U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Overturns Texas' "Outlier" Standard for Determining Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously struck down Texas' standard for evaluating intellectual dIsability in death penalty cases, calling the state's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." In Moore v. Texas, the Court on March 28 vacated the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), which had applied an unscientific set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them) to overturn a trial court determination that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby Moore was intellectually disabled. The Court described these seven factors—including such things as whether lay people who knew the defendant thought he was intellectually disabled and whether he could hide facts or lie effectively—as an unscientific "invention" of the CCA that was "untied to any acknowledged source" and that lacked support from "any authority, medical or judicial." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of individuals with intellectual disability was unconstitutional, but it left states with some discretion in determining who was intellectually disabled. However, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the five-justice majority, reiterated, "States’ discretion ... is not unfettered.” "[A] court’s intellectual disability determination," she wrote must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Moore decision is the second time in recent years that the Court has addressed state deviations from clinical definitions of intellectual disability, which focus on "three core elements: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits, (2) adaptive deficits, and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." The Court struck down Florida's use of a strict IQ cutoff in the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, noting that Florida's standard, "disregards established medical practice." The Hall decision addressed the first element, intellectual-functioning, while Moore addressed aspects of both the first and second, adaptive deficits. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the portion of the Court's opinion that held that Texas had inappropriately rejected Moore's evidence of the first prong, deficits in intellectual functioning. But they joined the Court in rejecting Texas' use of the Briseño factors, calling it “an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins.”

Upcoming Supreme Court Cases Could Clarify Standard Requiring Disclosure of Exculpatory Evidence

Prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence favorable to the defense, is the most common cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, but prosecutors frequently fail to disclose this evidence, narrowly interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland calling for its disclosure. On March 29, the Court will hear two consolidated cases—Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States—that raise questions under Brady as to when courts should grant defendants a new trial when prosecutors fail to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. While the Court may narrowly address Brady's application to these two cases, attorney and legal commentator Bidish Sarma argues that Turner-Overton presents an opportunity for the Court to "clarify principles and curtail the confusion that permeates lower courts’ opinions." Prosecutors currently argue that they may consider the materiality of evidence that favors the defense when they decide whether to disclose that evidence. Others say all evidence favorable to the defense must be disclosed, irrespective of materiality. Withholding favorable evidence from the defense appears to work—a study by the VERITAS Initiative of Santa Clara University School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that courts upheld convictions in 86 percent of the cases in which they found that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence. An amicus brief by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cause of Action Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council urges the Court to make it clear that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense, saying, "[r]equiring production of all favorable evidence solves the problem that prosecutors face in administering the current materiality standard." A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that more than half of all murder exonerations involved Brady violations. According to that study, official misconduct was more common in cases involving black defendants (76%) than white defendants (63%). That disparity grew in capital cases, where 87% of death-row exonerations of black defendants involved official misconduct, compared to 67% of death-row exonerations of white defendants. A DPIC analysis of recent death-row exonerations found that police or prosecutorial misconduct was a major factor in 16 of the last 18 exonerations. DPIC's review of the National Registry's 2016 exoneration data also found that every one of the 13 murder exonerations in which prosecutors had sought or threatened to impose the death penalty involved either official misconduct or perjured testimony/false accusation, and eleven (84.6%) of them involved both. 

As Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution, Justice Breyer Urges Consideration of Death Row Conditions

On March 7, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Texas death-row prisoner Rolando Ruiz, declining to consider his claim that the more than 20 years he had been incarcerated on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Ruiz's lawyers had urged the Court to consider this issue, writing, "At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) agreed, saying, "Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution 'violates the Eighth Amendment' because it 'follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,' principally his 'permanent solitary confinement.' I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it." Breyer dissented from the Court's denial of a stay, citing the Court's "serious objections" to extended solitary confinement, which date back as far as 1890, when the Court, "speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is 'one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.'" He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement. Justice Breyer and former Justice John Paul Stevens have repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of prolonged incarceration under death-row conditions, but the Court has never reviewed the issue. Long stays on death row are increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimates about 40% of death row inmates have spent more than 20 years on death row. These delays, Breyer noted in Ruiz's case, are "attributable to the State or the lower courts." Ruiz was the fifth prisoner executed in the U.S. in 2017 and the third in Texas. Prior to his execution, he expressed his remorse to the victim's family, saying, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.”

