U.S. Supreme Court

Justices Express Concern About “Disturbing History” of Race Bias in Mississippi Death Penalty Case

The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to grant a new trial to Curtis Flowers (pictured), an African-American death-row prisoner tried six times for the same murders by a white Mississippi prosecutor who struck nearly every black juror from service in each of the trials. During oral argument in Flowers v. Mississippi on March 20, 2019, eight justices expressed concern that Flowers had been denied a fair trial as a result of race discrimination in jury selection in his case. Justice Samuel Alito called the case “very troubling” and Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised concerns about prosecutor Doug Evans’ pattern of discrimination.

Flowers has been tried six times for a quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. His first three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. Two of those reversals included findings that Evans had violated Batson v. Kentucky, the landmark 1986 Supreme Court decision barring the use of discretionary strikes to remove jurors on the basis of race. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials — the only trials in which more than one black juror was empaneled — ended in hung juries. At issue before the Court was Flowers’ sixth trial, in which a jury of 11 white jurors and one black juror convicted him and sentenced him to death.

The justices focused many of their questions on the records showing that Evans had a pattern of racial discrimination in selecting the juries for Flowers’ trials. Over the course of the five trials for which jury selection transcripts are available, Evans struck 41 of 42 eligible black jurors he had the opportunity to accept. Justice Kavanaugh said, “When you look at the 41 out or 42, how do you look at that and not come away thinking that was going on here was … a stereotype that you’re just going to favor someone because they’re the same race as the defendant?” Justice Alito said that Evans’ history left “reasons to be suspicious,” and said the case had an “unusual and really disturbing history.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Evans’ motives in personally prosecuting Flowers six times. Jason Davis, the lawyer arguing on behalf of the state of Mississippi, acknowledged that the history was “troubling,” but argued that Evans’ jury strikes in the sixth trial were not racially motivated. Kavanaugh challenged Davis, saying, “Part of Batson was about confidence of the community and the fairness of the criminal justice system. That was against a backdrop of a lot of decades of all-white juries convicting black defendants …. Can you say you have confidence in how this all transpired in this case?”

Sheri Lynn Johnson, arguing on behalf of Flowers, said Evans entered Flowers’ trial “with an unconstitutional end in mind – to seat as few African-American jurors as he could.” “The history is relevant,” she said, calling it “a history of a desire for an all-white jury, a history of willingness to violate the Constitution, and a history of willingness to make false statements to a trial court.” She urged the justices to consider the pattern of discrimination, not just Evans’ actions in the most recent trial. If the Court overturns Flowers’ conviction, the case will return to the state to decide whether to try Flowers for a seventh time.

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Georgia Death-Penalty Case Involving Racist Juror

For the second time in just over one month, the United States Supreme Court has cleared the way for the execution of an African-American prisoner in the face of strong evidence of racial or religious bias. On March 18, 2019, the Court unanimously declined to hear an appeal from Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured), who argued his death sentence was unconstitutionally tainted by the participation of racist white juror who called him a “ni***er” and questioned “if black people even have souls.” That juror, Barney Gattie, signed an affidavit also saying that there were “two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni**ers.” Tharpe, Gattie said, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category [and] should get the electric chair for what he did.” In February, in a decision that evoked widespread condemnation from critics across the political spectrum, the Court vacated a stay of execution for Domineque Ray, a Muslim death-row prisoner, after Alabama denied his request to have an Imam present at the execution in circumstances in which it provided a chaplain for Christian prisoners.

Though agreeing on procedural grounds that the Court should not review the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement in connection with the Court’s action saying she was “profoundly troubled by the underlying facts of the case.” She wrote: “These racist sentiments, expressed by a juror entrusted with a vote over Tharpe’s fate, suggest an appalling risk that racial bias swayed Tharpe’s sentencing.” Justice Sotomayor said the latest decision “may be the end of the road for Tharpe’s juror-bias claim,” and the Court should therefore “not look away from the magnitude of the potential injustice that procedural barriers are shielding from judicial review.” "It may be tempting to dismiss Tharpe's case as an outlier, but racial bias is a familiar and recurring evil," she wrote. "That evil often presents itself far more subtly than it has here. Yet Gattie's sentiments—and the fact that they went unexposed for so long, evading review on the merits—amount to an arresting demonstration that racism can and does seep into the jury system."

