United States Supreme Court

Case Updates by Supreme Court Term

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions: 2022-2023 Term

Last Updated: Nov. 15, 2022

Pending Decisions

REED V. GOERTZ, No. 21-442

Cert. granted: April 25, 2022
Argument: Oct. 11, 2022
Decided: ——

The Supreme Court agreed to review Rodney Reed’s challenge of a federal appellate court decision about the timing of a challenge to Texas’ denial of DNA testing.

Reed sought DNA testing of crime-scene evidence that he argues could support his innocence claim. A Texas trial court denied the motion for DNA testing in 2014, and Reed appealed the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA). The TCCA initially remanded the case to the trial court and eventually affirmed the trial court’s decision in 2017. In 2019, Reed filed suit in federal court to challenge the denial of testing under federal civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

A Texas federal district court dismissed Reed’s suit because it found that he had failed to state a constitutional claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Reed’s suit but for different reasons than relied upon by the court below. The Fifth Circuit found that Reed’s 1983 suit was untimely because Reed had 2 years from the Texas trial court’s denial of his DNA testing motion to bring the case. The Court held that since Reed was challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ DNA testing statute, the 2-year clock began running when his motion was first denied.

At the U.S. Supreme Court, Reed is arguing that the Fifth Circuit has misinterpreted the law in calculating the 2-year limitations period. Reed argues that his 1983 suit was timely filed because he brought the case within two years of the TCCA’s final decision on his DNA claim.

The question presented in Reed’s petition for certiorari is:

[W]hether the statute of limitations for a § 1983 claim seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run at the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals (as the Eleventh Circuit has held), or whether it begins to run at the moment the state trial court denies DNA testing, despite any subsequent appeal (as the Fifth Circuit, joining the Seventh Circuit, held

For more information about the case, view the U.S. Supreme Court docket here.

CRUZ V. ARIZONA, No. 21-846

Cert. granted: March 28, 2022
Argument: Nov. 1, 2022
Decided: ——

The Supreme Court has agreed to review John Montenegro Cruz’s challenge to Arizona’s denial of post-conviction relief based on the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury about Cruz’s parole ineligibility.

In 1994, the Supreme Court held in Simmons v. South Carolina that when future dangerousness is at issue in a capital case, a defendant has a due process right to inform jurors that he will not be parole eligible if he is not sentenced to death. Despite Simmons, the Arizona Supreme Court consistently ruled that Arizona capital defendants were not entitled to a jury instruction about defendants’ parole ineligibility. The court reasoned that all defendants could receive executive clemency, so there was still a possibility of release for parole ineligible prisoners. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the unconstitutionality of Arizona’s past practice, summarily reversing an Arizona Supreme Court decision. In Lynch v. Arizona, the Court made clear that just like the defendant in Simmons, Arizona defendants convicted of capital offenses were “ineligible for parole under state law.”

Cruz was sentenced to death in 2005. The state challenged Cruz’s expert witness who testified that Cruz was unlikely to be dangerous in a prison environment. The trial court denied Cruz’s requests to instruct the jury that he was parole ineligible and his request to have the chairman of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency testify that he was parole ineligible. Instead, the court instructed the jury that the alternative to a death sentence was sentencing Cruz to “[l]ife imprisonment with a possibility of parole or release from imprisonment” after 25 years. Jurors were not instructed that Arizona law excluded from parole eligibility those who were sentenced to 25 years to life after 1994. After sentencing Cruz to death, the foreperson of the jury stated that a life without parole option would have made a difference. The foreperson said: “Many of us would rather have voted for life if there was one mitigating circumstance that warranted it. In our minds there wasn’t. We were not given an option to vote for life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Cruz raised the issue on direct appeal, but the Arizona Supreme Court decided that Simmons did not apply. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Lynch decision, Cruz sought state post-conviction relief. Cruz argued that he was entitled to relief based on federal principles about when a case is applied retroactively and based on Arizona’s Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g) that allows post-conviction relief when “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.” The Arizona Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief, relying on Rule 32.1(g) and not addressing Cruz’s federal retroactivity arguments.

On March 28, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari review, reframing Cruz’s proposed question presented to the following:

Whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g) precluded post-conviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.

For more information about the case, view the U.S. Supreme Court docket here.

Orders of the Court and Related Items

Notable Decisions on Stay of Execution Motions

The Supreme Court declined Tracy Beatty’s petition for certiorari and denied his request for a stay of execution on November 9, 2022, without no noted dissents, allowing Beatty’s execution to proceed. Beatty’s counsel argued that Beatty exhibited symptoms of mental illness that could affect a request for clemency or lead to an incompetency claim, but that they had not been able to develop sufficient evidence of that, because the state of Texas refused to allow him to be evaluated by a mental health expert while unshackled.

