United States Supreme Court Decisions: 2006 - 2007

 

LAST UPDATED ON April 30, 2007

 

 


OPINIONS OF THE COURT


  • PANETTI V. QUARTERMAN, No 06-6407

 

Argued: April 18, 2007
Decided: June 28, 2007

In 1986, the Supreme Court held in Ford v. Wainwright that it is unconstitutional to execute an inmate who is presently insane. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Scott Panetti, who was allowed to defend himself in his Texas trial despite his schizophrenia and 14 stints in mental hospitals, and who said the devil compelled his actions, was aware that he committed a crime and that he was to be punished and that was sufficient for competency. The question for the Supreme Court was whether mere awareness of one's acts can be equated with mental competetence, or whether the person also needs to rationally understand what is taking place.

The Court ruled (5-4) on June 28, 2007, that Panetti deserves a rehearing on his claim of mental incompetence. The Court said the Fifth Circuit had used an overly restrictive definition of what constitutes insanity. The Court also said that the Texas state court failed to provide Panetti with the kind of review guaranteed under the Constitution for claims of mental incompetence.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, "Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose. It is therefore error to derive. . . a strict test for competency that treats delusional beliefs as irrelevant once the prisoner is aware the State has identified the link between his crime and the punishment to be inflicted."

The dissent asserted that Panetti's appeal was barred under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act because it constituted a second habeas corpus petition. They also said that greater deference should have been given to the state court's determination of competency.
 
  • UTTECHT V. BROWN, No 06-413
Argued: April 17, 2007
Decided: June 4, 2007

This case involved the removal of a potential juror from a death penalty trial because of the juror's views about capital punishment. During jury selection in a Washington state murder case, the trial judge dismissed the juror because he expressed doubts about imposing a death sentence. The defendant was granted habeas corpus relief by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (Judge Alex Kozinski writing), which ruled that excluding a juror is allowed only if it is clear that the juror would not follow the law.

In a 5-4 decision overturning the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court held that the ruling of the trial judge should be given deference and upheld. Such deference is required both because the trial judge is in a better position to determine the juror's demeanor than an appellate court and because of the requirements of the Anti-Terrorsim and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The juror stated on six occasions during voir dire that he could follow the law on applying the death penalty. However, some of his other statements regarding life-without-parole sentences were equivocal. Justice Stevens, writing for the dissent, expressed dismay that such a juror was excluded because of his doubts about the death penalty:
Millions of Americans oppose the death penalty. A cross section of virtually every community in the country includes citizens who firmly believe the death penalty is unjust but who nevertheless are qualified to serve as jurors in capital cases. An individual's opinion that a life
sentence without the possibility of parole is the severest sentence that should be imposed in all but the most heinous cases does not even arguably "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath."
Justice Stevens concluded that the majority had interpreted the law "horribly backward" and "appears to be under the impression that trial courts should be encouraging the inclusion of jurors who will impose the death penalty rather than only ensuring the exclusion of those who say that, in all circumstances, they cannot."

 

  • ROPER V. WEAVER, No.06-313

Argued: March 21, 2007
Dismissed: May 21, 2007
Case dismissed as improvidently granted.

The question presented was:
Since this court has neither held a prosecutor's penalty phase closing argument to violate due process, nor articulated, in response to a penalty phase claim, what the standard of error and prejudice would be, does a court of appeals exceed its authority under 28 U.S.C. 2254 (d)(1) by overturning a capital sentence on the ground that the prosecutor's penalty phase closing argument was "unfairly inflammatory?"

The Court's per curiam opinion noted that the prosecutor had made similar inflammatory arguments in two other cases. In all three cases, the defendant filed a habeas corpus petition prior to the effective date of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). In the other two cases, the defendant was granted relief. In Weaver's case, however, the U.S. District Court had stayed the filing of the habeas petition until the defendant pursued a certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on the state's denial of his request for post-conviction relief. Once cert. was denied, the defendant refiled his habeas petition, which was then filed after the effective date of the AEDPA.

The Court held that its decision in Lawrence v. Florida (see below) made clear that a petition for cert. in post-conviction proceedings is not a continuation of that process. Hence, Weaver's petition for habeas should have been accepted by the U.S. District Court, and it would not have come under the AEDPA. Since the other two similar cases had been granted relief, the Court held that it would be unfair to deny Weaver relief (which the 8th Circuit had granted). They thus dismissed their earlier cert. grant.

