Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has confessed that in 35 years of serving on the nation's highest court, his only regret was voting in 1976 to reinstate the death penalty in Texas, an option he believes the state has used too often.
Texas prosecutors have unfairly exploited the death penalty to their advantage to authorize "so many death sentences in that state," the former just said in a recent interview.
"I really think that I've thought over a lot of cases I've written over the years. And I really wouldn't want to do any one of them over…With one exception," he told ABC on Wednesday. "My vote in the Texas death case. And I think I do mention that in that case, I think that I came out wrong on that," Stevens said.
The case Stevens referred to was Jurek v. Texas, which questioned whether or not the death penalty sentencing in Texas was unconstitutional and resulted in "cruel or unusual" punishment. The court voted 7-2 that it that Texas' procedure was constitutional and did not classify as per se "cruel or unusual" punishment.
When asked why he changed his mind about capital punishment, Stevens said, "It's a long story, because I've been involved in that issue for so long."
Stevens went on to describe two questions one must consider regarding the death penalty: Whether one believes the death penalty is constitutional and whether one believes it is "a wise thing to do."
"I've never thought it was a particularly wise matter of punishment," Stevens said. "And several members of the court, I can say specifically Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun, although they voted consistently to uphold the death penalty, they personally did not think it made sense."
Despite the personal opinions of the former justices, Stevens, Burger, and Blackmun believed that the constitution allowed the state to choose death as a method of punishment. However, Stevens' opinion about that changed as, he believes, states took advantage of the privilege.
"My own thinking on the constitutional issue evolved over the years after our first decision in 1975 – my first year on the court," Stevens said. "I thought the court was adopting procedures and rules that would confine the imposition of the death penalty to a very narrow set of cases and take special pains to have fair procedures."
He added: "But over the years I was disappointed to find that they expanded the category of cases rather dramatically…in ways that actually give the prosecutor advantages in capital cases that I don’t think he has in ordinary cases. And there’s been a general change in the general atmosphere around capital cases that occurred over the years."
Stevens has published a new book, Five Chiefs, a memoir of serving on the Supreme Court, In it, he writes that he regretted the Jurek v. Texas vote "because experience has shown that the Texas statute has played an important role in authorizing so many deaths sentences in that state."
According to DeathPenalty.info, Texas has executed 475 inmates since 1976 – by far the most in the nation. Texas' execution tally is more than four times than that of Virginia, which hold among states with the most executions. Virginia has executed 109 people in the same timeframe as Texas.
Jurek v. Texas was one of five Supreme Court cases from 1975 through 1976 that contributed to the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States after a four year suspension. Since the reinstatement, there have been nearly 1,300 executions in the United States.
Only China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen execute more people than the U.S., according to Amnesty International.