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CNN Today

Supreme Court Hears Virginia Death-Penalty Case, Demonstrators in Support of Mumia Abu-Jamal Arrested

Aired February 28, 2000 - 1:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The nation's ambivalence over capital punishment is back in evidence at the highest court in the land. Polls show two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty, yet nine in 10 believe innocent people are sometimes sentenced to death.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a death-penalty case from Virginia. And, while it dealt with what most people consider "technicalities," there was nothing technical about the protests outside, or the ongoing debate around the country.

CNN's Charles Bierbauer joins us now with more on the story -- Charles.

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN SR. WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, you are right. There really are two dimensions to this issue. And one is the death penalty itself, and the other is what the court was addressing, more in the nature of death row appeals.

But, outside the court, there were hundreds of demonstrators. The shouting has died down now, but dozens were arrested in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is a death-row inmate in Pennsylvania, where he has been convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman.

What they are concerned about, in particular, is the limits on appeals that were enacted in 1996 with the Effective Death Penalty Act. And that same act was in front of the justices inside the court, considering the appeal of a Virginia death row inmate.

In fact, the court today had originally scheduled two death penalty cases.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BIERBAUER (voice-over): The justices are hearing Michael Wayne Williams' death penalty appeal that Virginia withheld information, weakening his defense for two 1993 murders. They had planned to hear a claim that execution in Florida's electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment.

RICHARD DIETER, DEATH PENALTY INFO. CTR.: The most recent one in which his whole chest was covered with blood indicating he was alive and bleeding during this electrocution. BIERBAUER: The court dropped the Florida case after Governor Jeb Bush signed a law allowing execution by lethal injection. Of 38 states with a death penalty, three, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska, use only the electric chair. The death penalty is getting renewed scrutiny in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes I wonder if it's going to hurt.

BIERBAUER: Death row inmates appear in new Benetton ads for the clothing conscious with a social conscience.

In Illinois last year, death row inmate Anthony Porter was freed after student journalists found flaws in his conviction. Governor George Ryan, though he supports the death penalty, ordered a moratorium on executions last month.

GOV. GEORGE RYAN (R), ILLINOIS: Thirteen people have been sentenced to death, presumably guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, only to have the courts find that they had been wrongly convicted.

BIERBAUER: The justices seem more concerned about trial procedures than the death penalty itself.

(on camera): The court has heard death row appeals about ineffective counsel and jury instructions, yet denied appeals about executing a juvenile offender, or arguing that long years on death row amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

BOB PAMBIANCO, WASHINGTON LEGAL FOUNDATION: They want to streamline the process. They're not -- they're certainly not going to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional or anything like that.

BIERBAUER: Executions in the U.S. are up; 98 last year, as appeals run out. But death sentences are down as juries consider options such as life in prison without parole.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BIERBAUER: So the death penalty is, itself, an increasingly visible subject of debate across the country, but it is not the death penalty that was before the Supreme Court today. The justices have ruled that the death penalty is constitutional -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Thank you, Charles Bierbauer at the Supreme Court.

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