CHICAGO – Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (search) says that he believes the death penalty is constitutional, but that the country would be better off without it.
Stevens, 84, said he would feel much better if more states would "really consider whether they think the benefits outweigh the very serious potential injustice, because in these cases the emotions are very, very high on both sides and ... there is the special potential for error."
Steven's comments appear to be the most pronounced statement a Supreme Court justice has made against the death penalty in years. He has raised objections to the death penalty (search) before, but mostly in written opinions.
"I think this country would be much better off if we did not have capital punishment," Stevens told hundreds of lawyers and judges Monday night at the 7th Circuit Bar Association dinner.
He also called the death penalty "an unfortunate part of our judicial system." Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (search), who also attended the dinner, declined to comment on the matter.
The high court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, then reinstated it in 1976. Stevens, the court's oldest member, joined in 1975.
In recent years, he has gone on record with misgivings about executing juvenile offenders and foreigners who were never told they could meet with consular officials to prepare their defense.
In a series of cases this year, Stevens, Breyer, Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have sought to delay executions of convicted killers who claimed it was unconstitutionally cruel to use chemicals to carry out capital punishment.