Supreme Court 2007

Supreme Court and the Death Penalty
The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing four death penalty cases in January 2007:

This Arizona case will be argued on January 9. The Court will decide whether defense counsel has a duty to develop and offer evidence favorable to the client in a death penalty case when the client actively opposes presentation of such mitigating evidence. On a habeas corpus petition, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (en banc) held that Landrigan had received ineffective representation and was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

These two cases have been consolidated and will be argued on January 17. The basic question in both cases is whether Texas' former jury instructions allowed the jury to consider the full range of mitigating evidence that a defendant might offer, especially regarding mental impairments. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied relief to both defendants.

SMITH V. TEXAS, No. 05-11304
This case will be argued on the same day as the consolidated cases above, January 17. The issue again involves Texas' former jury instructions. The underlying issue in this case had been decided earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the defendant, LaRoyce Smith, in 2004 and remanded back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for consideration of a new sentence. The Texas court denied Smith a resentencing because it said he had not shown "egregious harm" to his fair trial rights. The Supreme Court will decide whether the Texas court applied the proper standard of review.

The Supreme Court has already decided one capital case this term:
Argued Oct. 3, 2006; Decided Nov. 13, 2006
The Court upheld California's death penalty law in a 5-4 decision. The majority held that the state's law allowed the jury to consider all appropriate mitigating evidence, thereby overturning a ruling to the contrary by the 9th Circuit.

The Court's decision in LAWRENCE V. FLORIDA, No. 05-8820, argued Oct. 31, 2006, is pending.

On December 7, the Court accepted a new capital case, ROPER V. WEAVER, No. 06-313, which will examine the standards for when a prosecutor's argument at the penalty phase is unfairly inflammatory.

For more information on all of these cases, see Supreme Court.

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Texas Court Rejects Presidential Order in Death Penalty Case

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rebuffed President Bush's order that Texas courts review the cases of Mexican foreign nationals who were sentenced to death without the benefit of their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  Writing for the court, Judge Michael Keasler, stated: "We hold that the President has exceeded his constitutional authority by intruding into the independent powers of the judiciary."  Judge Sharon Keller concurred, writing: "this unprecedented, unnnecessary, and intrusive exercise of power over the Texas court system cannot be supported by the foreign policy authority conferred on him by the United States Constitution."

In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that 51 Mexican citizens who were on death row in the U.S. were entitled to a review of their convictions and sentences in light of the fact that they were not informed of their right to speak to their consular officials at the time of their arrest, as guaranteed under the Vienna Convention.  While one of these cases, that of Jose Ernesto Medellin, was making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, President Bush issued a memorandum to the Justice Department ordering that state courts abide by the decision of the International Court.  The U.S. State Department also announced that, for future cases, the U.S. was withdrawing from the agreement that gave the International Court jurisdiction in the case of the 51 Mexican citizens.

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Supreme Court Justices Raise Issue of Time on Death Row

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's death penalty law in a 5-4 decision on Nov. 13 in Ayers v. Belmontes. The majority held that the state's law allowed the jury to consider all appropriate mitigating evidence. The decision reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which had overturned Belmontes death sentence. The dissent, consisting of Justices Stephens, Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter, however, disagreed, contending that the jury would have to disregard the judge's instructions in order to consider mitigating evidence about the defendant's future prospects for reform. The dissent argued for a more appropriate balancing of state's need for its law to be carried out with the defendant's right to have all the evidence that might save his life considered by the jury. The dissent stated that the state's need for an execution was greatly diminished by the fact that this case was now 25 years old, and, hence, the people would gain little by having an execution carried out now, whereas the defendant had everything to lose by an unfair decision:

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Supreme Court Takes Two More Cases Regarding Texas' Faulty Jury Instructions

On October 13, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two capital cases from Texas in which the defendant was sentenced to death after the jury was given instructions that the Court has since found unconstitutional. Unlike in most states where the jury considers a range of aggravating and mitigating circumstances about the crime and the defendant before choosing a sentence of life or death, in Texas the jury was (the law has since been modified) given a series of yes-or-no questions about the crime and the future dangerousness of the defendant. In prior cases, the Supreme Court has said that such a mechanism does not allow full consideration of a person's mental disabilities, which should be counted as a mitigating factor. In the cases recently accepted, the trial judges instructed the jury that they could simply answer "no" to one of the factual questions if they did not want to sentence the person to death, even though the proper answer based on the facts should be "yes." In both of the new cases taken by the Court, the defendants were sentenced to death using this "nullification" instruction, and their appeals were denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Texas Death Case a Second Time

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from Texas death row inmate LaRoyce Smith even though they had reviewed his case once before.  On October 6, 2006, the Court granted certiorari to decide whether the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had applied the wrong standard after the Supreme Court had sent Smith's case back to them earlier.