Justice Scalia, with Justices Thomas and Alito concurring, dissented, saying that the Court should have decided the case.

 

  • SCHRIRO V. LANDRIGAN, No. 05-1575
Argued: Jan. 9, 2007
Decided: May 14, 2007

At his trial, Jeffrey Landrigan objected to his defense attorney's attempts to present mitigating evidence. He later appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court and then petitioned for habeas corpus relief from the federal courts, challenging the effectiveness of his trial representation. His petition was denied by the District Court, and that decision was upheld by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. However, after a rehearing en banc by the 9th Circuit, the decision was reversed. The court said that Landrigan had presented a colorable claim of ineffectiveness and was entitled to an evidentiary hearing. Landrigan v. Stewart, 397 F.3d 1235 (9th Cir. 2005). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that the District Court was correct in denying Landrigan an evidentiary hearing and that the 9th Circuit did not give sufficient deference to the state court's findings under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Moreover, the Court held that even if further mitigating evidence had been discovered, it was not unreasonable to assume that the defendant would have prevented his attorney from presenting this evidence at the sentencing hearing. Justice Thomas wrote for the Court.

Justice Stevens, with Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter concurring, filed a dissent stating that without an evidentiary hearing, the conclusions that the defendant would have waived putting on mitigating evidence or that insufficient evidence would have been found to make a difference in the sentence, were "pure guesswork."

  • SMITH V. TEXAS, No. 05-11304
Argued: Jan. 17, 2007
Decided: April 25, 2007

The Court overturned the death sentences of three Texas inmates in separate 5-4 rulings. In all three cases (see Abdul-Kabir, below), the juries had been prevented by the Texas statute (since changed) from fully considering the mitigating evidence presented by the defendants. In Smith v. Texas (No. 05-11304), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had reconsidered Smith's death sentence after the case had been previously reviewed and sent back by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had held (7-2) in 2004 that Texas' jury instructions did not allow the jury sufficient latitude to consider Smith's low IQ and other mitigating evidence. The Texas court held that any error on the mitigation issue was harmless and therefore did not require a reversal. Four former federal appeals court judges submittied an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case a second time. (Associated Press, Oct. 6, 2006). This time the Supreme Court rejected the harmless error analysis and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing. (Lyle Denniston, scotusblog.com, April 25, 2007; Associated Press, April 25, 2007).


  • ABDUL-KABIR V. QUARTERMAN, No. 05-11284, and BREWER v. QUARTERMAN, No. 05-11287
Argued: Jan. 17, 2007
Decided: April 25, 2007

In Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (No. 05-11284) and Brewer v. Quarterman (No. 05-11287), the trial juries had been prevented from fully considering the defendants' mitigating evidence. The trial judges had instructed the jury that they could simply answer "no" to the question about the defendant's future dangerousness if they did not want to sentence the person to death, even though they thought the proper answer based on the mitigating facts should be "yes." The death sentences were affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and by lower federal courts on habeas corpus review. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, holding that it had not properly applied the holdings of prior cases in which the High Court made it clear that "sentencing juries must be able to give meaningful consideration and effect to all mitigating evidence that might provide a basis for refusing to impose the death penalty on a particular individual, notwithstanding the severity of his crime or his potential to commit similar offenses in the future." (Abdul-Kabir). The Court issued separate opinions, with Justice Stevens writing for the majority.

The Justices for the majority and in dissent in all three cases (see Smith above) were the same. There are 47 remaining Texas death row inmates who were sentenced under the same flawed statute, which was amended in 1991. (Lyle Denniston, scotusblog.com, April 25, 2007; Associated Press, April 25, 2007).

 

  • LAWRENCE V. FLORIDA, No. 05-8820
Argued: Oct. 31, 2006
Decided: Feb. 20, 2007

The Court granted certiorari to decide whether Lawrence's petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus was filed in a timely manner under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). AEDPA requires that such a petition be filed within one year from the time that a defendant's conviction becomes final, which is generally at the end of the direct appeal process. However, the expiration of time is held in abeyance while an inmate has a state post-conviction appeal pending. Lawrence maintained that his appeal was still pending while the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether to review the state court's decision in the post-conviction matter. Florida maintained that the tolling of AEDPA's 1-year time limit ends once the state court has ruled on the post-conviction appeal. The Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that, under ordinary circumstances, the time to file under AEDPA is not tolled while the Court is considering whether to grant certiorari regarding a state post-conviction petition. Read the Court's decision here.

