U.S. Supreme Court

Texas Legislators Ask Why Intellectually Disabled Bobby James Moore is Still on Death Row

In March 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had employed an unscientific and unconstitutionally harsh standard in rejecting Bobby James Moore’s claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. Despite a subsequent concession by Harris County prosecutors in November 2017 that Moore (pictured) qualifies as intellectually disabled under all accepted medical definitions, the state court has still not ruled on Moore’s case, leaving him in 23-hour solitary confinement on the state’s death row. Now, two state legislators are asking why. In a May 18 commentary in the Texas Tribune publication “TribTalk,” State Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Joe Moody write that it is “unconscionable” that “Bobby Moore remains marooned on death row, waiting for the [Court of Criminal Appeals] to act.” The court, they write, “should immediately change Bobby Moore’s death sentence to life in prison so that he may be moved off of death row, as law and justice require.” Moore was convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in the armed robbery of a Houston supermarket in 1980 in which a store employee was shot to death. In 2014, a Texas trial court determined that Moore qualified as intellectually disabled under the clinical standards accepted in the medical community and, based on the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, was not subject to the death penalty. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned that ruling, saying that to be considered intellectually disabled in Texas, a death-row prisoner also must satisfy a stringent set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them). Calling those factors an unscientific “invention” by the Texas court that was “untied to any acknowledged source” and that lacked support from “any authority, medical or judicial,” the Supreme Court reversed and returned the case to the Texas courts for a resolution that was “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” Under that framework, prosecutors told the Texas court that Moore “is intellectually disabled, cannot be executed, and is entitled to Atkins relief.” Representatives Thompson and Moody write that Moore’s current state of limbo is “unjust and unacceptable.” They say, “The time has come for the CCA to do justice in Bobby Moore’s case. More than a year since the Supreme Court’s decision in his favor, it is long past time for him to be moved off of death row and out of solitary confinement.” To the extent that the criminal appeals court “needs more time to fashion a new standard for evaluating intellectual disability claims” for all death-penalty cases in Texas, the legislators say “it should at least issue an interim order striking down Moore’s death penalty immediately[,] allowing him to be moved off of death row and out of solitary confinement. Such an order,” they say “would give effect to the Supreme Court’s decision, remove the specter of an unconstitutional death sentence and allow Moore to return to the general prison population.”

Supreme Court Sides With Death-Row Prisoner Whose Trial Lawyer Told Jury He Was Guilty

The United States Supreme Court has granted a new trial to Louisiana death-row prisoner Robert McCoy (pictured), whose lawyer admitted his guilt despite McCoy’s “adament” and “vociferous” insistence that he was innocent. Facing what counsel believed was overwhelming evidence of guilt and hoping to persuade the jury to spare McCoy’s life, defense lawyer Larry English told jurors his client had “committed three murders. . . . [H]e’s guilty.” In a 6-3 opinion for the Court on May 14, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented. At trial, McCoy’s defense counsel informed the jury that it could reach no other conclusion but that McCoy—who was charged with murdering the son, mother, and stepfather of his estranged wife—“was the cause of these individuals’ death,” even though McCoy had consistently maintained his innocence and repeatedly objected to counsel’s strategy. The trial court denied McCoy’s objections. On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, ruling that a lawyer has the authority to concede guilt against the wishes of his client because counsel “reasonably believed that admitting guilt” would be the “best chance” to avoid a death verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice Ginsburg explained that “the ‘assistance’ of counsel” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment does not require a defendant to “surrender control entirely to counsel. ... Some decisions,” she wrote, “are reserved for the client—notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal.” Here, the Court found that McCoy’s objective—to maintain that he was innocent of murdering his family—was irreconcilable with trial counsel’s objective—to avoid a death sentence. “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of ‘his defence’ is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts,” the Court held, “his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The dissent disagreed that trial counsel had conceded McCoy’s guilt by telling the jury that his client killed the victims, saying that counsel had stressed that McCoy lacked the intent to kill necessary for first-degree murder and that McCoy therefore was guilty only of second-degree murder. It also minimized the need for the ruling, describing the problem as “a rare plant that blooms every decade or so” and one that was unlikely to recur. In April 2017, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had filed a brief supporting McCoy’s petition, pointing to a pattern of cases in which Louisiana state courts had resolved disagreements between capital defendants and their lawyers in whatever manner had been most detrimental to the defendant. “Rather than a principled and consistent commitment to the autonomy and dignity of capital defendants,” the defense lawyers wrote, “the Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a set of rules that ameliorates always to the benefit of the state, and never to the defendant.” In a statement released to the media, McCoy’s lawyer, Richard Bourke, said “The ruling restores in Louisiana the constitutional right of every individual to present their defense to a jury. While rare in the rest of the country, ... Mr. McCoy’s was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.”

