U.S. Supreme Court

Court Rulings Raise Questions of What Constitutes Incompetency and How is it Determined

Two recent high court rulings have raised questions of whether death-row prisoners are sufficiently mentally impaired to be deemed incompetent to be executed and who gets to make that determination. On November 7, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order staying the execution of death-row prisoner Jack Greene (pictured, left) to resolve whether that state's mechanism to determine competency—giving the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction ("ADC") sole discretion to make the decision—violates due process. One day earlier, a unanimous United States Supreme Court permitted the execution of Alabama death-row prisoner, Vernon Madison (pictured, right), to go forward—despite evidence that strokes have left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death—saying that the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling that Madison had a rational understanding of his execution was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal constitutional law. Greene's lawyers had argued to the Arkansas Supreme Court that Arkansas had violated his right to due process when corrections director Wendy Kelley ruled him competent to be executed without having conducted any independent mental health evaluation or providing Greene's lawyers any opportunity to contest her determination. According to court filings, Greene is severely mentally ill and psychotic, delusionally believes that the ADC has destroyed his central nervous system, engages in "extreme physical contortions and self-mutilations" to attempt to combat the pain, and thinks the state and his lawyers are colluding to execute him to prevent disclosure of the injuries he believes have been inflicted by the state. In his Last Will and Testament, signed on November 1, he asked that his head be surgically removed after the execution and examined by a television reality show doctor in an effort to prove that he has been subjected to "percussion concussion brain injuries . . . inflicted by the Arkansas Department of Corrections since July 5, 2004." His lawyers have been seeking a court hearing on Greene's mental status to determine his competency. In ther Alabama case, the Supreme Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that had found Madison incompetent to be executed. The federal appeals court had rejected the state court's finding that Madison was aware of the reasons for his impending execution, saying that because of his stroke-induced "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," he lacked an understanding of the "connection between his crime and his execution." The Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that there was no clearly established law concerning when "a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime," as "distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case." Prosecutors in Arkansas said that they will not seek rehearing of the decision in Greene's case, and state attorneys in Alabama have not yet asked for an execution date for Madison.

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Louisiana Death Penalty Case Where Lawyer Conceded Guilt Over Client's Objection

The United States Supreme Court will review a Louisiana death-penalty case to answer the question "Is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused’s guilt over the accused’s express objection?" On September 27, the court agreed to hear McCoy v. Louisiana, a case in which defense counsel informed the jury in his opening argument that Robert McCoy (pictured)—who was charged with murdering the son, mother, and stepfather of his estranged wife—had "committed these crimes," even though McCoy had consistently maintained his innocence and repeatedly objected to the defense strategy. The case is one of a number of Louisiana death penalty cases in which defense lawyers have told death penalty juries, against the defendant's wishes, that their clients had committed the killing. In McCoy's case, the prosecution offered a plea deal that McCoy turned down against the advice of his lawyer, Larry English. When English later told McCoy that he intended to concede McCoy's guilt, McCoy objected and tried to fire English two days before the start of the trial. The trial court refused to remove English from the case, and also denied McCoy’s request to represent himself. When English conceded guilt during the opening statement, McCoy interrupted, saying the police had killed the victims. He later took the stand and testified that he had been framed for the murders by a drug trafficking ring headed by law enforcement. McCoy's petition for review was supported with amicus (friend of the court) briefs by the Yale Law School Ethics Bureau and the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. English had argued that he had admitted guilt as part of his ethical duty to try to save McCoy’s life. The Ethics Bureau, however, argued that conceding McCoy's guilt over his express opposition was an "egregious" violation of the lawyer's ethical duty. It wrote that the rules of ethics "do not allow a lawyer to sell out his client in court against their wishes." The brief of the Louisiana defense lawyers, joined by the Promise of Justice Initiative, said the court's refusal to permit McCoy to obtain new counsel was emblematic of a pattern of decisions undermining the right to meaningful representation in Louisiana death penalty cases. The brief pointed to 12 capital cases in which Louisiana courts resolved disagreements between capital defendants and their lawyers in a manner that was detrimental to the defendant. The brief said that, in four cases since 2000, the Louisiana courts had allowed capital defense counsel to concede guilt over their clients’ express objection. In four other capital cases during that time frame, capital defendants were required to represent themselves to avoid having their lawyer concede guilt. Four other times, invoking the same right to personal autonomy over litigation decisions that they rejected in the prior circumstance, the state courts gave capital defendants who wanted to waive rights final say in doing so. “What can be distilled from Louisiana’s approach is that when a question about a defendant’s autonomy arises, Louisiana appears to resolve the question in favor of expediency, rather than autonomy or dignity,” the brief said. "Rather than a principled and consistent commitment to the autonomy and dignity of capital defendants, the Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a set of rules that ameliorates always to the benefit of the state, and never to the defendant."

