Thursday, December 10, 2009

Capital Punishment, Details Matter

In the arguments around capital punishment, too often the actual details of the cases that traditionally result in the sentence of death, are not reported.

That lack of information reduces the depth of knowledge people must have to make an informed decision on why we must continue to support the ability of the courts to impose capital punishment, when merited, against the continued call for its abolition, even, unfortunately, by our national bishops conference.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF), an organization with which I was once a board member and continue to support, is one such national organization which ensures that those details are available to the public.

In this recent press release from CJLF, one such case is reviewed.

An excerpt.

“A unanimous United States Supreme Court today vacated a lower court decision which had overturned the death sentence of a Pennsylvania murderer. The decision limits the authority of the lower federal courts to disregard state procedural rules.

“The Court’s decision in Beard v. Kindler is an important victory for the enforcement of the criminal law generally and capital punishment in particular,” said Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The Foundation’s amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief was cited twice in the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts.

“The issue before the court was whether state procedural rules, adopted to prevent manipulation of the legal process, can be brushed aside by federal judges on a subsequent review of the case. The state court had decided that Kindler forfeited many of his claims when he escaped from jail while his motion was pending. In 2008, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Pennsylvania’s fugitive forfeiture rule could not be invoked to prevent its review of the murderer’s claims because the rule provides a state judge with the discretion to grant review.

“The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined Pennsylvania and 25 other states to encourage a decision overturning the lower court’s ruling and clarifying the standard that state procedural rules must meet in order to be respected by federal courts.

“The case involves the conviction and sentence of Joseph Kindler for the kidnap and brutal murder of David Bernstein. In the summer of 1982, Bernstein joined Kindler and Scott Shaw in the burglary of a store in Lower Moreland Township, Pennsylvania. Police stopped the getaway car as the trio tried to flee, but while Bernstein and Shaw were apprehended, Kindler managed to escape. During questioning, Bernstein identified Kindler as the mastermind of the burglary and agreed to testify against both Kindler and Shaw.

“Following Kindler’s arrest and release on bail, Kindler, Shaw and Shaw’s girlfriend, Michelle Raifer, decided to kill Bernstein to prevent his testimony. In the early morning of July 25, Bernstein opened his apartment door to Raifer and Kindler attacked him with a baseball bat. After hitting him in the head with the bat approximately 20 times, Kindler directed Shaw to jab him with an electric prod. Then, Kindler and Shaw dragged the heavily bleeding Bernstein to Raifer’s car. They drove to the Delaware River and threw him in. Discovering that Bernstein was still alive, the two men held him underwater until he drowned. They finally weighted his body down by tying a cinder block to his neck. As they drove back to Kindler’s home, the trio discarded the weapons at various sewer outlets along the way.

“Within hours of the killing, police tracked down Raifer’s blood-soaked car, which had been identified by several witnesses. When confronted with evidence implicating her, Raifer confessed, describing how the murder plan was carried out, and directed police to the sewer outlets where the weapons had been discarded.”