The Supreme Court denied pre-execution stay requests from Benjamin Cole on October 19 and 20, 2022, allowing Cole’s execution to go forward. Cole’s attorneys argued that the Oklahoma death row prisoner was mentally incompetent to be executed because of his schizophrenia and brain damage. On October 19, the Court denied Cole’s petition for certiorari review of the Oklahoma courts’ disposition of his competency to be executed claim, and the Court refused to stay his execution. On October 20, the Court denied his original habeas corpus petition on mental competence grounds and his related request for a stay. For each of the orders, no dissents were noted, but Justice Neil Gorsuch recused himself from considering the cases.

Denials of Review, With Statements by Individual Justices

On November 7, 2022, the Supreme Court denied certiorari review of Davel Chinn’s Ohio conviction and death sentence. Chinn argued that Montgomery County prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to provide evidence to the defense that could have impeached the credibility of a key prosecution witness, and that the appellate courts applied the wrong standard to determine whether this omission was material.

Chinn was convicted of a murder during the course of a robbery, largely based on the testimony of a supposed accomplice, Marvin Washington, who is intellectually disabled, which “may have affected [his] ability to remember, perceive fact from fiction, and testify accurately.” Although Washington’s disability was documented in his juvenile records (which stated that he had an IQ of 48), the State did not provide those records to the defense prior to Chinn’s trial. During Chinn’s direct appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court stated that the prosecution’s case hinged on Washington’s testimony. However, during post-conviction appeals, when Chinn’s counsel raised the Brady claim, the state courts determined that the evidence about the witness’s credibility was not “material” enough to affect the trial.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented from the Court’s denial of certiorari. The dissent focused on “the relatively low burden that is ‘materiality’ for the purposes of Brady and Strickland.” It stated that the standard set by those cases, that there is a violation of the defendant’s rights if there is a “reasonable probability of a different outcome” if the misconduct did not occur, is lower than the “more probable than not” preponderance of the evidence standard. The dissent noted that although the Sixth Circuit purported to recognize that the standards were different, it also claimed that the standards were “effectively the same,” and incorrectly applied a higher “preponderance of the evidence” evaluation to Chinn’s claim.

On October 11, 2022, the Supreme Court denied certiorari review of Andre Thomas’ conviction and death sentence. Thomas argued that he was tried by a racially biased jury and that his attorneys provided ineffective representation by failing to remove racially biased individuals during jury selection.

Thomas was convicted by an all-white jury of murdering his wife, their son, and his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship. Notably, Thomas is Black, his wife and her daughter were white, and their son was biracial. Three of the jurors who decided Thomas’ fate indicated on written pre-trial questionnaires that they opposed interracial marriage or did not believe interracial couples should have children. Thomas’ attorneys failed to question two of the jurors about their answers and did not attempt to prevent any of them from sitting on the jury.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented from the denial of certiorari. She wrote that Thomas’ trial counsel “fell far below an objective standard of reasonableness” by failing to question or object to the potential jurors who opposed interracial marriage in a case centered on an interracial family. Further, the state court’s finding that Thomas was not prejudiced by his attorney’s actions “violated clearly established law,” because “seating even one biased juror infringes on a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right” to an impartial jury. Justice Sotomayor wrote that courts must “safeguard the fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that jurors do not harbor, or at the very least could put aside, racially biased sentiments.”

Petitions of Interest

The Supreme Court will consider whether to grant Areli Escobar’s petition for certiorari on October 28, 2022. In 2011, Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death in a Travis County, Texas court based largely on DNA evidence from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab. The lab was later closed due to major errors, leading to numerous questions about the reliability of the evidence it processed. Based on these issues, Escobar challenged the DNA evidence in a state post-conviction proceeding. A trial court judge found that the DNA evidence was false, misleading, and unreliable, and that the remaining evidence used to convict him was circumstantial. The trial court recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) grant Escobar relief. When the case came before the TCCA, the Travis County DA’s office joined Escobar’s lawyers in arguing for a new trial, based on doubts about the original evidence. The TCCA upheld the conviction in a short, unsigned opinion.

The question presented to the Supreme Court is:

Did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals err in holding that the prosecution’s reliance on admittedly false DNA evidence to secure petitioner’s conviction and death sentence is consistent with the federal Due Process clause because there is no reasonable likelihood that the false DNA evidence could have affected the judgment of the jury?