United States Supreme Court

Case Updates by Supreme Court Term

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions: 2019-2020 Term

Last Updated: March 29, 2020

Opinions of the Court

McKINNEY v. ARIZONA, No. 18-1109

Cert. granted: June 10, 2019
Argument: December 11, 2019
Decided: February 25, 2020

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court declined to overturn James Erin McKinney’s Arizona death sentences. McKinney was sentenced to death in 1993 for the killings of two people in the course of a series of burglaries. McKinney’s mitigation evidence included evidence of a childhood filled with instability, abuse, and neglect. This severe childhood abuse resulted in McKinney being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

At the time McKinney was tried, Arizona did not allow for jury sentencing in death penalty cases. While the trial judge in McKinney’s case recognized that McKinney’s childhood was so horrific that it was “beyond the comprehension of most people,” the judge dismissed this evidence because he found it was not causally connected to the crime. On direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted an independent review and affirmed the death sentence.

McKinney’s death sentence was found unconstitutional in 2015 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because Arizona courts refused to consider mitigating evidence without a “causal nexus” to the crime. The Ninth Circuit found that Arizona’s practice (in McKinney’s cases and all other cases decided in a 15-year time period) violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982). Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentence after reweighing the aggravating and mitigating evidence. In doing so, the court gave McKinney’s PTSD little weight.

In his petition for certiorari, McKinney challenged the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling, arguing that correcting an Eddings error about consideration of mitigation evidence requires a resentencing, not just state supreme court review. McKinney also claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona entitled him to jury-sentencing.

On February 25, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected McKinney’s arguments and let his death sentences stand. In a majority opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Court held that McKinney’s Eddings argument was foreclosed by an earlier Supreme Court case, Clemons v. Mississippi, which allowed a state supreme court to reweigh evidence if one of the aggravating circumstances on which a death sentence relied was later invalidated. Justice Kavanaugh concluded that a supreme court could conduct the same reweighing to remedy a deficiency in the consideration of mitigating circumstances. He further found that the reasoning relied upon in Clemons was not affected by the court’s more recent decisions about jury sentencing. Justice Kavanaugh stated that notwithstanding the Court’s rulings in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, “a jury (as opposed to a judge) is not constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.”

Justice Kavanaugh also rejected McKinney’s argument that the Arizona Supreme Court’s independent review of the case reopened the direct appeal process. In doing so, he accepted the state’s assertion that independent reweighings conducted after a defendant’s initial appeal are not considered direct review proceedings. Under this interpretation of the Arizona Supreme Court’s actions, McKinney was not entitled to a jury sentencing because his conviction became final before Ring v. Arizona was decided.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent which Justices Stephen Breyer, Elana Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor joined. The dissenting Justices took issue with the majority’s interpretation of the Arizona Supreme Court’s actions. Justice Ginsburg observed that the Arizona Supreme Court’s review of McKinney’s case mirrored its consideration of his case during his initial appeal. She argued that “the Arizona Supreme Court was not conducting garden-variety harmless-error review of a lower court decision; it was rerunning direct review to correct its own prior harmful error.” As a result, the dissenting Justices would have found McKinney entitled to a jury resentencing.

You can read case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.


KAHLER v. KANSAS, No. 18-6135

Cert. granted: March 18, 2019
Argument: October 7, 2019
Decided: March 23, 2020

On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Kansas death-row prisoner James Kahler. Kahler was sentenced to death for killing four of his family members in the midst of a major depressive episode. Kahler’s evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist showed that Kahler may have experienced “stress induced short-term dissociation” and that he felt compelled to commit the homicides without the ability to control his behavior.

Kahler’s attorneys argued that this mental health evidence could have provided the basis being found not guilty by reason of insanity except for the fact that Kansas has abandoned this traditional defense. Kansas law only allows a mental-health-based acquittal if evidence shows that due to a “mental disease or defect” a defendant lacked the mental state required to commit the crime charged. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Utah have similar laws. Kahler argued that the lack of an insanity defense for a person who cannot recognize his crime as morally wrong violates the United States Constitution.

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s arguments. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, reviewed the history of the insanity defense in Anglo-American jurisprudence and concluded that no one particular definition of insanity was so deeply rooted in this history that it was required by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The Court resultingly “decline[d] to require that Kansas adopt an insanity test turning on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong.”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. The dissenting Justices disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the history of the insanity defense and its characterization of Kansas’ statutory scheme. Justice Breyer explained, “Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense. Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.”