In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reconsider Tharpe’s case, acknowledging that Tharpe had “present[ed] a strong factual basis for the argument that [his] race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.” However, the appeals court refused to review his discrimination claim, saying he had never presented the issue to the state courts. Tharpe sought review of that decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and received support from a number of groups, including Catholic bishops and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Responding to the Court’s decision, Tharpe’s attorney Marcia Widder said in a statement: “Today’s decision from the U.S. Supreme Court takes giant steps backwards from the Court’s longstanding commitment to eradicating the pernicious effects of racial discrimination on the administration of criminal justice. What happened in Mr. Tharpe’s death penalty case was wrong. … Allowing Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence to stand is an affront to the fairness and decency to which we, as a society, should aspire.  True justice would not permit the State of Georgia to execute Mr. Tharpe on the basis of this record.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear Tharpe’s case, issued a statement saying, “the Court’s refusal to consider his case on the merits is deeply distressing. As the Court recognized in Buck [v. Davis, in which a mental health expert testified that Buck posed an increased risk of future dangerousness because he is black], allowing death sentences to stand tainted by overt racial discrimination weakens public confidence in the rule of law and the administration of justice.” Putting it more directly, commentator Michael Harriot wrote for The Root, “Unlike the appeals process, apparently racism has no expiration date.”

Supreme Court Decides that Executing a Person With Dementia Could Be Unconstitutional

The United States Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Alabama state courts that would have permitted the execution of Vernon Madison (pictured)death-row prisoner whose severe dementia has left him with no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death and compromised his understanding of why he was to be executed. The Alabama courts had narrowly construed the Supreme Court’s past rulings that prohibited the execution of prisoners who had become mentally incompetentlimiting those rulings to cases in which a mentally ill prisoner’s lack of understanding of why he was being executed had been caused by psychosis or delusions. In a 5-3 decision on February 27, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of a prisoner who does not have “a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution,” irrespective of its cause. Writing for the Court, Justice Elana Kagan said: What matters  is  whether  a  person  has  the  ‘rational  understanding’ [the constitution] requires—not  whether  he  has  any  particular memory or any particular mental illness.” 

In 2015 and 2016, Madison suffered multiple severe strokes that caused him brain damage, vascular dementia, and retrograde amnesia. The strokes also left him with slurred speech, legally blind, incontinent, and unable to walk independentlyIn addition to having no memory of the offense, he can no longer recite the alphabet past the letter G, soils himself because he does not know there is a toilet in his cell, asks that his mother—who is dead—be informed of his strokes, and plans to move to Florida when he is out of jailMadison’s lawyers argued that he had become incompetent to be executed. At a hearing in state court, he presented evidence that he had no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death. The state’s expert agreed that Madison exhibited cognitive decline but said there was no evidence that his impairments were a product of psychosis or delusionsState prosecutors also argued to the state courts that the Supreme Court’s caselaw limited incompetency to be executed to cases involving psychotic mental illness. Emphasizing the absence of evidence of delusions or psychosis, the Alabama courts denied Madison’s competency claim.  

The five-justice majority declared that competency determinations are governed by what a prisoner understands, not by what physical or mental health condition impairs his understanding. Lack of memory of a crime, Justice Kagan wrote, is not in itself proof of incompetence, although it may be evidence of it“If Alabama is to execute Madison,” the majority said, “the Eighth Amendment requires, and the state must find, that he’ll understand why.” Expressing no opinion on the ultimate question of Madison’s competency, the Court returned the case to the state courts for a new competency determination using the correct legal standard. In a fiery dissent the majority dismissed as “high dudgeon, Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, accused the Court of “mak[ing] a mockery of our rules” and rewarding a defense “trick” by deciding the case based on an argument he claimed was not raised in Madison’s petition for certiorariKagan responded that Madison’s petition had “presented two questions — the same two we address here.” Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the case. 

Madison’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he was “thrilled that today the Court recognized that people with dementia like Vernon Madison, who cannot consistently orient to time and place, are protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.” Stevenson said that “[p]risoners with dementia or severe mental illness are extremely vulnerable,” and called the Court’s decision enormously important if our system is going to function in a humane and just manner.” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall derided Madison’s competency claim as an attempt to “evade” justice and predicted that Alabama’s state courts would again rule that Madison is competent to be executed.  

U.S. Supreme Court Again Reverses Texas Court’s Rejection of Intellectual Disability Claim

Overturning the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for the second time, the United States Supreme Court ruled on February 19, 2019, that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby James Moore is intellectually disabled and may not be executed. In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the latest Texas appeals court decision that would have allowed Moore’s execution, saying the state court had relied on many of the same improper lay stereotypes and committed many of the same errors that had led the Justices two years ago to strike down Texas’s “outlier” approach to determining intellectual disability. The Court said that the Texas ruling, “when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper.”

