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U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Kentucky Court in Intellectual Disability Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a Kentucky state court ruling that would have permitted the Commonwealth to execute death-row prisoner Larry Lamont White (pictured) without an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he is intellectually disabled. In a one-paragraph order issued on January 15, 2019, the Court granted White’s petition for review, vacated the Kentucky Supreme Court’s denial of his death-penalty appeal, and directed the state court to reconsider White’s eligibility for capital punishment in light of the standard for determining intellectual disability set forth in the justices’ 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented.

White’s trial lawyers argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, providing evidence from IQ testing conducted in 1971 when he was 12 years old. The trial court summarily denied relief and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, based on a Kentucky statute that required a capitally-charged defendant to score 70 or below on an IQ test to be considered intellectually disabled. The court said White could not be considered intellectually disabled because his IQ score was 76. The court also relied upon White’s filing of motions without the assistance of counsel to conclude “that there is ample evidence of [White]'s mental acumen.” However, ten months after White’s appeal, the state court ruled that Kentucky’s statutory IQ cutoff violated Moore and the Eighth Amendment, holding that “any rule of law that states that a criminal defendant automatically cannot be ruled intellectually disabled and precluded from execution simply because he or she has an IQ of 71 or above, even after adjustment for statistical error, is unconstitutional.”

Justice Alito dissented, citing a previous dissent by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that the Supreme Court’s summary reversals for reconsideration should be reserved for cases in which an intervening factor is present. Here, Alito argued, the Court should not have intervened because the Moore decision “was handed down almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in [White’s] case.” White’s lawyer, Kathleen Schmidt, praised the majority’s ruling, saying “[n]early 20 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, in part out of concern that intellectually disabled defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. We have similar concerns in this case, and we are grateful that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to ensure that all issues in the case are fully and properly litigated.”


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Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”


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U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of “Vindictive Prosecution” in Virginia Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Virginia Supreme Court to address a claim brought by former death-row prisoner Justin Wolfe (pictured) that prosecutors had engaged in unconstitutional vindictive prosecution against him after federal courts had found that his conviction and death sentence had been obtained through egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that Wolfe’s guilty plea to the enhanced charges brought against him after his first conviction was overturned barred him from challenging the prosecutors’ conduct. In a two-sentence order on January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court granted Wolfe’s petition to review his case, summarily reversed the state court decision, and directed the Virginia Supreme Court to consider Wolfe’s vindictive prosecution claim.

Wolfe was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 on charges that he had hired Owen Barber to kill Daniel Petrole, Jr. His conviction was overturned in 2011 when U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson found that the prosecution had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, threatened a witness with the death penalty if he did not testify against Wolfe, and presented false testimony to the jury. Judge Jackson described the prosecutorial and police misconduct in the case as “abhorrent to the judicial process.” Barber, the admitted triggerman and the state’s key witness against Wolfe, had recanted his testimony in 2005. He said, “The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying.” Prosecutors had in their possession, but withheld from the defense, a police report documenting that a detective had suggested to Barber that he implicate Wolfe in the murder or face execution, as well as information that Barber had confessed to his roommate that he had acted alone in committing the murder. The prosecution attempted to justify its conduct by saying it had withheld the evidence to avoid providing Wolfe with information that could be used “to fabricate a defense.”

In 2012, Judge Jackson ordered Virginia to release Wolfe and barred a retrial, saying that a prosecution visit to Barber in 2012 in which it again threatened him with the death penalty if he did not cooperate showed "the same subtle but unmistakable coercion" as earlier efforts to induce his testimony. Six months later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and allowed the state to retry Wolfe. Prosecutors not only sought to retry Wolfe, but added six new charges. Rather than face the possibility of another death sentence, Wolfe agreed to a plea deal. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 83 years in prison, with 42 years suspended. He attempted to appeal the validity of the plea “in light of the Commonwealth’s vindictive prosecution,” but the Virginia Supreme Court on February 5, 2018 refused his petition for appeal. He sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his appeal should be allowed under its 2018 decision in Class v. United States, which held that “‘a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face—the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute.’” The Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling and sent the case back for further consideration in light of Class.


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