You can read the opinion and case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.

Pending Decisions

SHARP* v. MURPHY, No. 17-1107

(*formerly Carpenter v. Murphy and Royal v. Murphy; name changes reflect changes of warden)
Cert. granted: May 21, 2018
Argument: November 27, 2018
Decided: Not yet decided

Sharp v. Murphy presents significant issues of tribal sovereignty raised in the context of an Oklahoma death penalty case. Patrick Dwayne Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He was prosecuted by the State of Oklahoma for the murder of another Creek member and was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury in McIntosh County, Oklahoma. In his federal habeas corpus proceedings, Murphy appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, arguing that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction over the case and that he should have been tried in federal court because he is Creek and the offense occurred within the boundaries of the Creek Reservation.

Murphy argued that, under federal law, the federal government had “exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute murders committed by Indians in Indian country.” Therefore, he says, Oklahoma had no authority to prosecute him. After applying the laws enacted by Congress and interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed with Murphy that Congress had never disestablished the treaty with the Creek Nation setting the boundaries of the Creek Reservation and that the murder had occurred on Indian lands. As a result, the Tenth Circuit vacated Murphy’s conviction and death sentence and issued an order directing the lower court to issue a writ of habeas corpus.

The State of Oklahoma — through Terry Royal, then the Warden for the Oklahoma State Penitentiary — asked the Supreme Court to review the case. On May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court granted Oklahoma’s petition for writ of certiorari and agreed to review the question presented by Royal. Justice Gorsuch, who as a judge on the Tenth Circuit had previously participated in a procedural ruling in the case, recused himself from consideration of the decision whether to grant review. Following the grant of certiorari, Mike Carpenter replaced Royal as interim warden and the named petitioner in the case. The question presented is:

Whether the 1866 territorial boundaries of the Creek Nation within the former Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma constitute an “Indian reservation” today under 18 U.S.C. § 1151(a).

*18 U.S.C. § 1151 states in relevant part: “[T]he term ‘Indian country’, as used in this chapter, means (a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights- of-way running through the reservation.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Cherokee Nation, and the National Congress of American Indians have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Murphy. Business interests such as the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Legal Foundation, the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, and State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, as well as ten states and the Solicitor General of the United States filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Oklahoma prosecutors.

The Court heard oral argument on November 27, 2018 and, on December 4, 2018, requested further briefing on the following questions:

(1) Whether any statute grants the state of Oklahoma jurisdiction over the prosecution of crimes committed by Indians in the area within the 1866 territorial boundaries of the Creek Nation, irrespective of the area’s reservation status. (2) Whether there are circumstances in which land qualifies as an Indian reservation but nonetheless does not meet the definition of Indian country as set forth in 18 U. S. C. §1151(a).

On June 27, 2019, the Court restored the case to its calendar for reargument in the 2019-20 court term. Following the grant of reargument, Tommy Sharp replace Carpenter as interim warden and the named petitioner in the case.

You can read case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.


Orders of the Court and Related Items

In a one-paragraph order, the Supreme Court denied the federal government’s motion to stay or vacate a preliminary injunction halting federal executions. A federal district court had entered an injunction stopping the executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken. The injunction was granted based on the prisoners’ likelihood to succeed on the claim that federal authorities exceeded their statutory authority by adopting a federal lethal injection protocol instead of following state protocols.

The Supreme Court’s December 6, 2019 order allowed the injunction to remain in place while the Court expressed its expectation that “the Court of Appeals will render its decision with appropriate dispatch.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote a statement respecting the denial that was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Alito expressed his opinion that the prisoners were unlikely to win on the merits and that he would have preferred the order to inform the parties “that the denial of the application to vacate is without prejudice to the filing of a renewed application if the injunction is still in place 60 days from now.”

Notable Decisions on Stay of Execution Motions

On November 3, 2019, South Carolina executed Charles Rhines after the United States Supreme Court denied his applications for a stay of execution and petitions for certiorari. Rhines challenged several aspects of his conviction and sentencing, including jurors’ anti-gay bias. In addition, Rhines sought review of lower federal courts’ refusal to intervene when state officials blocked medical experts from being admitted to the prison to evaluate Rhines. Rhines had argued that these evaluations were necessary for his federally appointed counsel to investigate and present a clemency petition. Although she did not dissent from the denial of certiorari, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement “to emphasize that clemency is not a matter of mercy alone, but rather is the fail safe in our criminal justice system” (internal quotations omitted).


