On June 29, 2015, the final day of its 2014 term, the US Supreme Court ruled in Glossip v. Gross. The Court, in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Alito, ruled that death-row inmates had failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of midazolam, a sedative in Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, violates the Eighth Amendment because it fails to render a person insensate to pain. Today, Glossip is scheduled to die by the controversial method that the Court greenlighted this summer unless there is a stay of execution. The case is likely not the final word on the death penalty. Justice Scalia this week Scalia told students at a Memphis college that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional citing Justice Breyer’s dissent that it is time to consider whether the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment in all cases.
Breyer is not the first Supreme Court justice to invite constitutional debate about the death penalty. Several justices in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976) bringing back the death penalty later came to reject it. Justice Powell told his biographer that the death penalty should be abolished. Justice Blackmun, wrote in 1994 that he would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” In 2008, Justice Stevens wrote that his review of hundreds of cases had persuaded him that the penalty is both profoundly unworkable and unconstitutional. Justice Breyer in his dissent in Glossip argued that the death penalty is unreliable and arbitrary in application citing the long delays that undermine its purpose, convinced that we have executed the innocent. In Rudolph v. Alabama, 375 U.S. 889, (1963), Justice Goldberg’s dissent also suggested that capital punishment might violate the Eighth Amendment. That dissent prompted statewide moratoriums and encouraged cases to be brought to the Court challenging the constitutionality of capital statutes. A decade later, the Court struck them all down in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). Perhaps, in the wake of Glossip, we are about to travel down that path once again.
On the subject of capital punishment, Brooklyn Law School Library has The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th Century Crime of Passion by Idanna Pucci (Call #HV6053 .P83 1996). This book illustrates the debate over the death penalty in the late 19th Century in the story of the trial of Maria Barbella for the murder of Domenico Cataldo in New York City on April 26, 1895. Maria and her family immigrated to New York in 1892. She met and became friendly with Cataldo, also from the same region of Italy. One day Cataldo took her to a boarding house, drugged her with the drink he bought her, and took advantage of her. With strong morals about intimacy and marriage, Maria said that they would have to get married. He promised they would marry in several months, even though he was already married to a woman in Italy, with whom he had children. Later Cataldo told Maria that he was going back to Italy and would not marry her. When Maria and her mother confronted him and insisted he marry Maria he said the only way he would do that was if they paid him $200. As the mother stormed away, Maria asked, one last time, whether she would be his wife. When he replied that “Only a pig would marry you“, she drew out her razor and killed him by cutting his throat.
Thus began the saga of Maria Barbella, who shortly became the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair. She was arrested and put in the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention (otherwise known as “The Tombs”) for more than two months. Her trial began on July 11. Maria was unable to speak or understand English. She admitted everything: how she slit his throat and how he ran after her, unable to reach her and dropped dead. The jury showed sympathy for her case; but trial Judge John W. Goff asked the jury not to have mercy on Maria. He said, “Your verdict must be an example of justice. A jury must not concern itself with mercy. The law does not distinguish between the sexes. The fragility of the female sex is sometimes involved to excuse savage crimes. We cannot publicly proclaim a woman not guilty of killing a man solely because this man has proposed marriage and then changed his mind!” The jury declared her guilty. On July 18, 1895, Judge Goff sentenced her to “execution by electricity” and sent her to Sing Sing Prison, the first female convict held there in 18 years and the first one on death row.
The case stirred up controversy in the Italian community which felt that the verdict was unjust with no Italians on the jury. Many complained to the Governor about how the trial was handled. On April 21, 1896, the Court of Appeals of New York in People v Barberi, 149 N.Y. 256 (also available on Westlaw Next at this link) ruled that the judgment of conviction should be reversed and a new trial granted. In the second trial at the criminal branch of the New York Supreme Court, she was said to be epileptic and mentally ill because of everything that had happened. She was found not guilty.