 

  • AYERS V. BELMONTES, No. 05-493
Argued: Oct. 3, 2006
Decided: Nov. 13, 2006

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled that California's mitigating factors concerning the defendant's background and character inadequately allowed for consideration of the likelihood that the defendant would behave well in prison. California challenged that ruling. (NY Times, May 2, 2006). DECISION BELOW: 414 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 2005).

QUESTIONS PRESENTED:
1. Does Boyde confirm the constitutional sufficiency of California's
"unadorned factor (k)" instruction where a defendant presents
mitigating evidence of his background and character which relates to,
or has a bearing on, his future prospects as a life prisoner?
2. Does the Ninth Circuit's holding, that California's "unadorned factor
(k)" instruction is constitutionally inadequate to inform jurors they
may consider "forward-looking" mitigation evidence constitute a "new
rule" under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989)?

The Court upheld California's death penalty law in a 5-4 decision on Nov. 13. The majority held that the state's law allowed the jury to consider all appropriate mitigating evidence. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the Ninth Circuit was mistaken in overturning Belmontes' sentence. He said that various comments by the trial judge "made it clear that the jury was to take a broad view of mitigating evidence." (See N.Y. Times, Nov. 14, 2006).

The dissent, consisting of Justices Stephens, Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter, however, disagreed, contending that the jury would have to disregard the judge's instructions in order to consider mitigating evidence about the defendant's future prospects for reform. The dissent argued for a more appropriate balancing of the state's need for its law to be carried out with the defendant's right to have all the evidence that might save his life considered by the jury. The dissent stated that the state's need for an execution was greatly diminished by the fact that this case was now 25 years old, and, hence, the people would gain little by having an execution carried out now, whereas the defendant had everything to lose by an unfair decision:

The Court today heaps speculation on speculation to
reach the strange conclusion, out of step with our case law,
that a properly instructed jury disregarded its instructions
and considered evidence that fell outside the narrow confines
of factor (k). Holding to the contrary, the Court
insists, would reduce two days of sentencing testimony to
“a virtual charade,”—but in so concluding the Court necessarily finds
that the judge’s instructions were themselves such a “charade
” that the jury paid them no heed. I simply cannot
believe that the jurors took it upon themselves to consider
testimony they were all but told they were forbidden from
considering; in my view, they must at the very least have
been confused as to whether the evidence could appropriately
be considered. That confusion has created a risk of
error sufficient to warrant relief for a man who has spent
more than half his life on death row. Cf. Lackey v. Texas,
514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (STEVENS, J., respecting denial of
certiorari). The incremental value to California of carrying
out a death sentence at this late date is far outweighed
by the interest in maintaining confidence in the fairness of
any proceeding that results in a State’s decision to take
the life of one of its citizens. See Gardner v. Florida, 430
U. S. 349, 358 (1977) (plurality opinion).
(Stephens, J., dissenting) (emphasis added). See Time on Death Row.

 


ORDERS OF THE COURT


 

  • Barbour v. Allen, No. 06-10605, the Court denied certiorari on June 18, 2007. The petition was filed by the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama (with significant amicus support), challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s failure to provide appointed counsel to death-sentenced defendants for state post-conviction proceedings.  
  • Chambers v. Quarterman, No. 06-7263. On January 22, 2007, the Court granted a stay of execution to Ronald Chambers of Texas, who was to be executed on January 25. The Court did not provide a reason for its stay while it is reviewing whether to take his case, but his attornyes had raised the issue presented in Smith v. Texas (above) concerning the jury's ability to weigh mitigating evidence of mental problems, which is pending before the Court. (Associated Press, Jan. 22, 2007). See DPIC note on Chambers, the longest-serving inmate on Texas' death row.
Update: On April 30, 2007, the Court remanded Chambers' case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in light of the Court's recent decision in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (see above) granting Abdul-Kabir a new sentencing hearing.