Denials of Review, With Statements by Individual Justices

On February 25, 2020, the Supreme Court denied certiorari review of Rodney Reed’s Texas conviction and death sentence. Reed had requested relief based on new evidence that he claimed demonstrated the state’s violation of Brady v. Maryland and his actual innocence of the crime. In a statement regarding the denial of certiorari, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that Reed had filed a subsequent state habeas petition following the denial of the petition for which he was seeking certiorari review. This petition provided additional evidence of Reed’s actual innocence, and as a result, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Reed’s execution and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Though not addressing the merits of Reed’s claims, Justice Sotomayor expressed concern about the issues he raised, writing: “there is no escaping the pall of uncertainty over Reed’s conviction.”

Justice Sotomayor noted with approval the Texas courts’ recognition that the execution of an actually innocent person would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. She also cautioned that the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari review should not be read as an assessment of the strength of Reed’s claims, leaving the door open for review of a future petition if the Texas courts ultimately deny habeas relief to Reed.


On November 25, 2019, the Supreme Court denied Kenneth R. Isom’s petition for writ of certiorari. Isom sought review of the Arkansas courts’ denial of his post-conviction challenge to the prosecution’s suppression of evidence. The Arkansas Supreme Court gave Isom permission to file a writ of coram nobis in the trial court to raise this issue. Isom requested that his trial judge recuse himself from the case because, before ascending to the bench, the judge had prosecuted Isom three times and taken the extraordinary step of personally petitioning the governor to rescind Isom’s parole. The trial judge denied the request and coram nobis relief. Justice Sotomayor wrote a statement regarding the denial of certiorari. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recognized the gravity of the appearance of bias in this case but did not disagree with the Court’s decision since Isom failed to raise the issue of bias when the same judge presided over his trial and other post-conviction proceedings.


On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Fred Anderson Jr.’s challenge to his Florida death sentence. Anderson was sentenced to death by a jury that had been advised that its sentence would be advisory and that “[t]he final decision as to what punishment shall be imposed[] rests solely with the Judge of this court.” The jury recommended death in a 12-0 advisory verdict. After the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida that this advisory sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, Anderson sought a resentencing. The Florida Supreme Court denied Anderson relief, holding that the Hurst error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the unanimous jury recommendation. The Florida Supreme Court has applied this holding to any death sentence that became final after Ring v. Arizona was decided in which a unanimous jury recommended death. Although the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted her “dissent for the reasons set out in Reynolds v. Florida, 586 U. S. ___ (2018) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).”


Other Notable Denials of Review

In Woodward v. Alabama, No. 18-1298, the Court declined to review the constitutionality of Alabama’s since-repealed statute that permitted the trial judge to impose the death penalty despite a jury vote in favor of life. A Montgomery, Alabama jury had convicted Mario Woodward, an African-American defendant, of killing a white police officer during a traffic stop, but had voted 8-4 to sentence him to life. The trial judge overrode the jury and imposed the death penalty.


Several petitions for certiorari challenged the constitutionality of California’s death sentencing scheme. In California, at the end of the guilt phase of a capital murder trial, a jury must determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether one of the enumerated “special circumstances” exists. If so, the case continues to a penalty phase where the jury determines whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, allowing a death sentence to be imposed. Several petitioners argue that this sentencing scheme violates the Constitution by failing to require the jurors to unanimously find the aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. This issue is raised by petitioners Michael Leon Bell (cert denied 10/7/19), Kerry Lyn Dalton (cert denied 11/12/19), Julian Alejandro Mendez (cert denied 11/4/19), among others.


Petitions of Interest

Terence Tramaine Andrus is asking the Supreme Court to review the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ (“CCA”) denial of his application for state habeas relief. According to his petition for certiorari, Andrus’ court-appointed lawyer did not investigate Andrus’ significant history of mental illness or his childhood in a chaotic household centered around drug abuse and prostitution, but instead essentially conceded Andrus’ future dangerousness to the jury. After an in-depth evidentiary hearing, a Texas trial court recommended that Andrus be granted relief and a new sentencing. On appeal, the CCA denied Andrus’ application with no discussion of the evidence adduced in post-conviction proceedings. The question presented is:

Does the standard for assessing ineffective assistance of counsel claims, announced in Strickland v. Washington, fail to protect the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process when, in death-penalty cases involving flagrantly deficient performance, courts can deny relief following a truncated “no prejudice” analysis that does not account for the evidence amassed in a habeas proceeding and relies on a trial record shaped by trial counsel’s ineffective representation?