U.S. Supreme Court

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.

Public Health Experts, Generic-Pharmaceuticals Association Warn Lethal-Injection Policies Put Public Health at Risk

State lethal-injection practices may have collateral consequences that place public health at risk, according to briefs filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on July 23, 2018 by public health experts and an association representing generic drug manufacturers. In amicus (or friend-of-the-court) briefs filed in connection with a challenge brought by death-row prisoner Russell Bucklew (pictured) to Missouri's use of lethal injection, the Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM)—a professional association representing generic and biosimilar drug manufacturers and distributors—and eighteen pharmacy, medicine, and health policy experts warn that questionable state practices in obtaining and hoarding drugs for use in executions undermine law enforcement efforts to combat black markets in controlled substances and jeopardize the availability of some medicines for their intended therapeutic use. The AAM, which takes no position on the death penalty or the specific issues in Bucklew's case, told the court that its membership "strongly oppose the use of their medicines ... to carry out executions." The Association wrote: "Like doctors and other medical professionals, many drug manufacturers (including the members of AAM) recognize that they have an ethical obligation to ensure that their products are used only to heal, not to harm. Yet despite many manufacturers’ best efforts, drugs that are essential to the healthcare system—including some that are in short supply—have been diverted to state prison systems for use in capital punishment. AAM and its members cannot support such misuse of their products." The AAM brief stressed that their products are developed and tested for particular approved medical uses, but in executions, "powerful injectable drugs such as sedatives and barbiturates are being used at untested levels for an untested purpose, often without adequate physician supervision." The AAM called "the off-label use of these prescription drugs" in executions "medically irresponsible." Further, they wrote, some of the drugs used in executions that "are considered 'essential medicines' by the World Health Organization ... are in short supply," but have been diverted from medical use by death-penalty states. Citing a 2017 study by The Guardian, the AAM said "four states had stockpiled enough of these drugs to treat 11,257 patients—if the drugs were used as intended for medical treatment rather than in executions." Eighteen public health experts filed a brief in support of Bucklew's lethal injection challenge. The portion of that brief addressing public health issues warned that "States have created serious public health risks in their efforts to conduct lethal injections" and that continued improper practices "could lead to a public health crisis." The health experts argue that states have violated federal law by importing unapproved drugs for use in executions, obtained compounded drugs of questionable quality from unlicensed and secret pharmacies, breached supply chain controls and misled healthcare providers to obtain drugs for executions, and employed secrecy laws to "hide potentially illegal and unsafe conduct from scrutiny." These practices, they say, circumvent and undermine the country's "carefully and extensively regulated [medical] supply chain .... The result is twofold: it undermines federal laws that protect the public health, and it circumvents pharmaceutical companies’ ability to ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs in the supply chain." 

Florida Juries Reject Death Sentences for Four Men, Highlighting Impact of Unanimity Requirement

Juries in two Broward County, Florida death-penalty trials have handed down life sentences for four capital defendants in the span of one week, highlighting the effect of a new Florida law requiring the unanimous agreement of the jury before a defendant can be sentenced to death. On July 16, a Broward County jury spared three defendants—Eloyn Ingraham, Bernard Forbes, and Andre Delancy—whom it had convicted in March of murdering a Broward sheriff's deputy. Three days later, another Broward jury rejected the death penalty for Eric Montgomery, after having convicted him in April of the murders of his wife and stepdaughter. The verdicts marked the third time in four capital trials since Florida adopted the jury unanimity requirement that Broward juries have opted for life sentences. The sole exception was the case of Peter Avsenew, who represented himself in the penalty-phase after firing his lawyers, presented no penalty-phase defense, and told the jury he had "no regrets" for his actions and was "proud of the decisions [he'd] made." South Florida juries in Palm Beach County also have recommended life sentences in the three first-degree murder trials conducted there since September 2017. In March 2017, the Florida legislature changed its death penalty law in response to two Florida Supreme Court decisions in October 2016 that declared the state’s practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendations for death to be unconstitutional. Those decisions were based on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which ruled that Florida's previous death-penalty statute violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by giving judges, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to find the facts that could lead to a death sentence. Florida's criminal law required unanimity for every other decision made by a jury, and the 2017 amendment brought Florida's law into line with the laws of virtually every other death-penalty state. Only Alabama still permits a trial judge to impose the death penalty based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. 