Supreme Court To Review Lethal-Injection Case of Condemned Prisoner with Rare Congenital Disease

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted review in the case of Missouri death-row prisoner Russell Bucklew, who has argued that the severe form of a rare congenital disorder from which he suffers makes it unconstitutionally cruel for him to be executed by lethal injection. Bucklew has an extreme form of cavernous hemangioma, a malformation of his blood vessels that causes blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck, and throat. The tumors, he has argued, are likely to rupture during the lethal-injection process, resulting in an excruciatingly painful execution during which he would choke on his own blood. Bucklew proposed as an alternative that the state execute him using nitrogen gas. Missouri has twice set execution dates for Bucklew while he has been challenging its execution method—once in May 2014 and again in March 2018. In both instances, the Supreme Court intervened, issuing stays of execution that permitted further court proceedings in his case. The first stay permitted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to hear and decide Bucklew's appeal from a Missouri federal district court ruling that had dismissed his lethal-injection challenge without an evidentiary hearing. After considering the appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court decision and ruled that Bucklew was entitled to move forward with his lawsuit. In an attempt to develop facts relating to how risky his execution would be, Bucklew filed a series of discovery requests—each opposed by Missouri prosecutors—seeking information about the qualifications of the execution team members. The court denied each of Bucklew's requests. The district court accepted Bucklew's argument that lethal injection carried a substantial risk that he would choke and be unable to breathe for up to four minutes before dying. Nonethless, in June 2017, it again dismissed his case, again without holding a trial, saying that Bucklew had not shown that nitrogen gas would significantly reduce his suffering during the execution. Bucklew appealed, but while the appeal was pending, the state obtained a second execution date, this time for March 20, 2018. On March 6, a split appeals court panel voted 2-1 to affirm the lower court. Hours before the execution was to be carried out, the Supreme Court issued a second stay of execution to give itself more time to decide whether to hear Bucklew's case. On April 30, the Court accepted the case for review. In addition to the questions Bucklew had raised, the Court ordered the parties to address whether Bucklew had met his burden under the Court's 2015 lethal-injection decision in Glossip v. Gross "to prove what procedures would be used to administer his proposed alternative method of execution, the severity and duration of pain likely to be produced, and how they compare to the State's method of execution." The Glossip decision requires a prisoner who challenges the constitutionality of a method of execution to show not only that the state's method of execution will create a substantial risk of severe pain, but also that a feasible and readily available alternative exists that significantly reduces that risk. This is the first time that the Supreme Court has granted review in a case involving lethal-injection procedures since it decided Glossip.

