U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.

Eric Holder Advocates for a Hold on Executions

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

Justice Stevens Says Texas Executed an Innocent Man

In a discussion at the University of Florida Law School, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that recent research reveals that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 1989. Stevens said, "Within the last year, Jim Liebman, who's a professor at the Columbia Law School and was a former law clerk of mine, has written a book...called The Wrong Carlos...He has demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people." Prof. Liebman's research showed that Carlos DeLuna's case involved faulty eyewitness testimony and police failure to investigate an alternative suspect.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Oklahoma's Lethal Injections

On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed  to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures, particularly its use of midazolam that was used in three botched executions in 2014. Four Oklahoma inmates asked the Court to review the state's procedures, but one of them, Charles Warner, was executed before the Court agreed to take the case. It is likely the other three defendants will be granted stays. When Warner was executed, Justice Sotomayor along with three other Justices, dissented from the denial of a stay, saying, "I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol...." The case will be argued in April and likely decided by the end of June. The questions presented by the petitioners appear below. Florida uses the same drugs as Oklahoma.

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Missouri Inmate New Attorneys for Federal Appeal

On January 20 the U.S. Supreme Court (7-2) granted Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson new attorneys to assist him in pursuing his federal appeal. Christeson's appointed attorneys missed a crucial filing deadline for his federal appeal, not even meeting with him until a month after the deadline. New attorneys offered to represent Christeson, arguing that his current attorneys had a conflict of interest, since advocating for him would mean admitting their own error. The District Court and Court of Appeals both denied the request for substitution of counsel, and Christeson's execution date was set for Oct. 29, 2014. The Supreme Court granted a stay, and, in deciding the case, wrote, "[Christeson's original attorneys'] contentions here were directly and concededly contrary to their client's interest, and manifestly served their own professional and reputational interests." Fifteen former judges filed a brief in support of Christeson, saying, "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court."

Supreme Court Allows Defendant to Present All Grounds Showing Ineffective Counsel

On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3) handed down a ruling in Jennings v. Stephens, a capital case from Texas dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court held that when a defendant wins relief in a lower federal court and the state appeals, the defendant may offer theories rejected by the lower court as part of his defense of the relief granted. He does not have to file a new appeal on that rejected theory. In his initial federal appeal (habeas corpus), Robert Jennings had presented three instances of ineffective assistance of counsel. The District Court granted him relief based on two of them, but rejected the third. The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and Jennings presented all three instances in his defense. The Fifth Circuit said it did not have jurisdiction to consider the third claim because Jennings' lawyers had not obtained a "certificate of appealability." Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Jennings' case will be returned to the Fifth Circuit to consider his third claim of ineffectiveness.

Texas Sets December Execution for Delusional Inmate

Texas has set an execution date of December 3, 2014 for Scott Panetti, a death row inmate with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Panetti represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy outfit, and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and the pope, among many others. Inmates who are ruled insane are ineligible for execution, but Texas officials argue Panetti can be put to death because he sees some connection between his crime and his execution. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Panetti's execution and determined that Texas had not considered Panetti's long history of mental illness in evaluating his competency, sending the case back for further review. The lower courts again found Panetti competent, and in October the Court denied a request for reconsideration of Panetti's case. Greg Wiercioch, one of Panetti’s attorneys, remarked, “Scott Panetti is not competent for execution and therefore his execution would serve no retributive purpose. It is unfortunate that an execution date has been set. His execution would be a miserable spectacle.” Prominent national mental health experts have called for a halt to the execution. Texas has recently been setting execution dates in 2015, but Panetti's date was pushed ahead of others.

Pages