other blacks to the death penalty process. An in camera review with both parties present to examine available information would have established beyond reasonable doubt whether there was indeed a racial bias in capital sentencing and institutionalized  selective prosecution.

Contempt of court by the United States led to the dismissal of its notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Bass. The Supreme Court should have taken this into consideration when deciding the case by questioning the motive behind the United States decision.  The defendant had provided sufficient evidence to prove there was a serious discrepancy with regard to racial sentencing and the application of justice. Investigations by the Supreme Court into the validity of Basss claims would have unveiled the truth. The district court rightly established that more evidence to support or refute Basss claims could have been adduced through further discovery. The Supreme Court should be faulted for failing to pursue this line of reasoning.

In reviewing the district courts ruling it is important to establish whether a reasonable person would have agreed with their decision. From evidence presented to the court by the defendant, a plausible argument can be developed that if blacks are disproportionately targeted by the justice system through some sort of racial profiling, then it is possible the death penalty is applied in similar fashion. By availing information to the defendant about persons similarly situated the threshold for determining if there was selective prosecution and discriminatory effect would have been achieved. Denying the defendant access to classified information prejudiced his defense and placed him in a difficult position. Precedents established by United States v Armstrong (1996) made it imperative that the threshold for discriminatory effect be met before selective prosecution claims can be proved. Bass was required to not only show that similarly situated whites were treated differently but that the system or policies in force promoted different thresholds for different races. Material requested under discovery would have solved this problem and although the Supreme Court was well aware of these facts, instead of enforcing the discovery request in a bid to arrive at the truth, they used the same benchmarks to dismiss the claims.

Evidence produced by Bass revealed that blacks were no more predisposed to crime than whites. Based on this survey, it becomes questionable when a disproportionate number of blacks are placed on death row as compared to the number of whites arrested for similar crimes. Revelations that more whites were presented with plea bargain options than blacks should have informed the judges that this case deserved a closer look than it was accorded. To dismiss this factor because the defendant refused to plea bargain was insufficient grounds to deny the motion. The defendant may have refused to accept a bargain because the conditions may have been just as bad as a death sentence. By failing to delve into such issues, the Supreme Court acted hastily and without due regard to the fact it remains the last judicial option.

Statistical evidence adduced revealed that the percentage gap between criminal categories based on race was not more than 10 points. This situation changed with regard to death-eligible persons where the spread increase to about 20 percentage points.  Blacks were rated at 48 while whites were at 20. Had the Supreme Court examined this evidence, it should have arrived at the same decisions of the lower courts and affirmed the earlier decision.

Verbal statements from the then attorney general, who is responsible for authorizing death penalty proceedings, should have been a wake up call to the Supreme Court to reexamine the issue of selective prosecution. If the AG was shocked to learn about the statistics and yet presided over the process, the judges should have been more cautious about dismissing a case that would have altered the pattern of racial bias (Davis, 2007). By focusing on meeting the thresholds established in earlier cases, the judges were blinded to the fact that there were other compelling issues that warranted a motion for discovery.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court decision overturning earlier rulings in United States v Bass (2002) was based on faulty premises. By zeroing in on the issue of discriminatory intent and effect, the court placed the burden of proof on the defendant. It ignored other aspects that convinced the lower courts to accept the defendants plea. In total disregard for the principle of the sanctity of courts, the Supreme Court failed to sanction the United States for disobeying an order of discovery or question the rationale behind such impunity. By denying the motion of discovery for selective prosecution, the Supreme Court eliminated any chance that the defendant had to verify his claims. Without the requisite information, the defendant was unable to present evidence of discriminatory intent and effect. Had the requested materials been availed ad reviewed in camera, it is likely that the defendant would have proved his claims.


Post a Comment