Boyce Martin’s Final Death Penalty Opinion

Judge Boyce Martin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is retiring. Martin, a former chief judge, has long been the Circuit’s liberal lion. He was a central player in some of the Circuit’s internecine squabbles and, over time, became a forceful critic of capital punishment. Today in Nichols v. Heidle, a lengthy opinion denying a death row inmate’s habeas claim, Martin wrote a concurrence that will be his last opinion in a capital case.

In this, my last death penalty case as a judge on the Sixth Circuit, I must concur in affirming the judgment of the district court. Despite my concurrence, I continue to condemn the use of the death penalty as an arbitrary, biased, and broken criminal justice tool. The facts of this case make it one of the more tragic and disturbing cases that I have heard in years. While Nichols’ actions are despicable, I cannot ignore the fact that his actions were committed in the late 1980s and that he was convicted in 1990. Nichols’ execution was supposed to take place in 1994. I have been on this bench since 1979, and for twenty-three of my thirty-four years as a judge on this Court this case has been moving through our justice system, consuming countless judicial hours, money, legal resources, and providing no closure for the families of the victims. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has called for a dispassionate and impartial comparison of the enormous cost that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits it produces. The time, money, and energy spent trying to secure the death of this defendant would have been better spent improving this country’s mental-health and educational institutions, which may help prevent crimes such as the ones we are presented with today.