U.S. Supreme Court

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.” 

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Author of Key Death-Penalty Decisions, Retires

Justice Anthony Kennedy (pictured) announced on June 27, 2018, that he will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court. During Kennedy’s thirty years on the Court, he became known as a swing vote, siding with both the conservative and liberal wings of the Court. His role as the Court's swing vote extended to some crucial death-penalty cases, including Roper v. Simmons (2005), in which the justices struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders under age 18, and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), in which the justices barred the death penalty for child rape and other offenses that did not result in death. He also provided the decisive fifth vote against a challenge to lethal-injection practices brought by Oklahoma death-row prisoners in Glossip v. Gross. In his opinion for the five-member majority in the Kennedy case, Justice Kennedy wrote: “When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint. For these reasons we have explained that capital punishment must ‘be limited to those offenders who commit a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’” Justice Kennedy was a leading architect of caselaw decided under the Eighth Amendment’s “evolving standards of decency.” Under that doctrine, the Court looked to various measures of contemporary American values to determine whether a national consensus had evolved against a penal practice. Justice Kennedy authored numerous decisions for the Court applying or interpreting that doctrine, including Roper and Kennedy, as well as 5-4 decisions that struck down statutes or practices that risked execution of defendants with intellectual disability (Hall v. Florida (2014)) or would have permitted the execution of individuals whose extreme mental illness caused them to become mentally incompetent after having been sentenced to death (Panetti v. Quarterman). In declaring unconstitutional Florida’s use of a strict IQ threshold in determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, Justice Kennedy wrote: “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitu­tion protects.” Vann R. Newkirk II, writing about Kennedy's civil rights legacy in The Atlantic, said, “The Eighth Amendment has been invoked often by Kennedy and the four liberal justices as a legal weapon in the nation’s highest court in order to curb the most draconian impulses of the criminal-justice system.” In his resignation letter to the President, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Please permit me by this letter to express my profound gratitude for having had the privilege to seek in each case how best to know, interpret and defend the Constitution and the laws that must always conform to its mandates and promises.”

Louisiana Prisoner Alleges Prosecutor Got Death Verdict By Coercing Witness, Presenting Fabricated Testimony

Michael Wearry, a Louisiana prisoner whose conviction and death sentence were overturned by the U.S Supreme Court in 2016 because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, has filed suit against Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perriloux (pictured) and former Sheriff's Deputy Marlon Kearney Foster based upon new evidence that they deliberately fabricated testimony against him. Wearry's complaint charges that the Louisiana officials "knowingly and deliberately fabricated" testimony from a troubled adolescent, Jeffery Ashton and coerced Ashton "to falsely implicate Wearry in the homicide of Eric Walber." The lawsuit says Wearry first learned that Perriloux and Foster had fabricated Ashton's testimony during the course of preparing for Wearry's re-trial, when his defense team located and interviewed Ashton and "Ashton told Wearry’s lawyers about the falsification of his witness accounts." Wearry was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002, although no physical evidence linked him to the murder. His alibi witnesses testified that he was at wedding reception 40 miles away in Baton Rouge at the time of the murder. The U.S. Supreme Court has described the case against Wearry as "a house of cards." The prosecution case relied heavily on the testimony of Sam Scott, a jailhouse informant, whose story changed so dramatically over the course of four different statements that, according to the Supreme Court, by the time of trial "his story bore little resemblance to his original account." Police records that prosecutors withheld from the defense at trial revealed that Scott had may have had a personal vendetta against Wearry, having told another prisoner he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle cause he jacked over me." Prosecutors also failed to disclose that they had offered another witness a reduced sentence for an unrelated conviction in exchange for his testimony against Wearry, and then lied to the jury that the witness had "no deal on the table." Wearry's lawsuit concerns allegations of misconduct involving the testimony of Jeffrey Ashton, who was ten years old at the time of the murder and fourteen when he testified at Wearry's trial that he had seen Wearry throw the victim's cologne bottle into a ditch and get into the victim's car. He now says he was attending a festival on the night of the murder and had never seen Wearry before the trial. "Ashton was subject to juvenile court proceedings at the time, and was vulnerable to intimidation by authorities such as Perrilloux and Foster," the lawsuit says. In an affidavit, Ashton says he was "forced" to provide false testimony. "I went along with it because I was just ten years old. I was scared," he said. Jim Craig, Wearry's attorney, called the alleged misconduct "very disturbing," and said, "[t]he abuse of power by District Attorney Perrilloux and Mr. Foster is an outrage that should disturb anyone who believes in justice." He added that he believes the case may have implications for other cases handled by Perriloux, saying, "I think the integrity of this and other cases in that district is at stake and we expect this to be a very hard fought case. We are confident that what we have filed is correct and truthful." District Attorney Perrilloux called the allegations that he coerced testimony from Ashton "ridiculous."

“Outlier” Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Upholds Bobby James Moore's Death Sentence

In a ruling three dissenters criticized as an "outlier," and after having been rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 for ignoring the medical consensus defining intellectual disability, a sharply divided (5-3) Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has upheld the death sentence imposed on Bobby James Moore (pictured) 38 years ago. On June 6, 2018, the CCA ruled that Bobby Moore is not intellectually disabled under the most recent clinical definition of the disability and may be executed, despite a finding by a trial court judge, a concession from the Harris County District Attorney's office, and briefs from numerous professional associations and disability advocates all concluding that Moore meets the diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability. Harris County prosecutors had filed a brief with the CCA, stating, "[a] review of the Supreme Court's decision and the record before this Court supports but a single conclusion: Bobby James Moore is intellectually disabled under current medical standards and ineligible for execution." In a forceful dissent, Judge Elsa Alcala, joined by Judges Bert Richardson and Scott Walker, catalogued the numerous groups that had concluded Moore satisfied the medical criteria for intellectual disability and wrote: "There is only one outlier in this group that concludes that applicant is ineligible for execution due to his intellectual disability, but unfortunately for applicant, at this juncture, it is the only one that matters. Today, in solitude, a majority of this Court holds that applicant is not intellectually disabled, and it denies his application for habeas relief." 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 trial court. After making credibility determinations about the lay and expert testimony it heard, that court agreed that Moore had intellectual disability as defined by contemporary medical diagnostic criteria. However, the CCA reversed, applying an idiosyncratic set of criteria known as "Briseño factors" (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), which were based on unscientific stereotypes, including the behavior of a fictional character from Of Mice and Men. Last year, in Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down Texas' use of that criteria, saying that a court's intellectual disability determination must be "informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Court criticized the manner in which the CCA assessed Moore's significant deficits in adaptive functioning, saying the CCA had improperly focused on the adaptive skills Moore possessed, rather than the clinically required assessment of his areas of diminished functioning. It also said the CCA had improperly based its judgment on Moore's adaptive deficits on how he was able to function in the highly regimented prison setting. The dissent emphasized that the majority again gave improper consideration to these factors in reaching its conclusion that Moore was not intellectually disabled, and said the court had misapplied current medical standards and failed to defer to the trial court's credibility rulings. As a result, the dissent said, the CCA "essentially continues to determine that mildly intellectually disabled people are subject to the death penalty in contravention of the Supreme Court’s holding in Moore."

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