U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Florida Decision Barring Death Sentences Based on Non-Unanimous Jury Votes

On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida's petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst, refusing to disturb a decision of the Florida Supreme Court that had declared it unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences after one or more jurors in the case had voted for life. The ruling effectively ends Florida prosecutors' efforts to reverse the state court ruling—which could overturn approximately 200 death sentences in the state—requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the high court to consider the Florida decision, arguing that the state court's "expansive reading" of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida was erroneous. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The Florida legislature rewrote the law to require that juries unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, making a case eligible for a death sentence, and raising the threshold for a jury recommendation of a death sentence from a simple 7-5 majority to at least 10 of the 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court held in October 2016 that the new law violated both the state and federal constitutions because it did not require jury unanimity before the court could impose a death sentence. Most of the 386 prisoners currently on Florida's death row were sentenced to death in violation of Hurst. However, the state court has ruled that it will not apply its decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the Sixth Amendment gives capital defendants the right to have a jury find all facts that are necessary to impose the death penalty in their case. The Florida Supreme Court has already ordered more than a dozen new sentencing hearings in cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, and local prosecutors are faced with the prospect of a flood of expensive retrials in cases in which one or more jurors have already rejected the death penalty. Dave Davis, who represented Hurst, said “'[p]rosecutors are going to have to decide is it worth the effort to try to get death again. They're going to have to examine their evidence … and decide what the likelihood is that they're going to get 12 jurors to decide death.”

Supreme Court Tells Alabama to Reconsider the Factors It Has Used to Determine Intellectual Disability

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Alabama state courts' rejection of a prisoner's claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, and directed the state to reconsider his claim in light of the Court's recent decision in Moore v. Texas requiring states to employ scientifically accepted standards in determining whether a death-row prisoner is intellectually disabled. On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Taurus Carroll, and vacated the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in his case after Carroll's lawyer argued that the March 28 decision in Moore established that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants who are found to have intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. In Moore, however, the Court reiterated that this discretion is not “unfettered” and that a state's intellectually disability determination must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The Court struck down Texas' use of an unscientific set of lay stereotypes, known as the “Briseño factors," that Texas had used to determine whether Moore had deficits in adaptive functioning characteristic of intellectual disability. The Court said that, "[i]n concluding that Moore did not suffer significant adaptive deficits, the [Texas courts] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths," but "the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits." In Carroll's case, the Alabama courts had considered Mr. Carroll’s supposed adaptive strengths—that he had passed a GED exam and successfully held down a job in the prison kitchen—as proof that he was not intellectually disabled. Carroll's attorney argued that, “As in Moore, the consideration below of Mr. Carroll’s adaptive functioning ‘deviate[s] from prevailing clinical standards, by ‘overemphasiz[ing] Mr. [Carroll]’s perceived adaptive strengths.” He also argued that Alabama had unconstitutionally employed a strict IQ cutoff score, while at the same time inflating Carroll's IQ score by refusing to apply scientifically established factors that adjust for limitations in IQ testing. With the Supreme Court's ruling in Carroll's case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals must now determine how Moore affects Alabama's methods of determining intellectual disability. John Palombi, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, said he was "pleased" with the Court's decision. “This will require Alabama courts to follow scientific principles when making the life or death decision of whether someone charged with capital murder is intellectually disabled,” he said.

Supreme Court Overturns Texas' "Outlier" Standard for Determining Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously struck down Texas' standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases, calling the state's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." In Moore v. Texas, the Court on March 28 vacated the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), which had applied an unscientific set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them) to overturn a trial court determination that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby Moore was intellectually disabled. The Court described these seven factors—including such things as whether lay people who knew the defendant thought he was intellectually disabled and whether he could hide facts or lie effectively—as an unscientific "invention" of the CCA that was "untied to any acknowledged source" and that lacked support from "any authority, medical or judicial." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of individuals with intellectual disability was unconstitutional, but it left states with some discretion in determining who was intellectually disabled. However, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the five-justice majority, reiterated, "States’ discretion ... is not unfettered.” "[A] court’s intellectual disability determination," she wrote must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Moore decision is the second time in recent years that the Court has addressed state deviations from clinical definitions of intellectual disability, which focus on "three core elements: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits, (2) adaptive deficits, and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." The Court struck down Florida's use of a strict IQ cutoff in the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, noting that Florida's standard, "disregards established medical practice." The Hall decision addressed the first element, intellectual-functioning, while Moore addressed aspects of both the first and second, adaptive deficits. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the portion of the Court's opinion that held that Texas had inappropriately rejected Moore's evidence of the first prong, deficits in intellectual functioning. But they joined the Court in rejecting Texas' use of the Briseño factors, calling it “an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins.”

