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November 04, 2007

What he didn't say

You may have read that in an interview with Jeffrey Rosen, published in the New York Times magazine in September, Justice Stevens explained the origins of his skepticism about the death penalty:

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago in 1941, Stevens enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 6, 1941, hours before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He later won a bronze star for his service as a cryptographer, after he helped break the code that informed American officials that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Navy and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was about to travel to the front. Based on the code-breaking of Stevens and others, U.S. pilots, on Roosevelt’s orders, shot down Yamamoto’s plane in April 1943.

Stevens told me he was troubled by the fact that Yamamoto, a highly intelligent officer who had lived in the United States and become friends with American officers, was shot down with so little apparent deliberation or humanitarian consideration. The experience, he said, raised questions in his mind about the fairness of the death penalty. “I was on the desk, on watch, when I got word that they had shot down Yamamoto in the Solomon Islands, and I remember thinking: This is a particular individual they went out to intercept,” he said. “There is a very different notion when you’re thinking about killing an individual, as opposed to killing a soldier in the line of fire.” Stevens said that, partly as a result of his World War II experience, he has tried on the court to narrow the category of offenders who are eligible for the death penalty and to ensure that it is imposed fairly and accurately. He has been the most outspoken critic of the death penalty on the current court.
I didn't read the original article, but I read about this revelation here.

In today's New York Times Magazine, Justice Stevens has a letter about this article. (I'll have to add the link later if it becomes available, because it's not right now.)

What's interesting about the letter is that Justice Stevens feels the need to correct two matters: first, "the impression that I claim credit for helping break the Japanese naval code that enabled our forces to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto," and second, the statement that he turned down an offer to teach at Yale Law School.

He says nothing about the origins of his skepticism about the death penalty. Which is another way of confirming that the story is accurate.