Supreme Court Stays Execution in Georgia Case Raising Issue of Jury Racism

Three hours after his execution was scheduled to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Keith Tharpe (pictured), a Georgia death-row prisoner who sought review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because a juror whom Tharpe alleged "harbored profound racial animus against African Americans voted to impose the death penalty . . . because of his race.” Over the dissents of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, the Court issued a stay of execution on September 26, pending a final ruling on whether to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that had denied Tharpe permission to appeal the issue. Tharpe, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his sister-in-law, had challenged his death sentence after learning that Barney Gattie, a white juror in his case, had said that there were "two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni**ers"; described Tharpe as "a ni**er"; doubted "if black people even have souls"; and said if the victim "had been the same type [of black person] Tharpe is, then picking between life of death wouldn't have mattered so much." The Georgia courts had refused to consider his biased-juror challenge, saying that state law prohibitted him from attempting to impeach the jury's verdict. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that overt expressions of racial bias by a juror are not insulated from judicial review, Tharpe argued that he was entitled to have his claim heard and to have a new, fair sentencing hearing. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, concluding that he had not “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right” and "had failed to demonstrate that Barney Gattie’s behavior had [a] substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” When Tharpe again attempted to raise the issue in the Georgia state courts, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Court decision made no difference and his challenge was barred as "res judicata"—meaning that the issue had alrady been decided against him. His appeal from the state-court decision had just been filed in the U.S. Supreme Court when it stayed his execution based upon the federal litigation. The Court's order specified that the stay "shall terminate automatically" if the Court ultimately decides not to review the issue or if the Court ultimately rules against Tharpe. Under Supreme Court rules, the votes of four Justices are sufficient to decide to hear a prisoner's appeal. However, the votes of five Justices are required to stay an execution, effectively overriding the Court's rules for cases presented during an active death warrant. Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys, expressed gratitude that "the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant.” He said, “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe’s claim of juror racial bias in regular order.”

50 Years After Historic Confirmation to Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's Legacy Continues To Shape Future

