U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Kentucky Court in Intellectual Disability Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a Kentucky state court ruling that would have permitted the Commonwealth to execute death-row prisoner Larry Lamont White (pictured) without an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he is intellectually disabled. In a one-paragraph order issued on January 15, 2019, the Court granted White’s petition for review, vacated the Kentucky Supreme Court’s denial of his death-penalty appeal, and directed the state court to reconsider White’s eligibility for capital punishment in light of the standard for determining intellectual disability set forth in the justices’ 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented.

White’s trial lawyers argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, providing evidence from IQ testing conducted in 1971 when he was 12 years old. The trial court summarily denied relief and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, based on a Kentucky statute that required a capitally-charged defendant to score 70 or below on an IQ test to be considered intellectually disabled. The court said White could not be considered intellectually disabled because his IQ score was 76. The court also relied upon White’s filing of motions without the assistance of counsel to conclude “that there is ample evidence of [White]'s mental acumen.” However, ten months after White’s appeal, the state court ruled that Kentucky’s statutory IQ cutoff violated Moore and the Eighth Amendment, holding that “any rule of law that states that a criminal defendant automatically cannot be ruled intellectually disabled and precluded from execution simply because he or she has an IQ of 71 or above, even after adjustment for statistical error, is unconstitutional.”

Justice Alito dissented, citing a previous dissent by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that the Supreme Court’s summary reversals for reconsideration should be reserved for cases in which an intervening factor is present. Here, Alito argued, the Court should not have intervened because the Moore decision “was handed down almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in [White’s] case.” White’s lawyer, Kathleen Schmidt, praised the majority’s ruling, saying “[n]early 20 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, in part out of concern that intellectually disabled defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. We have similar concerns in this case, and we are grateful that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to ensure that all issues in the case are fully and properly litigated.”

Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

Prominent, Diverse Voices Call for Supreme Court to Once Again Stop Bobby James Moore’s Execution

Twenty months after the Unites States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Texas’s non-scientific standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases, the landmark case in which it made that decision is back before the Court. On December 7, 2018, the Court will conference Moore v. Texas, to decide if it will review whether the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) once again unconstitutionally relied on lay stereotypes and non-clinical criteria in rejecting Bobby James Moore’s claim that he is not subject to the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled. A diverse group of prominent voices, including the district attorney’s office that originally prosecuted Moore, argue that Moore clearly satisfies the clinical definitions of intellectual disability and may not be executed.

Sentenced to death more than 38 years ago, Moore has a long history of intellectual and adaptive impairments that have been documented since his childhood, including IQ scores ranging from the low 50s to the low 70s. The American Psychological Association and American Bar Association filed briefs on November 7 supporting Moore’s claim and the urging the Supreme Court to again reverse the Texas court. They were joined by a group of prominent conservatives—including former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, Congressman Bob Barr, conservative strategist Richard Viguerie, and David A. Keene, the longtime chair of the National Conservative Union, among others—whose brief, also filed November 7, described the Texas court’s decision as a threat to the integrity of the judicial process. They wrote: “Quoting a Supreme Court decision highlighting the errors made by the CCA in its previous review of this case, but proceeding to make those same errors on remand, is inimical to the rule of law.”

Moore initially presented his claim that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Atkins v. Virginia to a Harris County, Texas trial court. Following contemporary medical diagnostic criteria, the court agreed that Moore was intellectual disabled and ruled that his death sentence should be vacated. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, applying an idiosyncratic standard based on unscientific stereotypes, including the behavior of a fictional character from the novel Of Mice and Men. After the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new decision “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework,” the Harris County District Attorney’s office conceded that Moore qualified as intellectually disabled. Nonetheless, in a ruling three dissenters criticized as an “outlier,” a sharply divided (5-3) Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in June 2018 again upheld Moore’s death sentence.