Supreme Court Grants Relief to Duane Buck in Texas Racial Bias Death Penalty Case

Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," the Supreme Court on February 22, 2017, granted relief to Duane Buck (pictured, right), a Texas death-row prisoner who was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented testimony from a psychologist who told the jury Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black. Writing for the six-Justice majority, Chief Justice Roberts (pictured, left) said that "[d]ispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle." Buck's case turned on the legal question of whether his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance. The Court left no doubt on the issue. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "[n]o competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client." Despite counsel's deficient representation, the lower federal courts had refused to intervene, asserting that the references to race in the case had been brief and would have had only minimal, if any, effect on the jury's sentencing decision. The Chief Justice squarely rejected that conclusion, writing: "when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses." The Court explained that stereotyping black men as somehow more violence-prone than others is a "particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice." Buck's attorney, Christina Swarns, who had argued the case before the Court in October 2016, said “Today, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system.” The decision, she said, reaffirms "the longstanding principle that criminal punishments—particularly the death penalty—cannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.” Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented.

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.

As Supreme Court Rejects Death Penalty Petitions, Justice Breyer Renews Call For Constitutional Review

In the span of one week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review petitions from six death row prisoners, denying them relief in their cases. The petitioners raised issues related to DNA procedures, conflict of counsel, a disputed guilty plea, juror bias, judicial override, and a previously botched execution attempt. In two of the cases, the Court allowed executions to proceed in Georgia and Alabama. The case of Ronald Smith left the Court deadlocked 4-4, with enough votes to grant review in his case, but not enough to halt his execution. On December 12, as the Court denied review in four other death penalty cases, Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) authored a written dissent in the case of Florida death row prisoner Henry Perry Sireci indicating that he would have granted review to Sireci, Smith, and Ohio death row prisoner Rommell Broom to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty in the United States. Breyer wrote: "Individuals who are executed are not the 'worst of the worst' but, rather, are individuals chosen at random on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race. The time has come for this court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty." Breyer previously called for a consideration of capital punishment's constitutionality in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Kagan also noted her dissent from the denial of certiorari in Broom's case. In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Broom, but the execution was halted after two hours of repeated painful attempts to establish IV access failed, including striking Broom's bone with the execution needle. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted that Sireci has been on death row "under threat of execution for 40 years. When he was first sentenced to death, the Berlin Wall stood firmly in place. Saigon had just fallen." Referencing Broom's petition, Breyer wrote that Sireci's was not "the only case during the last few months in which the Court has received, but then rejected, a petition to review an execution taking place in what [he] would consider especially cruel and unusual circumstances."  

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Texas Intellectual Disability Case

During argument November 29 in the case of Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism about Texas' idiosyncratic method of deciding whether a capital defendant has Intellectual Disability and is therefore ineligible for the death penalty. A trial court, applying the criteria for Intellectual Disability established by the medical community, found that Bobby James Moore (pictured) was not subject to the death penalty. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal reversed that ruling in 2015, saying that Moore did not qualify as intellectually disabled under Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test based in part on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." Moore's attorney, Clifford Sloan, argued that "Texas is very extreme and stands alone" in rejecting clinical standards used by the medical community to determine Intellectual Disability and replacing them with “nonclinical” and “anti-scientific” criteria. Five justices seemed sympathetic to Moore's case, raising concerns about the arbitrariness of allowing states to set their own criteria for deciding who is intellectually disabled. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "You're opening the door to inconsistent results ... something that we try to prevent from happening in capital cases." Justice Stephen Breyer said that, without nationwide uniformity, there will be "disparities and uncertainties" and "people who are alike treated differently." Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor questioned whether application of the Briseño factors excluded some individuals whom clinicians would regard as being intellectually disabled. Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller whether the purpose of Texas' system was to "really limit" the definition of intellectual disability. When Keller said that was not the intent, Kennedy asked, "But isn't that the effect?" The Court is expected to rule on the case by June 2017.

Pages