Fifty years ago today, Thurgood Marshall (pictured) was confirmed as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Marshall’s legacy is indelibly linked to his historic victory in 1954 as counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, breaking down the barriers of "separate but equal" segregated public education. But he is equally associated with his representation of capital defendants in racially charged cases in the Jim Crow South and his longstanding belief—first articulated in a concurring opinion in the Court's landmark 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia striking down all existing death-penalty statutes—that "the death penalty is an excessive and unnecessary punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment." A grandson of slaves and a survivor of an attempted lynching by Tennessee police officers, Marshall devoted his life to ensuring that all people, irrespective of race, enjoyed the rights of full citizenship and the equal protection of the law. This inexorably drew him to the issues of lynching and capital punishment. Seven days after the Baltimore native received his law license in October 1933, a 23-year-old intellectually disabled black man, George Armwood, who had been in custody accused of the attempted assault and rape of an elderly white woman, was lynched in nearby Somerset County, Maryland. Marshall was one of ten lawyers to petition the governor seeking anti-lynching legislation and call for an investigation into state police involvement in the lynching. Marshall won his first Supreme Court case in 1940, arguing Chambers v. Florida, which established that coerced confessions obtained by police through duress and violence are inadmissible at trial. That year, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as its first Director-Counsel, representing numerous black defendants charged with crimes in Southern courts. In 1941, Marshall represented W.D. Lyons, an illiterate 21-year-old black sharecropper beaten into confessing to murdering a white family and burning down their home. Enduring racial epithets from an initially hostile white community, Marshall subjected the police who had framed Lyons to withering cross-examination and showed that they had obviously lied on the stand. Lyons was convicted and—after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal—executed, but historians say the case awakened Marshall to the ability of lawyers to empower oppressed communities. Later, Marshall won retrials for three young African-American men who had been falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County, Florida. Two of the "Groveland Four" (a fourth young man charged in the case had been lynched by a white mob after escaping from custody) were wrongly sentenced to death; one of them was murdered and the other shot several times by a sheriff while being transported to their retrial. The surviving defendant was convicted and resentenced to death, but received a last-minute commutation. The third defendant—who was 16 at the time—received a life sentence. In April 2017, the Florida legislature issued an apology for the killings and wrongful convictions and asked Governor Rick Scott to issue posthumous pardons for the four. In November 1946, Marshall nearly was murdered. Tennessee law enforcement intercepted his car and placed him in the back of an unmarked car after he had won an acquittal for one of 25 black man charged with riot and attempted murder in the wake of local racial violence. They drove him down isolated roads and, Marshall later said, "were taking me down to the river where all of the white people were waiting to do a little bit of lynching." A white lawyer and a white journalist saw the abduction and followed the unmarked car, foiling the lynching. The Legal Defense Fund won acquittals in 23 of the 25 Tennessee riot cases. Marshall wrote in his concurrence in Furman that "[i]t is evident ... that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged members of society." He firmly believed that the public would do away with the punishment if they understood the facts of how the death penalty actually was applied. The question for him in Furman was "not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in the light of all information presently available.”

Mid-Year Review: Executions, New Death Sentences Remain Near Historic Lows in First Half of 2017

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States. As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled. By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued. Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low. However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27—that state's first executions since 2005—there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990. New death sentences also remain near historically low levels. DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional. Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017—Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida—bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness. A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

New Podcast: Duane Buck's Appeal Lawyer Tells Story of His Case, Discusses Future Dangerousness and Racial Bias

In DPIC's latest podcast, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns (pictured, center, outside the U.S. Supreme Court following the argument in Buck v. Davis) discusses the issues of race, future dangerousness, and ineffective representation presented in the landmark case. She calls the case—in which a Texas trial lawyer who represented 21 clients sent to death row presented an expert witness who testified that his own client was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black—"astonishing" and "a complete failure, literally, of all aspects of the criminal justice system." Swarns argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of Texas death-row prisoner Duane Buck, one of seven death-row prisoners whose trials were tainted by the racist testimony of Texas psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck presented a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Texas Attorney General's office conceded the impropriety of the testimony and agreed to new sentencing hearings in the other cases, but when a new attorney general was elected, opposed relief for Buck. In Texas, a jury must find that a defendant is a future danger to society as a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and the prosecutor seized on Dr. Quijano's testimony as a reason to sentence Buck to die. On February 22, 2017, nearly 20 years after his trial and after all state and federal courts to have considered his case had denied relief, the Supreme Court overturned Buck’s death sentence. In a conversation with DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, Swarns explains how Buck's case made its way to the Supreme Court, and how racial bias and the concept of future dangerousness are inextricably linked. Texas had argued that Quijano's testimony, while improper, was harmless because his and the prosecutor's comments on race were very short. Swarns, however, explains that "[t]he race-as-dangerousness link is so pernicious and so ingrained in history and culture and the death penalty in this country, that ... the explicit introduction of that evidence by a defense expert can only be deeply prejudicial ... no matter how many lines of transcript space it occupies." Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the Court's majority opinion, agreed, stating, "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." Later in the discussion, Swarns places the Buck case in the broader context of the historically racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in the U.S. "This is a story as old as the death penalty itself," she says. "There has never been a time, there has never been a place in the administration of the death penalty where there isn't a race effect. Period. Hard stop."