Upcoming Supreme Court Cases Could Clarify Standard Requiring Disclosure of Exculpatory Evidence

Prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence favorable to the defense, is the most common cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, but prosecutors frequently fail to disclose this evidence, narrowly interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland calling for its disclosure. On March 29, the Court will hear two consolidated cases—Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States—that raise questions under Brady as to when courts should grant defendants a new trial when prosecutors fail to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. While the Court may narrowly address Brady's application to these two cases, attorney and legal commentator Bidish Sarma argues that Turner-Overton presents an opportunity for the Court to "clarify principles and curtail the confusion that permeates lower courts’ opinions." Prosecutors currently argue that they may consider the materiality of evidence that favors the defense when they decide whether to disclose that evidence. Others say all evidence favorable to the defense must be disclosed, irrespective of materiality. Withholding favorable evidence from the defense appears to work—a study by the VERITAS Initiative of Santa Clara University School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that courts upheld convictions in 86 percent of the cases in which they found that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence. An amicus brief by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cause of Action Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council urges the Court to make it clear that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense, saying, "[r]equiring production of all favorable evidence solves the problem that prosecutors face in administering the current materiality standard." A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that more than half of all murder exonerations involved Brady violations. According to that study, official misconduct was more common in cases involving black defendants (76%) than white defendants (63%). That disparity grew in capital cases, where 87% of death-row exonerations of black defendants involved official misconduct, compared to 67% of death-row exonerations of white defendants. A DPIC analysis of recent death-row exonerations found that police or prosecutorial misconduct was a major factor in 16 of the last 18 exonerations. DPIC's review of the National Registry's 2016 exoneration data also found that every one of the 13 murder exonerations in which prosecutors had sought or threatened to impose the death penalty involved either official misconduct or perjured testimony/false accusation, and eleven (84.6%) of them involved both. 

As Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution, Justice Breyer Urges Consideration of Death Row Conditions

On March 7, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Texas death-row prisoner Rolando Ruiz, declining to consider his claim that the more than 20 years he had been incarcerated on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Ruiz's lawyers had urged the Court to consider this issue, writing, "At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) agreed, saying, "Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution 'violates the Eighth Amendment' because it 'follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,' principally his 'permanent solitary confinement.' I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it." Breyer dissented from the Court's denial of a stay, citing the Court's "serious objections" to extended solitary confinement, which date back as far as 1890, when the Court, "speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is 'one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.'" He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement. Justice Breyer and former Justice John Paul Stevens have repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of prolonged incarceration under death-row conditions, but the Court has never reviewed the issue. Long stays on death row are increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimates about 40% of death row inmates have spent more than 20 years on death row. These delays, Breyer noted in Ruiz's case, are "attributable to the State or the lower courts." Ruiz was the fifth prisoner executed in the U.S. in 2017 and the third in Texas. Prior to his execution, he expressed his remorse to the victim's family, saying, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.”

Supreme Court Grants Relief to Duane Buck in Texas Racial Bias Death Penalty Case

Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," the Supreme Court on February 22, 2017, granted relief to Duane Buck (pictured, right), a Texas death-row prisoner who was sentenced to death after his own lawyer presented testimony from a psychologist who told the jury Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black. Writing for the six-Justice majority, Chief Justice Roberts (pictured, left) said that "[d]ispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle." Buck's case turned on the legal question of whether his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance. The Court left no doubt on the issue. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "[n]o competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client." Despite counsel's deficient representation, the lower federal courts had refused to intervene, asserting that the references to race in the case had been brief and would have had only minimal, if any, effect on the jury's sentencing decision. The Chief Justice squarely rejected that conclusion, writing: "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." The Court explained that stereotyping black men as somehow more violence-prone than others is a "particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice." Buck's attorney, Christina Swarns, who had argued the case before the Court in October 2016, said “Today, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system.” The decision, she said, reaffirms "the longstanding principle that criminal punishments—particularly the death penalty—cannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.” Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented.

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.

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