In a November 28 op-ed in The Washington Post, Starr, who served as United States Solicitor General under President George H.W. Bush from 1989-1993, urged the Supreme Court to “save[] Bobby Moore from execution … again.” Starr wrote, “The job of a judge is to follow the law … [and] carefully apply the precedent of the Supreme Court. … If the system were working as it should, Moore’s case would have been a routine matter of the Texas court applying the Supreme Court’s decision and current medical standards as directed and prohibiting Moore’s execution.” Quoting then-U.S. appeals court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, Starr said: “As a lower court in a system of absolute vertical stare decisis headed by one Supreme Court, it is essential that we follow both the words and the music of Supreme Court decisions.”

Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver also asked the Supreme Court to block Moore’s execution. In a November 19 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Shriver criticized the Texas court’s reasoning as “absurd, wrong and harmful.” “But most important,” Shriver wrote, the standard the court applied was “not how the medical community diagnoses intellectual disability…. Pervasive stereotypes about intellectual disability are inaccurate and harmful. In this Texas court case, they are a matter of life or death. Let’s finally recognize the complexity of people with intellectual disability,” Shriver said. “The world will be much richer for it.”

Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty

As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.

On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.

In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Missouri Lethal-Injection Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 6, 2018 in Bucklew v. Precythe on whether the use of lethal injection to execute a Missouri prisoner with a rare medical condition would cause him unnecessary and excruciating pain and suffering and whether he was constitutionally required to provide the state with a different way for it to kill him. Media reports suggested that the Court was sharply divided on the issue with newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh likely to provide the deciding vote. 

Russell Bucklew (pictured) suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare disorder that has caused blood-filled tumors to form, primarily in his head, neck, and mouth. Doctors have said that an execution by lethal injection could cause those tumors to rupture, causing him excruciating pain as he dies from suffocation and drowning in his own blood. Justice Kavanaugh, in his first question in his first death-penalty case since joining the Court, asked Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer, "Are you saying even if the method creates gruesome and brutal pain you can still do it because there’s no alternative?" When Kavanaugh pressed Sauer for a direct answer, Missouri's solicitor said yes, so long as the state did not "attempt to deliberately inflict pain for the sake of pain." 

Bucklew challenged the requirement, announced in the Court's 2015 lethal-injection decision in Glossip v. Gross, that prisoners who are challenging the cruelty of a state's execution method must offer an alternative method of execution that is reasonably available to the state. Nonetheless, to comply with the requirement, Bucklew proposed asphyxiation by nitrogen gas. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed skeptical of that proposal, asking "how can it be a reasonable alternative if it's never been used before? ... Things can go wrong regardless of the method of execution. It seems to me that if you have a method that no state has ever used, that that danger is magnified." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has raised serious concerns about lethal injection in past cases, questioned the legitimacy of the Court's requirement that prisoners who challenge execution methods must present an alternative method. “I don’t actually know where in the Eighth Amendment and its history the court made up this alternative remedy idea,” she said, “because the Constitution certainly doesn’t prohibit cruel and unusual punishment unless we can’t kill you at all.”

Missouri has set execution dates for Bucklew twice, but both dates were stayed as a result of legal challenges to the execution method. Public health experts and the Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM)—a professional association representing generic and biosimilar drug manufacturers and distributors—filed amicus briefs in Bucklew's case, calling the planned use of "essential medicines" in executions "medically irresponsible," and warning of public health risks caused by states' efforts to obtain lethal-injection drugs.

Supreme Court to Review Mississippi Death-Penalty Case in Which Prosecutor Systematically Excluded Black Jurors

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review whether a prosecutor with a long history of racially discriminatory jury-selection practices unconstitutionally struck black jurors in the trial of Mississippi death-row prisoner Curtis Giovanni Flowers (pictured). On November 2, 2018, the Court granted certiorari in the Flowers’s case on the question of “[w]hether the Mississippi Supreme Court erred in how it applied Batson v. Kentucky,” the landmark 1986 Supreme Court decision barring the use of discretionary strikes to remove jurors on the basis of race. 

