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Useful rulings

The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in a Texas capital punishment case serves a valuable purpose beyond the immediate legal issues. It draws attention to the dubiousness of psychiatric labeling of inviduals as irredeemably dangerous or not. In Texas, such psychiatric testimony has been used in dozens of cases to obtain the death sentence for convicted murderers. It was telling to have the American Psychiatric Association itself warn the court that the use of psychiatric testimony as to long-term future dangerousness "can only distort the fact-finding process" in capital punishment cases.

To this might be added the religious insight that no human being is beyond the possibility of repentance and reformation. To impose the death penalty on the basis of denying this possiblity is to assume a responsibility beyond human judgement. Insofar as the Texas case is a general reminder of this -- as well as a specific reason to reconsider the sentences of many awaiting execution -- it should be of lasting benefit.

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This is true even though the Supreme Court's ruling appeared to permit the use of predictive psychiatric testimony in determining capital sentences if the rights of the individual against self-incrimination are carefully protected. It ruled that they were not in the Texas case. "Just as the Fifth Amendment prevents a criminal defendant from be ing made the deluded instrument of his own conviction," wrote Chief Justice Burger, "it protects him as well from being made the deluded instrument of his own execution."

This fortification of so-called Miranda rights was itself encouraging. Another unanimous decision on Monday went in the same direction, overturning the murder conviction of an Arizona man and clarifying the extent of the right against self-incrimination. Taken together, the two rulings are a welcome counter to impressions that the court, responding to today's reawakened mood of resisting crime, might slip back toward less r egard for the hard-won rights of individuals before the law.

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