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Texas Death-Row Prisoner Cannot Challenge Ineffectiveness of His Appeal Lawyer

In a 5-4 decision released June 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, denying review of Texas death-row prisoner Erick Daniel Davila's claim that he had been provided ineffective representation by his state appeal lawyer. The case, Davila v. Davis, raised the question of whether two earlier Supreme Court decisions (Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler) permitted a federal court to review a prisoner's claim that his direct appeal counsel had been ineffective, if—because of his state post-conviction lawyer's ineffectiveness—the appellate ineffectiveness claim had never been presented to the state courts. Davila's federal habeas corpus lawyer challenged an improper jury instruction to which his trial lawyer had objected at trial, but both his direct appeal and his state habeas lawyers failed to raise the issue. When his state habeas lawyer also failed to challenge the adequacy of his appellate lawyer's performance in failing to raise the issue, the federal habeas court ruled that the claim was procedurally defaulted and would not be reviewed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that Martinez is limited to claims of trial counsel's ineffectiveness and does not apply to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. "Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default," Thomas wrote. He said granting prisoners like Davila federal review of meritorious claims of constitutional error "could flood the federal courts with defaulted claims of appellate ineffectiveness," calling that "especially troublesome because those claims could serve as the gateway to federal review of a host of trial errors." Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that the majority had interpreted Martinez too narrowly. "[E]ffective trial counsel and appellate counsel are inextricably connected elements of a fair trial," Breyer wrote. He added, “[t]he fact that ... nearly a third of convictions or sentences in capital cases are overturned at some stage of review suggests the practical importance of the appeal right, particularly in a capital case such as this one.” The dissent also said the majority’s concern was unfounded that granting review of the type of constitutional violation in Davila's case would overburden federal habeas corpus courts. He wrote, “there is no evidence before us that Martinez has produced a greater-than-expected increase in courts’ workload.”

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Alabama Death-Row Prisoner in McWilliams v. Dunn

In a 5-4 decision released June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama had unconstitutionally denied death-row prisoner James McWilliams (pictured) the assistance of an independent mental health expert. The Court wrote that its 1985 ruling in Ake v. Oklahoma, which entitles indigent defendants to the assistance of a mental health expert, encompassed a clearly established right to an expert who is "independent from the prosecution." In his opinion for the Court, Justice Breyer wrote that "Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell ... dramatically short of Ake’s requirements." The defense had no expert to help it prepare to examine the doctors who testified for the state, and only presented testimony about his mental condition from McWilliams and his mother. After the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, the court scheduled a formal sentencing hearing and appointed a state neuropsychologist to examine McWilliams. That doctor prepared a report of the evaluation and consulted with the prosecution. Defense counsel received the neuropsychological report—which stated that McWilliams had “organic brain damage,” “genuine neuropsychological problems,” and “an obvious neuropsychological deficit”—only two days before his sentencing hearing. On the day of the hearing, counsel received extensive prison mental health records that contained evidence that McWilliams was being prescribed anti-psychotic medication. After denying the defense time to consult with an independent expert to develop the mental health evidence for use in mitigation, the court found no mitigating evidence and sentenced McWilliams to death. Justice Breyer wrote, "Ake clearly established that when certain threshold criteria are met, the state must provide a defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively 'conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.'" The Court remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which must now determine whether Alabama's violation of McWilliams' right to an independent expert had the "'substantial and injurious effect or influence' required to warrant a grant of habeas relief." Stephen Bright, who argued on behalf of McWilliams before the Supreme Court, said, "Today’s decision is about fairness. The adversarial process cannot function properly if the prosecution can retain mental health experts, but the defense is not even allowed to consult with an expert." He said, "James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court." 

Pages