U.S. Supreme Court

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.

In New Book, Media Interviews, Justice Breyer Addresses International Opinion, Arbitrariness of Death Penalty

In his new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, and in media interviews accompanying its release, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the relationship between American laws and those of other countries and his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. In an interview with The National Law Journal, Breyer summarized the core reasons underlying his Glossip dissent: "You know, sometimes people make mistakes, [executing] the wrong person. It is arbitrary. There is lots of evidence on that. Justice Potter Stewart said it was like being hit by lightning, whether the person is actually executed. If carried out, a death sentence, on average takes place now 18 years after it is imposed. The number of people who are executed has shrunk dramatically. They are centered in a very small number of counties in the United States. Bottom line is, let's go into the issue. It is time to go into it again." In his book, Breyer argues that the laws and practices of foreign countries are relevant to and might be particularly informative on questions regarding the Eighth Amendment. He notes that international opinion has influenced decisions to end the death penalty for juveniles and for crimes that do not result in death. His Glossip opinion also mentioned international practices - that only 22 countries carried out executions in 2013 and that the U.S. was one of only eight that executed more than 10 people - among the reasons American capital punishment may be an unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment." That phrase, he says in his book, is itself of foreign origin. "It uses the word 'unusual,'" Breyer says, "and the founders didn't say unusual in what context." Foreign law and practices, he argues, should form part of that context.

ANALYSIS: Do Recent Connecticut and U.S. Supreme Court Decisions Portend Downfall of Capital Punishment?

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning legal commentator Linda Greenhouse analyzes the significance of and interplay between the recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision striking down the state's death penalty and Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross. "[T]he Connecticut Supreme Court not only produced an important decision for its own jurisdiction; but it addressed the United States Supreme Court frankly and directly," Greenhouse says. "The decision engages the Supreme Court at a crucial moment of mounting unease, within the court and outside it, with the death penalty’s trajectory over the nearly four decades since the court permitted states to resume executions." As posed by the Connecticut court, the question is whether the broad discretion afforded to prosecutors and juries over whether to seek or impose the death penalty "inevitably allows in through the back door the same sorts of caprice and freakishness that the court sought to exclude" when it held U.S. death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972, "or, worse, whether individualized sentencing necessarily opens the door to racial and ethnic discrimination in capital sentencing." Justice Breyer's dissent similarly observed, “In this world, or at least in this nation, we can have a death penalty that at least arguably serves legitimate penological purposes or we can have a procedural system that at least arguably seeks reliability and fairness in the death penalty’s application. We cannot have both.”  Greenhouse concludes, "[F]rom two courts, the highest in the land and the highest court of one of the smallest states, a fruitful conversation emerged this summer that will inevitably spread, gain momentum and, in the foreseeable if not immediate future, lead the Supreme Court to take the step that I think a majority of today’s justices know is the right one."

Justice Ginsburg Discusses Glossip Dissent

In an interview at Duke Law School, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflected on the past term at the U.S. Supreme Court. She discussed several landmark cases from the past year, including Glossip v. Gross, in which she joined Justice Stephen Breyer in a dissent that questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. Ginsburg said she had waited to take such a stance on the death penalty because past justices, "took themselves out of the running," when the did so, leaving, "no room for them to be persuasive with the other justices." She reiterated many of the key points from the dissent, saying, "I think that [Breyer] pointed to evidence that has grown in quantity and in quality. He started out by pointing out that there were a hundred people who had been totally exonerated of the capital crime with which they were charged ... so one thing is the mistakes that are possible in this system. The other is the quality of representation. Another is ... yes there was racial disparity but even more geographical disparity. Most states in the union where the death penalty is theoretically on the books don’t have executions." She also noted the growing isolation of the death penalty. "[L]ast year, I think 43 of the states of the United States had no executions, only seven did, and the executions that took place tended to be concentrated in certain counties in certain states. So the idea that luck of the draw, if you happened to commit a crime in one county in Louisiana, the chances that you would get the death penalty are very high. On the other hand, if you commit the same deed in Minnesota, the chances that you would get the death penalty are almost nil. So that was another one of the considerations that had become clear as the years went on."

Two Supreme Court Justices Chronicle Death Penalty Flaws in Glossip Dissent

In a dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured), joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, provided a sweeping analysis of why he believes the death penalty in the United States may be unconstitutional and called for a "full briefing" on "whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."  Justice Breyer wrote that "Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court’s view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then." Justice Breyer said "those changes, taken together with my own 20 years of experience on this Court, . . . lead me to believe that the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited 'cruel and unusual punishmen[t].'” Citing DPIC's resources for many of the historical facts underlying his opinion, Justice Breyer catalogued what he described as "three fundamental constitutional defects" in the administration of the death penalty today that may make it cruel and unusual punishment.

Supreme Court Narrowly Upholds Use of Lethal Injection Drug

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court held (5-4) in Glossip v. Gross that Oklahoma inmates "failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment." Three inmates on Oklahoma's death row had challenged the state's use of midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug protocol, saying that it "fails to render a person insensate to pain." In a narrow decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court deferred to a District Court ruling upholding the use of midazolam. Justice Alito said that, in order to prevail, the inmates would have had to identify a "known and available alternative method" that has a lower risk of pain. The decision will allow states that use midazolam, including Oklahoma, to resume executions, though they can still consider alternatives. In a sweeping dissenting opinion raising deep concerns about the death penalty itself, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said, "I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution....Today’s administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use."

As Court Prepares to Hear Juror Exclusion Case, A Look at Tactics That Exclude Blacks from Juries

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Georgia case, Foster v. Humphrey, in which an all-white jury sentenced a black man to death after prosecutors struck every black prospective juror in the case. The Court will determine whether prosecutors violated the Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, which banned the practice of dismissing potential jurors on the basis of race. In anticipation of the case, The New Yorker published an analysis of tactics used to evade Batson challenges by providing race-neutral reasons for striking jurors. In Philadelphia, a training video told new prosecutors, "When you do have a black juror, you question them at length. And on this little sheet that you have, mark something down that you can articulate later. . . . You may want to ask more questions of those people so it gives you more ammunition to make an articulable reason as to why you are striking them, not for race." In the 1990s, prosecutors in North Carolina -- whose use of peremptory strikes have been held to violate that state's Racial Justice Act -- held training sessions featuring a handout titled, "Batson Justifications: Articulating Juror Negatives." Defense attorneys can challenge these reasons, but such challenges are rarely successful. Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is representing Foster, said, "You’re asking the judge to say that the prosecutor intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, and that he lied about it. That’s very difficult psychologically for the average judge.” Justice Thurgood Marshall recommended banning peremptory strikes so as to stop racial bias in jury selection. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center director Richard Bourke suggests a more politically realistic reform: track the racial makeup of juries in order to raise public awareness of bias.

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Intellectually Disabled Louisiana Defendant

CORRECTION:  On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brumfield v. Cain, a Louisiana death penalty case dealing with intellectual disability. The Court held that the federal district court was entitled to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kevan Brumfield has intellectual disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. It reversed a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that would have deferred to a Lousiana state court decision permitting Brumfield to be executed without a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability. After an extensive evidentiary hearing, the district court held that Brumfield was intellectually disabled.  By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana had unreasonably determined the facts when it decided that Brumfield had not presented sufficient evidence of intellectual and adaptive impairments to warrant an evidentiary hearing in state court. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor said, "After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was 'based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.' Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court." The case returns to the Fifth Circuit for consideration of whether the district court's findings are supported by the record.

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