In Georgia Death-Penalty Case, Supreme Court Rebuffs Effort to Further Limit Habeas Corpus Review

In a decision most significant for what it declined to do, the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuffed efforts by state prosecutors to further limit the scope of federal habeas corpus review of state criminal cases. In a 6-3 vote with Justice Breyer writing for the majority, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Georgia death-row prisoner Marion Wilson (pictured), saying that he was entitled to federal-court review of the reasons why the Georgia state courts had rejected his claim that he had been provided ineffective penalty-phase representation. Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented. The Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that had denied Wilson's ineffective assistance claim based upon speculation as to why the state appeals court—which had issued only a one-sentence decision—had earlier denied the claim, rather than considering the reasons the trial court had actually done so. The technical legal issue in the case was how a federal court should handle a habeas corpus case filed by a state prisoner when the state appellate court, without explanation, summarily affirmed a reasoned lower-court ruling against the prisoner. Wilson had been sentenced to death in Baldwin County, Georgia in 1997. In his state post-conviction proceedings, he alleged that he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel in his penalty-phase proceedings when his lawyer failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence that could have spared his life. The state post-conviction court conducted an evidentiary hearing, after which it denied relief, issuing a written order that explained the court's reasoning. Wilson then asked the Georgia Supreme Court for permission to appeal the order but the court summarily turned him down saying only that "it be hereby denied." Wilson next filed a habeas corpus petition asking the federal courts to review his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing that, under the federal habeas statute, he was entitled to relief because the state court had unreasonably determined the facts and unreasonably applied the law when it rejected his claim. The federal district court agreed that Wilson had been ineffectively represented, but ruled against him nonetheless, deferring to the state court's conclusion that his trial counsel's failures had not been prejudicial. In an opinion that would have created a nearly insurmountable bar for a habeas petitioner to meet, the Eleventh Circuit held that federal courts should "not 'look through' a summary decision on the merits to review the reasoning of the lower state court," but should limit their review to whether any possible rationale could support the state appeals court judgment. The Supreme Court disagreed. Rather than adopting "an approach ... that would require a federal habeas court to imagine what might have been the state court’s supportive reasoning," Justice Breyer said that the habeas court should "look through" an unexplained state court decision on the merits and "presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning" as that employed by the lower court. That presumption, he wrote, may be rebutted if the state is able to show that the unexplained decision most likely rested on other grounds. The Court returned Wilson's case to the Eleventh Circuit with instructions to review his ineffectiveness claim under the correct standard. The ruling is the second time this Term the Court has sided with death-row prisoners on procedural issues affecting access to federal review of their cases. In March, the Court issued a ruling preserving indigent death-row prisoners' access to investigative funds "reasonably necessary" to develop their habeas corpus claims, overturning a ruling by the Fifth Circuit that had required habeas petitioners to meet a harsher standard.

Black Prisoner on Georgia’s Death Row, Sentenced by Racist Juror, Denied Federal Court Appellate Review

Less than three months after the U.S. Supreme Court directed a federal appeals court to reconsider whether Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured) is entitled to federal-court review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because he is Black, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has declined to review Tharpe’s appeal, saying he had never presented the issue to the state courts. Citing “principles of comity and federalism,” the court denied Tharpe’s application for a certificate of appealability—a federal court prerequisite for a habeas petitioner to appeal—on the grounds that the Georgia state courts “have yet to examine” Tharpe’s juror-misconduct claim. Tharpe was sentenced to death by a Georgia jury that included a racist White juror who called him a “ni***er,” and questioned “if black people even have souls.” The juror, Barney Gattie, signed an affidavit 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.” Gattie’s affidavit also said “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks,” but denied that race influenced his own vote. When Tharpe first presented the claim to the state and lower federal courts, it was denied based on a state-court rule prohibiting courts from considering evidence questioning why jurors reached their verdict. However, after Tharpe’s claim was rejected, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case in 2017, Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, that made clear a state rule cannot insulate a juror’s overt expressions of racial bias from judicial review. While Tharpe faced imminent execution in September 2017, he asked the state and federal courts to review the issue again in light of Pena-Rodriguez. The Georgia Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit both denied his request. Three hours after his execution was scheduled to start, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution based upon his federal appeal. On January 8, 2018, the Court granted Tharpe’s petition for certiorari and vacated the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit. The Court said the fact that Gattie had never retracted his “remarkable affidavit” strongly suggested that “Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.” Tharpe is expected to ask the Supreme Court to review the circuit court’s latest ruling. On April 2, he filed a separate petition asking the Court to review the Georgia state court’s denial of the issue.

