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Supreme Court Reverses Kansas Self-Incrimination Ruling

On December 11, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that had granted relief to death row inmate Scott Cheever. The Kansas court had held that Cheever's 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated because testimony was given at his sentencing hearing by a psychiatrist who examined Cheever pursuant to a court order. Cheever had claimed he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the crime. The psychiatrist testified that his "antisocial personality," rather than his drug use, explained his crime. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the Court, said, "[W]here a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit an offense, the prosecution may present psychiatric evidence in rebuttal." Since Cheever was relying on his mental state for his defense, the prosecution was entitled to present contrary evidence on his mental state. In an earlier case, the Court had ruled psychiatric statements could not be used against a defendant who "neither initiates a psychiatric evaluation nor attempts to introduce any psychiatric evidence."


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Secretary of State John Kerry Urges Texas to Reconsider Death Sentence of Mexican Citizen

In a letter to Texas officials, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged a review of the conviction of Edgar Arias Tamayo, a Mexican citizen scheduled to be executed in January 2014. Tamayo was not notified of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty that the U.S. has signed and ratified. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ordered the U.S. to review the convictions of Tamayo and 50 other Mexican citizens who had been sentenced to death without being notified of their rights under the Vienna Convention. No U.S. court has examined the consular issues in Tamayo's case. Kerry's letter warned that executing Tamayo could damage U.S.-Mexican relations and hinder the ability of U.S. officials to help American citizens detained abroad. “Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation,” he said. Eduardo Medina Mora, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, said, “[T]his issue has become and could continue to be a significant irritant in the relations between our two countries.”


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Changing Views of Supreme Court Justices on the Death Penalty

Andrew Cohen, writing in The Atlantic, recently examined the evolution in thinking on the death penalty among Supreme Court Justices. Cohen noted that Justices John Paul Stevens (pictured), Lewis Powell, and Harry Blackmun all upheld new death-penalty statutes in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), thereby ushering in a return to capital punishment. All three, however, later said the death penalty under these statues was not being applied constitutionally. Justice Powell told his biographer, "I have come to think that capital punishment should be abolished." In a 1994 dissenting opinion, Justice Blackmun famously said, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." Justice Stevens sharply criticized the death penalty because of problems in the areas of wrongful convictions, racial bias, jury selection, and prosecutorial power. Cohen also noted the evolution in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's views on the death penalty. However, he found no Justices who went from opposing the death penalty to supporting it.


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Alabama Pardons Scottsboro Boys--Former Death Row Inmates

On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”


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Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.


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INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Determination of Mental Retardation in Florida and Georgia Under Review

On October 21, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a new case, Hall v. Florida (No. 12-10882), to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court properly upheld the death sentence of a man whose IQ is just above the state's standard for mental retardation. According to the state's law, defendants with an IQ above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states use a broader definition and there is a margin of error in such IQ tests. Freddie Lee Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80. A state judge had previously found Hall to be mentally disabled, but the ruling took place before the state passed a law setting the IQ limit. The case will be argued later in the Supreme Court's term. In Georgia, a House committee will hold an out-of-session meeting to examine the state's strict standard for determining mental retardation in capital cases. Defendants are required to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest burden of proof in the nation.


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SUPREME COURT: Self Incrimination at Issue in Kansas Case

On October 16 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Kansas v. Cheever. One of the key defense witnesses in Scott Cheever’s death penalty trial testified that Cheever’s use of drugs impaired his judgement on the day of the crime. Prosecutors, in turn, called the physician who performed Cheever’s court-mandated mental exam, and he testified that Cheever was aware of what he was doing when he committed the crime, based on Cheever's own statements to the doctor. The doctor's testimony prompted the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn Cheever’s conviction because prosecutors had violated Cheever’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Following oral argument, the Court will decide whether Cheever must be retried or his conviction and death sentence stands. 


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SUPREME COURT: High Court Declines to Review Georgia's Unusual Burden for Proving Mental Retardation

On the opening day of the U.S. Supreme Court's new term, the Justices announced they would not review the case of Warren Hill, a death row inmate in Georgia with multiple findings of intellectual disability. Hill petitioned the Court after three mental health experts, who initially said he was not mentally disabled, changed their assessment. The execution of inmates with mental retardation was ruled unconstitutional in 2002, but Georgia has the strictest standard in the nation for proving this mental disability--proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, a lawyer for Hill, said, “Mr. Hill has been procedurally barred from proving his exemption from capital punishment, which is why he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that the court would ensure that the evidence of his intellectual disability would be heard. It is tragic that our highest court has failed to enforce its own command that persons with mental retardation are categorically ineligible for the death penalty." Hill maintained he has met Georgia's exacting standard because all mental health experts who have tested him concur in his disability.


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LETHAL INJECTION: The Ongoing Controversy Over How People Are Executed

One of the nation's leading academic experts on the death penalty has written a new article describing how the controversy surrounding lethal injections has greatly intensified since the Supreme Court's ruling on the subject in 2008 (Baze v. Rees). Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, analyzed over 300 court decisions in the last five years citing Baze. She found there have been more changes in lethal injection protocols in that time than in the last 30 years, some of which have made matters worse. "The resulting protocols," she wrote, "differ from state to state, and even from one execution to the next within the same state," scarcely resembling those evaluated by the Supreme Court. As a result, "[T]this continuous tinkering often affects already troubled aspects of states’ lethal injection procedures, such as the paltry qualifications of executioners, the absence of medical experts, and the failure to account for difficulties injecting inmates whose drug-using histories diminish the availability of usable veins." She also addressed states' attempts to handle drug shortages, including changing drugs and turning to compounding pharmacies, whose recent record of contamination and resultant deaths have led to calls for greater regulatory oversight. She concluded, "Until death penalty states are willing to focus more on solutions than secrecy, lethal injection as a method of execution will remain mired in an endless cycle of difficulty and disorder."


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MENTAL ILLNESS: Man Who Defended Himself in a Cowboy Suit Deemed Sane Enough for Execution

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently held that Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti is sane enough to be executed, despite his long history of severe mental illness. Panetti was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his in-laws. Putting aside Panetti's bizarre behavior in court, the judge allowed him to represent himself at trial, where he wore a purple cowboy suit and subpoenaed Jesus Christ and Anne Bancroft as witnesses. Panetti had been hospitalized 11 times for mental illnes prior to the murders and had been released only 2 months earlier. In a previous ruling, the Fifth Circuit held that Panetti only needed to realize he had committed a crime and was therefore being executed in order to satisfy the Eighth Amendment's ban on executing individuals who are insane. The U.S. Supreme Court stopped the pending execution and held that courts should consider a defendant's complete mental history in determining whether he has a rational understanding of his situation. Panetti has said his execution is a ruse to hide a satanic plot to kill him. The Fifth Circuit relied in part on taped conversations between Panetti and his family to determine his competency.


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