U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Intellectually Disabled Louisiana Defendant

CORRECTION:  On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brumfield v. Cain, a Louisiana death penalty case dealing with intellectual disability. The Court held that the federal district court was entitled to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kevan Brumfield has intellectual disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. It reversed a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that would have deferred to a Lousiana state court decision permitting Brumfield to be executed without a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability. After an extensive evidentiary hearing, the district court held that Brumfield was intellectually disabled.  By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana had unreasonably determined the facts when it decided that Brumfield had not presented sufficient evidence of intellectual and adaptive impairments to warrant an evidentiary hearing in state court. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor said, "After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was 'based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.' Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court." The case returns to the Fifth Circuit for consideration of whether the district court's findings are supported by the record.

Missouri Execution Clouded by Concerns About Mental Illness and Lethal Injection

On June 9, Richard Strong was executed in Missouri, despite the fact that four Justices of the Supreme Court would have granted him a stay and despite evidence that he suffered from severe mental illness. A broad challenge to Missouri's secretive lethal injection process (Zink v. Lombardi) has yet to be resolved, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted to stay Strong's execution because of that challenge. However, five votes are needed to stay an execution. In addition, Strong's original trial counsel failed to adequately explore his mental illness and the mental problems in his family. After a fuller investigation, Strong was diagnosed with major Axis I illnesses, including: Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Strong's counsel asked the Supreme Court to spare his life because society's standards of decency have turned away from executing people with such severe mental problems. Strong was convicted of murdering his wife and two-year-old daughter in a brutal manner. He acknowledged the crime but could not understand why he did it. Another child was left untouched. Now 14 years old, she pleaded for mercy for her father. Gov. Jay Nixon denied clemency.

Supreme Court to Review Exclusion of Black Jurors in Georgia Capital Case

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Timothy Foster, an African-American defendant who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors had struck every black prospective juror in his case. On May 26, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in Foster v. Humphrey to determine whether the prosecution’s actions violated the Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, which banned the practice of dismissing potential jurors on the basis of race. Foster challenged the prosecution’s jury strikes as racially discriminatory at the time of jury selection, but the trial court permitted the strikes. Nineteen years after the trial, his lawyers obtained the prosecutors' notes from jury selection, which contained information that contradicted the “race-neutral” explanations for the strikes that the prosecution had offered at trial. 

Justice Stevens Says Death Penalty Unnecessary, Wasteful, and Creates Higher Risk of Error

In a discussion at the George Washington University School of Law, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said the death penalty creates a higher risk of error than other criminal cases and is unfair, unnecessary, and a "terrible waste" of resources. Using the Boston marathon bomber trial as an example, Justice Stevens said jury selection procedures in capital cases produce juries who are "not representative of the community." He said that, under these procedures, "most of the 75%" of Bostonians who opposed the death penalty "could be challenged for cause and do not make it" onto the jury.  "That’s one reason that the death penalty is much more unfair than we thought it was at the time back when we decided the three cases" that reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after the Court had previously ruled its application unconstitutional. Justice Stevens went on to say, "I had expected that the procedures would be more protective of the defendants in death cases than in ordinary criminal cases. And in several respects, ... they in fact are more pro-prosecution. And so the risk of error is larger in death cases than it is in other cases, and that certainly can’t be right." Finally, he compared the death penalty unfavorably to the alternative of life without parole: "it's really not necessary because life imprisonment without parole protects the public at least as well as execution does and so the justification for the death penalty is diminished. And I think if you make a cost-benefit analysis – the cost of the trials and all the rest – it is a terrible waste of society’s resources to have these capital trials that go on for so long and produce an awful lot of unfortunate results."

Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Oklahoma's Lethal Injection Protocol

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Glossip v. Gross, a case challenging the use of midazolam in lethal injections. Midazolam was used as the first drug in three botched executions in 2014, including the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma exactly one year ago. Prisoners on Oklahoma's death row argued that midazolam should not be used in executions because it could not reliably anesthesize the prisoner to prevent him or her from experiencing extreme pain when the second and third drugs in Oklahoma's execution protocol were injected. The Justices questioned both sides intensely, with the more conservative justices generally favoring the state's arguments and the more liberal justices favoring the prisoners' arguments. Justice Elena Kagan compared the effects of potassium chloride, the third execution drug, to being burned alive, saying, "Suppose that we said we’re going to burn you at the stake, but before we do, we’re going to use an anesthetic of completely unknown properties and unknown effects." Conservatives on the Court criticized the case as a veiled attacked on the death penalty itself. The Court is expected to decide the case before the current term ends in June. 

Supreme Court Grants Review in Three Kansas Cases; Hears Case on Intellectual Disability

On Monday, March 30, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of three Kansas death penalty cases and heard oral argument in a Louisiana case that presented questions on the role of the federal courts in determining whether a state prisoner who faces the death penalty has intellectual disability. In the cases of Kansas v. Reginald Carr, Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason, the Court granted review of the Kansas Supreme Court's decisions overturning the defendants' death sentences because their sentencing juries were not told that, unlike proof of other facts in the case, the defendant did not have to prove mitigating circumstances (reasons for life) beyond a reasonable doubt. It also granted review in the Carr cases of the state court's decision that the brothers should not have been tried together in the penalty phase of their capital trial because some of their mitigating evidence was mutually antagonistic and the jury should not have considered this evidence against the other brother. In Brumfield v. Cain, the Court heard argument in the case of a Louisiana man, Kevan Brumfield, sentenced to death before the Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia banned the execution of defendants with mental retardation (now intellectual disability). (For more on the Brumfield case, click here.)  The Supreme Court will determine whether the federal courts must defer to a decision of the state courts that rejected his claim of intellectual disability based solely upon the evidence presented at his trial or whether to credit the federal district court's finding after a seven-day evidentiary hearing that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled and may not be executed.

States Struggle with Determinations of Competency to Be Executed

A recent article in Mother Jones examines lingering questions in the determination of which inmates are exempt from execution because of mental incompetency. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that a person could not be executed if he or she was "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." The 2007 ruling in Panetti v. Quarterman updated that decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Scott Panetti (pictured), the inmate involved in the 2007 case, knew that the state of Texas planned to execute him for the murder of his in-laws, but also sincerely believed that he was at the center of a struggle between God and Satan and was being executed to stop him from preaching the Gospel. Even after the case with his name was decided, Panetti remained on death row, and the Texas courts found him competent to be executed based upon the testimony of a single psychiatrist who claimed Panetti was faking his mental illness. Panetti came within hours of execution on December 3, 2014, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay. In Missouri, Cecil Clayton -- a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 71 -- was executed on March 17, 2015 without a hearing to determine his competency. By contrast, a recent mental competency hearing for Indiana inmate Michael Overstreet included four days of testimony from 13 witnesses and nearly 1,300 pages of medical records. In a 137-page opinion, the state judge concluded, "Delusions or other psychotic symptoms cannot simply be discounted because a petitioner has a cognitive awareness of his circumstances." Indiana's Attorney General said that the decision adhered so well to the Panetti ruling that there was nothing for the state to appeal.

Growing Number of Pharmaceutical Companies Object to Use of Drugs in Executions

On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of two drugs (midazolam and pentobarbital) that have been used in executions, released a statement announcing measures to block the sale of its products to prisons. Akorn joins at least two other U.S.-based drug companies and several European companies in expressing opposition to the use of their products in lethal injections. In 2014, Par Pharmaceuticals responded to Indiana's proposed use of one of their anesthetics by prohibiting the sale of the drug to prisons. Stephen Mock, a spokesman for Par, said, “It’s not because we take public policy positions on issues like capital punishment. We’re a pharmaceutical company, and we have a mission statement. Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life. Indiana’s proposed use of our product is contrary to our mission.” Akorn's statement announcing their new restrictions said, “The employees of Akorn are committed to furthering human health and wellness. In the interest of promoting these values, Akorn strongly objects to the use of its products to conduct or support capital punishment through lethal injection or other means.”

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