The dispute does not involve Smith's 1991 conviction for the murder of a Taco Bell manager in Dallas.  Rather the Supreme Court held (7-2) in 2004 that Texas' jury instructions did not allow the jury sufficient latitude to consider Smith's low IQ and other mitigating evidence.  But instead of giving Smith a new sentencing hearing, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in March that the fault in the jury instructions was negligible because it did not cause "egregious harm" to Smith's right to a fair trial, and thus upheld Smith's death sentence.  Texas has changed the way the jury is instructed in capital cases, but the change was not in effect for Smith's sentencing.

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Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution to Clarence Hill, 5-4

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution to Clarence Hill who is scheduled to be executed at 6 pm on September 20 in Florida.  Four Justices would have granted the stay.  Hill had raised a civil rights challenge to Florida's lethal injection law after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in June in his favor that such a challenge was proper.  However, the lower courts stated that his claim was filed too late and they denied him an evidentiary hearing on the merits of his lethal injection challenge. 

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Supreme Court Denies Remedies Under International Treaty

On June 28, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two consolidated cases involving the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In both cases, the foreign nationals were arrested but not informed by police officers of their consular rights under the Convention to ask that their respective consulates be notified of their detention. The Court concluded that statements made by foreign nationals do not need to be suppressed, even though the defendants were not informed of their consular rights.

The consolidated cases were: Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon (No. 04-10566) and Bustillo v. Johnson. In the first case, Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a Mexican national, was arrested after an exchange of gunfire with police. The officers did not inform him of his rights under Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention, namely his right to ask that the Mexican Consulate be notified of his detention. He made incriminating statements about the shootout during interrogation, but the state court denied his motion to suppress those statements on the ground that the authorities failed to comply with Article 36. Sanchez-Llamas was convicted and sentenced to prison. The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, concluding that Article 36 does not create rights to consular access or notification that a detained individual can enforce in a judicial proceeding.

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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Kansas Death Penalty Law

In a 5-4 decision that revealed a deep division among the Justices over the fairness of capital punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas's death penalty statute on June 26. In Kansas v. Marsh, the Court held that juries may be required to sentence a defendant to die when there is an equal weight of mitigating and aggravating evidence. The ruling overturns a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found the practice unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas noted, "Our precedents establish that a state enjoys a range of discretion in imposing the death penalty." Justice David Souter wrote in his dissent for the minority that Kansas's law could lead to death sentences in doubtful cases, and he pointed to reviews finding that dozens of people sentenced to death were later exonerated. Citing pressure for prosecutors to win convictions, misidentifications, and false confessions that have contributed to the "hazards of capital prosecution," Souter called the Kansas law "obtuse by any moral or social measure." Because of the problem of innocence, he noted that, "We are thus in a period of new empirical argument about how 'death is different' ...."

Justice Antonin Scalia, concurring separately, discounted the dangers of convicting the innocent in capital cases and said that he had seen no clear evidence that an innocent person had been executed in recent years.

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NEW RESOURCE: DPIC Resources Available as 30th Anniversary of Gregg v. Georgia Approaches

July 2, 2006 will mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia, an historic ruling that upheld newly crafted death penalty statutes and signaled the beginning of the modern era of capital punishment. This milestone presents the public with an opportunity to examine the application of the death penalty over the past three decades and to test whether the Court’s expectation of a fairer and less arbitrary system of capital punishment has been fulfilled. As this anniversary approaches, DPIC has compiled a set of resources related to this event, including a timeline of significant death penalty events over the past 30 years and a fact sheet on arbitrariness and the death penalty. The following resources are available in PDF format:

See also, U.S. Supreme Court, Arbitrariness, and Resources.

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Supreme Court Grants Tennessee Death Row Inmate New Hearing Based on DNA Evidence

The U.S. Supreme has expanded the ability of death row inmates to challenge their convictions in federal court based on DNA evidence produced long after their trials. The ruling marks the first time that the Justices have considered the new evidentiary technology of DNA evidence when re-examining a death sentence. In its 5-3 decision, the Court held that new evidence, including DNA test results, raised sufficient doubt to merit a new hearing in federal court for Tennessee death row inmate Paul House, who was sentenced to death two decades ago for the rape and murder of his neighbor.

Writing for the majority in House v. Bell, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted, "Although the issue is close, we conclude that this is the rare case where - had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony - it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror viewing the record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt." Justice Kennedy identified three aspects of House's case that, when considered as a whole, qualified him to gain access to a habeas corpus hearing in federal court. The first piece of new evidence was recent DNA test results finding that House was not the source of semen found in the murder victim, but that the source was instead the victims' husband. Second, new statements from three witnesses linked the victims' husband to the crime. Lastly, recent tests have cast doubt on the reliability of blood evidence presented at House's trial. Although prosecutors told jurors that the victims' blood had been found on House's blue jeans, new evidence has raised the prospect that the blood spattered on House's jeans came from a vial of the victims' blood taken during an autopsy.

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