NEW PODCAST—Racial Discrimination in Death-Penalty Jury Selection: A Conversation with Steve Bright

Race discrimination exists at every stage of the death-penalty process, says veteran death-penalty and civil-rights lawyer Stephen B. Bright (pictured), but “the most pervasive discrimination that is going on is in jury selection.” In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, Bright—the former President of the Southern Center for Human Rights who has argued jury discrimination cases three times in the U.S. Supreme Court—calls the “rampant” racial discrimination in jury selection “a matter of grave urgency.” In an interview with DPIC’s Anne Holsinger, Bright speaks about the most recent of those cases, Foster v. Chatman, a Rome, Georgia case in which the Court granted Timothy Foster a new trial as a result of intentional discrimination by prosecutors. New evidence, Bright says, now shows that prosecutors in Columbus, Georgia systematically struck African-American jurors in at least seven other capital cases, including three in which defendants have already been executed. Bright explains how jury-selection notes were critical in proving that prosecutors had unconstitutionally targeted African-American jurors in Foster’s case because of their race. Those notes, he says, allowed defense attorneys to “pull back the cloak of secrecy” that usually shrouds decisions on jury strikes. Jury-selection notes recently uncovered from the files of Columbus prosecutors—including the same prosecutor found to have discriminated against Foster—showed the systemic and long-standing nature of this unconstitutional practice. In 1986, in Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court declared the intentional striking of any juror on the basis of race to be unconstitutional. “Thirty years after [Batson] was decided,” Bright says, “it’s pretty clear that it has failed completely to prevent race discrimination in jury selection.” Batson “doesn’t really have any teeth,” he says, because it permits prosecutors to evade clear inferences of discrimination by providing race-neutral pretextual explanations for striking jurors of color that the trial courts routinely accept. To address the problem, Bright proposes a new legal standard for finding discrimination, moving away from ;a subjective assessment of whether the prosecutor intentionally discriminated to an objective assessment of whether “a reasonable person knowing all of the facts” would think the jurors had been stricken on the basis of race. Increasing the representation of people of color on juries would result in “much more faith in the courts and the integrity of the courts,” Bright says, because trials with all-white juries, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys erode the community’s confidence in the legal system. “People do not think that ... those trials are legitimate, because a big portion of the community has been completely excluded from participating in the judicial process.”

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

Supreme Court Declines to Review Arizona Case Challenging Constitutionality of Death Penalty

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a sweeping challenge to the constitutionality of capital punishment brought by Arizona death-row prisoner Abel Hidalgo (pictured). After scheduling consideration of Hidalgo v. Arizona for ten separate court conferences, the Court on March 19 unanimously denied Hidalgo’s petition for writ of certiorari. In a statement issued in conjunction with the Court’s ruling, however, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, expressed concern about a second issue raised by Hidalgo—the constitutionality of Arizona’s method of deciding which defendants are eligible for the death penalty. The four justices said that the Arizona Supreme Court had misapplied Supreme Court precedent on that “important Eighth Amendment question,” but believed the factual record was insufficiently developed to warrant the court’s review of the case at this time. Hidalgo had presented records from more than 860 first-degree murder cases over an eleven-year period in Maricopa County—where he was charged—showing that 98% of first-degree murder defendants in that county were eligible for the death penalty, but had been denied an evidentiary hearing to further develop the issue. This “evidence is unrebutted,” the four justices said, and “would seem to deny the constitutional need to ‘genuinely’ narrow the class of death-eligible defendants.” Although “[e]vidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation,” they wrote, the absence of an evidentiary hearing had left the Court with a factual record that “is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courts below.” With an “opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here,” the four justices said, “the issue presented in this petition [would] be better suited for certiorari.” The court declined without comment to review a broader challenge Hidalgo presented to the constitutionality of capital punishment itself. Hidalgo is one of many death-row prisoners to raise that issue in the wake of a 2015 dissent by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg in Glossip v. Gross in which they said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment” prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

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