The spirit of the law is a legal concept that refers to the underlying intent or purpose of a law. It is the reason why the law was created, what it is intended to achieve, and how it is intended to be interpreted and applied. The spirit of the law is important because it ensures that legal decisions are consistent with the fundamental purposes of the law, rather than being based on technical or formal interpretations that might defeat the underlying intent of the law.
“The spirit of the law should not be overshadowed by the procedural aspect of the law,” a crucial principle that should apply not only to the US death penalty system, but to the judicial system as a whole. While it is important to follow legal procedures and ensure that formalities are followed, it is equally important to consider the underlying principles and values that the law is intended to uphold. In the justice system as a whole, it is essential that the procedural aspects of the law do not override the underlying principles of justice and fairness. This requires a balance between respecting legal procedures and ensuring that they serve their primary purpose of upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of all individuals.
In the context of the death penalty, this means that the focus must not be solely on technical and formal aspects, but on the fundamental principles of justice, fairness and respect for human life. Although if we go further, the use of the death penalty is in itself the worst affront that justice can do to the respect of human life!
Ultimately, the spirit of the law should guide its application, rather than being overshadowed by procedural formalities. By prioritizing the values and principles that underlie the law, we can ensure that justice is done and that the rights and dignity of all individuals are respected. But this is without taking into account the fact that the aspirations and interests of politicians are intertwined with the way laws are shaped and constantly modified to serve electoral interests.
As a simple example, in 1996, US President Bill Clinton signed the Anti-Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which aims to limit appeals in death penalty cases. The Act imposes strict time limits on judicial review applications, limiting the amount of time convicted criminals have to present new evidence or challenge their convictions. In essence, the AEDPA states that if convicts wish to appeal to the federal courts, they must do so within a specific time frame and submit all their claims simultaneously. This law was enacted in response to the perception that appeals were dragging on indefinitely and slowing down the court process, thereby impeding the implementation of the death penalty. However, the AEDPA has also been criticized for limiting judicial remedies, which can make it difficult for wrongfully convicted people to seek justice. In practice, this means that convicts must file all of their claims at once, without the ability to expand them later, and they have a limited time frame of one year to do so. This can be particularly difficult for convicts who were poorly represented at their initial trial, or who discover new evidence after their conviction. Ultimately, the effect of AEDPA is to restrict appellate remedies for death row inmates in the United States, limiting their access to justice and due process.
There have been many inmates in the United States who have been affected by Bill Clinton’s law, here are some examples of inmates who have been time-barred by this law:
- Kenneth Bernard Rouse: Rouse was sentenced to death in North Carolina, on charges that he had robbed, murdered and attempted to rape a white, 63-year-old store clerk in 1992. As claims of juror bias go, the evidence could hardly have been stronger. But Rouse’s final appeal was never heard. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Rouse’s lawyers missed the deadline by a single day. Kenneth Rouse is still on death row.
- Chadwick Banks: According to court documents Chadwick Banks would shoot and kill his wife before sexually assaulting and murdering his 10 year old stepdaughter. Chadwick Banks was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death in Florida. His lawyers missed the AEDPA deadline and he got executed in November 2014 despite serious claims.
- Graham: Graham was executed in Texas in 2000 for the murder of a man during an armed robbery. His attorney claimed that AEDPA prevented Graham from effectively pursuing his federal appeal.
- Johnny Paul Penry: Penry was sentenced to death for the 1979 rape and murder of a woman in Texas, but his sentence was overturned several times. In 2000, after AEDPA was enacted, his defense missed the deadline to file a federal appeal. The Supreme Court finally rejected his appeal in 2001, and Penry was executed in 2005 in Texas.
- Amos King: King was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Florida in 1974. His lawyer missed the deadline to file a federal appeal under the AEDPA, and the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal in 2003. King was executed in February 2003.
These cases illustrate the serious impact that AEDPA has had on death row inmates and their attorneys, as well as the limitations it has placed on the review of death penalty appeals. The complexity of this law and the timing requirements have left many prisoners without effective legal recourse to challenge their convictions or death sentences.
On March 13, 2023 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the death warrant for Louis Gaskin, convicted of murdering two people in 1989 and sentenced to death in 1991. Like the previous examples cited, his attorney was unable to file a timely petition under the AEDPA, which prevented Gaskin from pursuing his appeal in federal court.
In 4 weeks this man will die before our eyes, to satisfy a political whim. Where is the balance between basic human rights and due process here? The answer is simple: there is none.
In sum, the criminal justice system in the United States faces many challenges, especially with regard to the death penalty. If we are to live in a society that respects the fundamental rights of all human beings, we must reform our justice system so that it reflects the highest values of our humanity. Instead of focusing solely on punishment and revenge, we must adopt a more holistic approach that takes into account rehabilitation, prevention and reparation.
Are we really defending the lives and fundamental rights of all human beings when we engage in this barbaric practice? I don’t think so! The spirit of the law should be the soul of our humanity. We cannot allow the death penalty to continue to dehumanize our society and violate the fundamental rights of our fellow citizens. We have a duty to oppose this barbaric practice and to work together to create a system of justice that reflects the highest aspirations of our humanity.