Flowers has been tried six times for a notorious 1996 quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi. He was prosecuted each time by Doug Evans, the District Attorney in Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District since 1992. Flowers was convicted by all-white or nearly all-white juries based on questionable circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant (who has since recanted) that Flowers had confessed to the murders. Court pleadings and the American Public Media (APM) podcast series, In the Dark, have cast doubt upon much of the evidence in the case, and a prominent pathologist who examined the autopsy reports and crime scene photograph has disputed the prosecution’s theory that the murder was committed by a single perpetrator.

In the Dark conducted a study of jury selection in the Fifth Circuit Court District during the 26-year period from 1992 to 2017 in which Evans was District Attorney, analyzing prosecutorial strikes or acceptances of more than 6,700 jurors in 225 trials. APM found that throughout Evans's tenure, prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at nearly 4½ times the rate of white prospective jurors. In Flowers’s case, Evans struck nearly all of the African-American jurors in each trial. In his first three trials, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Flowers’s convictions because of prosecutorial misconduct, with courts finding that Evans had violated Batson in two of those trials. The fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. In the sixth trial, in June 2010, Evans accepted the first qualified African-American potential juror and then struck the five remaining African Americans in the jury pool. Flowers challenged the prosecution’s jury strikes on appeal, but the Mississippi Supreme Court, over the dissents of three justices, rejected his claim. In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the state court’s ruling and returned the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider the issue in light of the Court’s decision one month earlier in Foster v. Chatman, finding that prosecutors in a Georgia capital case had unconstitutionally stricken jurors because they were black. However, over the dissents of three justices, the Mississippi Supreme Court again affirmed, writing that the prior adjudications that Evans had already twice violated Batson “do not undermine Evans’ race neutral reasons” for striking black jurors in the sixth trial and that “the historical evidence of past discrimination ... does not alter our analysis.” The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet set a date for oral argument in the case.

Justices Appear to Favor Prisoner with Dementia in Case Seeking to Block Alabama Execution

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018 on whether an Alabama death-row prisoner who has vascular dementia, brain damage, cognitive deficits, and memory loss from two near-fatal strokes is competent to be executed. During oral argument, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the justices that, as a result of severe and progressively worsening dementia, Vernon Madison lacks a rational understanding of why Alabama intends to put him to death and is therefore incompetent to be executed. A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to Madison's position, including Chief Justice John Roberts who is now regarded as the swing vote in death-penalty cases. The issues before the Court narrowed significantly as a result of concessions made by both sides at the argument. Madison's pleadings had argued that the Court's decisions in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright and 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman on competency to be executed applied beyond the limited circumstances of insanity and delusional mental illness at issue in those cases. "For purposes of retribution, there is no moral or constitutional distinction between a person who cannot 'recogni[ze] … the severity of the offence as a result of delusions and a person who is unable to do so as a result of dementia, cognitive decline, and memory deficits," his lawyers wrote. Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan conceded that incompetency caused by severe dementia could also qualify. Stevenson, on the other hand, conceded in response to questioning by Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan that merely having no memory of committing the offense does not make a prisoner incompetent to be executed. Rather, Stevenson said, the memory loss must be the product of a medical or physical condition that also affects the prisoner's understanding of why he or she is to be executed. Stevenson said Madison's severe vascular dementia has left him with no memory of having killed a police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance in 1985. An MRI has shown that Madison has suffered substantial brain damage, and psychological testing has documented significant cognitive decline accompanied by IQ-loss that now places him in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. Madison's dementia has also left him disoriented as to date and time and without the ability to rationally comprehend his legal situation. He is legally blind, Stevenson said, has slurred speech, cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G or retain basic information, cannot walk without assistance, and continually soils himself because he does not know how to use the toilet in his five-by-eight cell. Madison's physical disabilities, Stevenson said, provide evidence illustrating the extent to which Madison's vascular dementia has affected all aspects of his life. Stevenson argued that Alabama's courts improperly rejected Madison's evidence of incompetency, focusing only on whether his impairments were caused by insanity, psychosis, or delusions. Govan asserted in response that by reciting the correct legal standard from Ford and Panetti and making reference to the testimony concerning Madison's impairments, Alabama had in fact considered that evidence. He further disputed whether Madison is incompetent at all, stating that Alabama would find him competent to stand trial in his current condition. Stevenson closed the argument by telling the Court that the "awesome power" to execute a person who no longer poses an immediate threat must "be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely." The Court, Stevenson said, reviews facts and circumstances "through the window of the Constitution ..... But the Eighth Amendment isn't just a window. It's a mirror." Our norms and values "are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people," Stevenson said. "And what we've argued is that dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency."