Death-Penalty Experts Describe Justice Kennedy's Mixed Legacy on Capital Punishment

Justice Anthony Kennedy's votes swung both to the right and to the left on death-penalty issues, professors Carol Steiker (pictured, l.) of Harvard Law School and her brother, Jordan Steiker (pictured, r.) of the University of Texas School of Law write in a commentary for SCOTUSblog, "but [he] declined to swing for the fences." The Steikers, who co-authored the acclaimed book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, recount Justice Kennedy's nuanced interpretation of the Eighth Amendment and his mixed legacy as a swing vote on capital punishment. Though he was "a frequent supporter of restrictions on the availability of federal habeas review of capital cases, a skeptic of claims challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection and a relatively reliable vote against granting stays of execution in end-stage capital litigation," they write, he also was "the author of numerous opinions that broke new ground in the court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence." Most notably, he joined or authored landmark decisions that narrowed the scope of the death penalty, exempting defendants with intellectual disability, juvenile offenders, and those who committed non-homicide crimes. Those decisions on the Court's "proportionality doctrine" had systemic impact on the administration of the death penalty nationwide and paved the way for later decisions banning the use of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. However, Justice Kennedy was content to grapple with the constitutionality of individual death-penalty practices one at a time, rather than addressing the constitutionality of capital punishment as a whole. Kennedy's role as a swing vote is illustrated by his change of heart on guarantees of individualized sentencing. In his early days on the Court, he voted to restrict defendants' rights to the consideration of mitigating evidence that could spare their lives, but nearly 20 years later, as the Court as a whole moved ideologically to the right, he shifted leftwards and joined majority opinions that broadly protected the rights to present and have capital sentencers meaningfully consider that evidence. In 1989, he provided the fifth vote in Stanford v. Kentucky to permit the use of the death penalty against offenders aged sixteen and seventeen. By 2005, citing an evolution of values in the United States, he authored the Court's 5-4 decision in Roper v. Simmons banning the death penalty for offenders under age eighteen. In 2015, Kennedy started an important discussion of the conditions of incarceration on death row, raising questions about the effects of long-term solitary confinement. Justice Stephen Breyer drew on Kennedy's concerns in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment.

In Two Mississippi Cases, Justice Breyer Renews Call to Review Constitutionality of Death Penalty

As its 2017-2018 term came to a close, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review two Mississippi cases that presented significant challenges to capital punishment as implemented in that state and across the country. Over the dissent of Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured), who renewed his call for the Court to review the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole, the Court on June 29 denied certiorari in the cases of Timothy Evans and Richard Jordan. Reiterating concerns he first voiced in his landmark dissent three years ago in Glossip v. Gross (2015), Justice Breyer wrote: “the death penalty, as currently administered, suffers from unconscionably long  delays, arbitrary application, and serious unreliability.” Two Mississippi cases, he wrote, illustrate the first two of those factors. Evans and Jordan were both sentenced to death in Mississippi’s Second Judicial District, which—according to death sentencing data maintained by Mississippi’s Office of the State Public Defender—has imposed more death sentences than any of the 21 other judicial districts in the state and nearly 1/3 of all the death sentences imposed in the state this century. Evans’s petition for writ of certiorari had argued that his death sentence was unconstitutionally arbitrary because of the geographic disproportionality in the way in which the death penalty was imposed and carried out across the state. Jordan had asked the Court to review the constitutionality of his more than forty-year tenure on Mississippi’s death row for a crime committed in 1976. Jordan’s death sentence was overturned three separate times because of different constitutional violations in each of his sentencing trials. In 1991, after his sentence had been overturned for the third time, a special prosecutor agreed that Jordan should be sentenced to life without parole. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the life sentence saying the sentence was invalid because it had not been authorized by Mississippi law in effect at the time of the murder. The state then sought and obtained the death penalty against Jordan for a fourth time. “Jordan has lived more than half of his life on death row,” Breyer wrote, living most of that time “in isolated, squalid conditions.” Breyer said the cruelty of the conditions of Jordan’s imprisonment constitute an “additional punishment” that warrants review by the Court to address whether the lengthy delay, in and of itself, violates the Eighth Amendment. The geographically arbitrary death-sentencing practices in the Second District also warranted review, Breyer wrote. “This geographic concentration reflects a nationwide trend. Death sentences, while declining in number, have become increasingly concentrated in an ever-smaller number of counties,” he wrote. This arbitrariness, Justice Breyer explained, “is aggravated by the fact that definitions of death eligibility vary depending on the state.” As a result, in Mississippi, unlike most states, a defendant may be sentenced to death for a felony robbery-murder, which does not require that the defendant actually intended to kill someone. Justice Breyer also found evidence in Mississippi that the death penalty was not reliably administered. He noted that just “[f]our hours before Willie Manning was slated to die by lethal injection, the Mississippi Supreme Court stayed his execution,” and in April 2015, Manning became the fourth Mississippi death-row prisoner to be exonerated. With six more death-row prisoners exonerated throughout the U.S. since January 2017, the unreliability of the death penalty, Justice Breyer argued, provides a third reason for the Court to review the constitutionality of capital punishment. “[M]any of the capital cases that come before this court,” Justice Breyer wrote, “involve, like the cases of Richard Jordan and Timothy Evans, special problems of cruelty or arbitrariness. Hence, I remain of the view that the court should grant the petitions now before us to consider whether the death penalty as currently administered violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.” 

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