This decision marked the second time the Supreme Court had reversed a Court of Criminal Appeals denial of Moore’s intellectual disability claim. In 2014, a Texas trial court, applying prevailing clinical standards, found that Moore was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) overturned that decision, saying Moore had not satisfied a Texas-specific standard called the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them). In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the use of these factors, calling them an unscientific “invention” of the TCCA that was “untied to any acknowledged source” and lacked support from “any authority, medical or judicial.” The Court criticized the TCCA’s reliance upon “lay stereotypes” about what people with intellectual disability can and cannot do and its misplaced focus on things Moore was able to do in a structured prison setting instead of considering his life history of impairments in daily adaptive functioning, and directed the TCCA to reconsider the issue applying appropriate diagnostic standards.

When the case returned to the state courts, numerous groups, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, filed friend-of-the-court briefs asserting that Moore met the prevailing medical definitions of intellectual disability. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreed with Moore and conceded that his death sentence should be vacated. Nonetheless, over the sharp dissent of three judges, the TCCA again upheld Moore’s death sentence. With the backing of the mental health professional associations, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, and a group of prominent conservative leaders who described the TCCA’s flouting of the 2017 Supreme Court ruling as “inimical to the rule of law,” Moore again asked the Supreme Court to intervene. When Harris County prosecutors again agreed that Moore was entitled to relief, the Texas Attorney General’s office attempted to intervene in the case to defend the TCCA’s ruling. The Supreme Court reversed, writing: “We … agree with Moore and the prosecutor that, on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.” Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented, accusing the majority of improperly engaging in factfinding and failing to provide clarity to lower courts.

Cliff Sloan, a lawyer representing Moore, praised the ruling: “We greatly appreciate today’s important ruling from the Supreme Court, and we are very pleased that justice will be done for Bobby Moore.” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also released a statement: “The Harris County District Attorney’s Office disagreed with our state’s highest court and the attorney general to stand for Justice in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed."

Supreme Court’s Intervention to Allow Execution of Domineque Ray Provokes Widespread Condemnation

The U.S. Supreme Court has found itself in the crossfire of harsh criticism from across the political spectrum after its intervention in a death penalty case allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim prisoner without providing him access to a religious adviser. Evangelical Christians and Catholic Bishops joined editorial boards and commentators from the New York Times to the National Review in condemning the Court’s 5-4 decision permitting the execution of Domineque Ray (pictured) on February 7, 2019. Los Angeles Times deputy editorial page editor Jon Healey wrote: “If you need a rabbi, an imam or other non-Christian spiritual advisor to accompany you into the death chamber in Alabama, God help you. Because the U.S. Supreme Court won’t.” Libertarian professor Ilya Somin, of the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, called the decision a “grave injustice” and the conservative National Review headlined a column by its senior writer David French, “The Supreme Court Upholds a Grave Violation of the First Amendment.”

Alabama scheduled Ray’s execution on November 6. Undisclosed to Ray and the other death-row prisoners, Alabama’s secret execution protocol mandated that a Christian chaplain—and no other religious adviser—be present in the execution chamber. Ray sought to be provided the same access to religious comfort that the state afforded Christian prisoners, and requested that his imam be allowed in the execution chamber. The state denied his request on January 23, 2019, saying that the chaplain was allowed in the chamber because he was a trained employee of the Department of Corrections, but an untrained volunteer imam would present security concerns. Five days later, Ray sought a stay of execution alleging that Alabama’s policy violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. A federal appeals court granted a stay to allow briefing on the issue, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a contentious 5-4 decision, reversed the decision. In a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism, or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.”

Christian leaders raised concerns about the decision’s disregard of human dignity and its broader impact on religious liberty. In a news release issued under the heading “U.S. Bishops’ Chairmen Condemn Decision Preventing Muslim Man from Receiving Appropriate Spiritual Care at Execution,” the chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees for Religious Liberty and for Domestic Justice and Human Development called the death penalty itself “an affront to human dignity.” The statement said “Mr. Ray bore the further indignity of being refused spiritual care in his last moments of life.” The committee chairs—Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida—wrote: “This unjust treatment is disturbing to people of all faiths, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise. People deserve to be accompanied in death by someone who shares their faith. It is especially important that we respect this right for religious minorities.” In an op-ed for The New York Times, Alan Cross, a pastor and missional strategist with the Montgomery Baptist Association, wrote, “I am not a Muslim. I am an evangelical Christian minister in Alabama. But my religious freedom — everyone’s religious freedom — took a hit when my state decided that instead of slowing down to accommodate religious difference, the execution, which is final and irrevocable, had to go on as scheduled.” Pastor Cross stressed the value of religious diversity, saying “The solution to diversity is not to eliminate religious difference, but rather to work together to be fully who we are, to cultivate a society where religious belief is recognized and accommodated. Mr. Ray’s religious freedom mattered as much as anyone else’s. That freedom is part of what makes America great. When it is lost, it is replaced by a sterility and silence that will ultimately drive us apart.” In its own editorial, the New York Times editorial board called the Supreme Court ruling a “moral failure” that diminished Muslims and compounded the indignity of its prior acquiescence in the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration.