Louisiana Death-Penalty Case Tainted by Judge’s Conflict of Interest Returns to U.S. Supreme Court

A Louisiana death-row prisoner is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of his conviction and death sentence a second time based upon allegations that the trial judge had an undisclosed conflict of interest. In his petition to review his conviction for a triple-murder involving the death of a New Orleans police officer, Rogers Lacaze (pictured) argues that his right to due process was violated when his trial judge, Frank Marullo, failed to disclose that the judge had signed a court order releasing the probable murder weapon to Lacaze's co-defendant and that Marullo was a witness in a New Orleans Police Department investigation into the circumstances in which the weapon had been released. Judge Marullo then won re-election by a margin of 51%-49%, after running a campaign saying he was “tough on crime” and had sentenced “Lacaze to die by lethal injection.” Lacaze was convicted of a triple murder involving a 9mm gun his co-defendant—police officer Antoinette Frank—had obtained from the New Orleans Police Department property and evidence room shortly before the killing. The order releasing the gun to Officer Frank bore Judge Marullo's signature, and Marullo presided over Lacaze and Frank's trials. Before being assigned to the trials, Marullo was interviewed by police investigating the crime. The judge claimed his signature had been forged, but the officer in charge of the evidence room said he had personally given the form to Marullo's clerk, who took it into chambers and returned with the signed order. Marullo subsequently refused a police request for a second interview on the grounds that he was presiding over the trials. Marullo did not inform Lacaze of his connection to the murder weapon, even after Lacaze testified that he was not involved in the murders, but that Frank had told him she was going to get a gun from the evidence room. When Lacaze's attorneys later learned of Marullo's connection to the weapon, they filed an appeal challenging his failure to recuse himself. The Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. In 2017, Lacaze petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time, and the Court vacated the Louisiana Supreme Court's decision and remanded the case for further review based upon its March 2017 decision in Rippo v. Baker, which found “an unconstitutional potential for bias” requiring recusal when a trial judge was being criminally investigated by the same prosecutor's office that was prosecuting the defendant. On remand, the Louisiana court once again rejected the appeal, saying that Lacaze had not shown a “probability of actual bias” by Judge Marullo against any specific party in the case. Lacaze's petition is supported by friend-of-the-court briefs by ten former state and federal trial and appellate court judges, experts in judicial ethics and judicial elections, and more than thirty associations of criminal defense lawyers. The amicus brief of the former judges warns that the Louisiana court's decision “provides license not simply to preside over a capital murder case despite personal connections to the underlying facts—but to withhold disclosure of those connections entirely.” Allowing this type of “startling” judicial conflict of interest, they write, “threatens the legitimacy of not just Mr. Lacaze’s conviction and sentence, but of the administration of justice.” Writing for the American Constitution Society blog, Lawrence J. Fox, counsel of record on the brief filed by the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School, said “well-established constitutional due process requirements make clear that Judge Marullo should have recused himself” from the case. “Fair and impartial judges are the foundation stone of fair courts, fair trials, and just results,” Fox wrote. “There’s too much at stake in Mr. Lacaze’s case for the U.S. Supreme Court not to intervene.” Briefing in the case was completed on August 27. The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule later this month on whether to hear the case.

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