An Alabama prosecutor has announced that the state will seek the death penalty for Joyce Garrard, 46, who is accused of killing 9-year-old Savannah Hardin by making the child run for hours as punishment for eating candy. The charge raises the question of the evolution of the standard set by the Supreme Court
In Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990), the Supreme Court upheld Arizona laws allowing a death sentence based on the finding of an aggravating factor that the murder was “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved.” The ruling set aside prior rulings finding such terms to be unconstitutionally vague and raised concerns that we were returning to a broader use of capital punishment for more conventional murders (since most would fit this language).
In this case, Calhoun County District Attorney Jimmie Harp stated “The grand jury thought that Joyce Garrard had the intent or should have known that if you run a child to the point in time where it gets to the point that the body shuts down and can’t support life anymore, that you could infer that intent was there.”
This case has certainly appalled most of us with the death of this child. However, it is now unclear how much more heinous a murder must be to constitutionally justify the death penalty. “Should have known” how a body shuts down is a far distance from the standard assumed after Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). This would appear to sweep criminal recklessness into the category of death penalty offenses. There is no evidence that I have read suggesting that this grandmother wanted to kill the child.
It is often difficult to separate our anger from our analysis in such cases. However, it is unclear if there remains a significant remaining difference between murder cases certified as “death qualified” and those that are not. That raises the very question of consistency that led to the Court’s historical ruling in Furman.
What do you think?