Death-Row Prisoners Ask Supreme Court to Review Georgia, Oklahoma Verdicts Involving Racist Jurors

Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured, left) and Oklahoma death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured, right) are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to grant them new trials after evidence showed that white jurors who described the defendants with racist slurs participated in deciding their cases. The involvement of the racist jurors, the prisoners say, violated their Sixth Amendment rights to impartial juries. A juror in Tharpe’s trial gave a sworn affidavit years after voting to convict Tharpe, in which he wondered “if black people even have souls,” and said, “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N***rs." Tharpe, he wrote, “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did." In Jones’s case, a juror told Jones’s legal team that another juror had said the trial was “a waste of time” and “they should just take the n***r out and shoot him behind the jail.”

Tharpe and Jones argue that two 2017 Supreme Court decisions, Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado and Buck v. Davis, require the Court to reconsider their cases. In Buck, Chief Justice John Roberts declared for the Court that “the law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and overturned a death sentence imposed after a psychologist testified that Buck posed a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Chief Justice wrote that “discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice,” calling racism a “toxin[ that] can be deadly in small doses.” In Peña-Rodriguez, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a five-justice majority of the Court that courts may consider a juror’s statement showing he had relied on racial stereotypes to convict a defendant as evidence of a Sixth Amendment violation.

In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal appeals court’s refusal to consider Tharpe’s racial discrimination claim.  Less than three months later, that court again refused to consider the issue, saying Tharpe had not previously presented it to the state courts. Jones has also repeatedly sought review of claims that racial discrimination has infected his case. He previously asked the Court to overturn his death sentence based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s appel 25 times, the Court declined to review the case. Samuel Spital, who was co-counsel in Buck’s case and is lead counsel on the brief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s friend-of-the-court brief supporting Tharpe, said of Tharpe and Jones, “We know that these two men are facing execution at least in part because they’re black. Under those circumstances, the state just doesn’t have an interest in enforcing a death sentence, and for that reason, the procedural obstacles that you would have with respect to certain other claims should not be part of the analysis.” The cases are considered a bellwether of the post-Kennedy Court’s commitment to racial justice.

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Cases Alleging Racial Bias in Oklahoma Death Penalty

The United States Supreme Court has declined to review challenges brought by two Oklahoma death-row prisoners who alleged that their death sentences were the unconstitutional product of racial bias. Julius Jones and Tremane Wood had sought to overturn their death sentences based on the findings of a 2017 study that showed significant racial disparities in Oklahoma’s death sentencing practices. On January 22, 2019, the Court denied the petitions for writ of certiorari after having rescheduled consideration of Jones’s (pictured, left) and Wood’s (pictured, right) cases 25 times each.

In their petitions for certiorari, Jones and Wood relied upon a statistical study of Oklahoma death sentences imposed between 1990 and 2012 to argue that racial bias unconstitutionally infected their death sentences. In 2017, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released a report on the state’s administration of the death penalty that included the findings of Dr. Glenn L. Pierce and professors Michael L. Radelet and Susan Sharp about the impact of race on death sentences. The study found that a murder defendant in Oklahoma accused of killing a white victim was more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death than a defendant accused of murdering a nonwhite victim. In cases like Jones’s and Wood’s, which involved only male victims, the study found that death sentences were nearly three times more likely to be imposed if the victim was white than if the victim was a person of color. It also found that when the victim was a white male, defendants of color, like Jones and Wood, were twice as likely as a white defendant to be sentenced to death.

Jones and Wood described other evidence that racial bias affected decisionmakers in their cases. The judge who presided over Wood's trial has made openly racist remarks, saying in 2011 that Mexicans are “nothing but filthy animals.” Jones was sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury, following what his current lawyers describe as “pervasive and highly racialized pre-trial media coverage” and “racialized remarks made by prosecutors and at least one juror” during his trial. Dale Baich, one of Jones’s appellate lawyers, told The Oklahoman, that the facts of the case “vividly show how racial bias can lead to a wrongful conviction.” Jones is scheduled to file a separate petition for certiorari on January 28 raising the issue that one of the jurors in the case said “they should just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail.”

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.”

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