Jones v. U.S., 97-9361, The Court, reviewing the sentencing provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 for the first time, held that jurors in death penalty cases do not have to be told about the consequences of their failing to agree on whether life or death is the appropriate sentence. The sentencing provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act allow for three sentencing options: death, life without parole and a lesser sentence. The Court’s instructions to the jury in Jones were unclear about these options and the effect of an un-unanimous verdict by the jury.

Strickler v. Greene, No. 98-5864. The Court upheld a Fourth Circuit decision ruling that Virginia did not violate Brady v. Maryland when it failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. The Supreme Court held that even if the evidence had been disclosed, there was not a reasonable probability that it would have changed the case’s outcome. (AP 6/17/99)

Lilly v. Virginia, No. 98-5881. The Court overturned the conviction of Virginia Death Row inmate, Benjamin Lee Lilly. In a unanimous decision, the Court opined that Lilly’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him was violated when a co-defendant, who had given a statement to police accusing Lilly, refused to testify at Lilly’s trial, citing his right to remain silent. The justices ordered a lower court to determine whether the error could be considered harmless. (Associated Press 6/10/99). The Virginia Supreme Court found that the error was not harmless and therefore his conviction was overturned and remanded for re-trial.

Federal Republic of Germany v. United States, 119 S.Ct. 1016. The Court denied an application by the German government to file a complaint and a motion for injunction against the United States and the Governor of Arizona to stop the execution of Walter LaGrand.

Stewart v. LaGrand, 119 S.Ct. 1018. This order by the Court reversed an order by the Ninth Circuit that had enjoined the State of Arizona from executing Walter LaGrand by lethal gas. The Court held that LaGrand’s claim was procedurally barred and he had nonetheless waived his ability to challenge lethal gas when he chose it over lethal injection.

Calderon v. Coleman, No.98-437. The Court recently made it more difficult for federal courts to reverse a state death sentence because of a constitutional error. In a 5-4 vote, the justices imposed strict standards on federal judges as they weigh the impact of a trial error on the jury’s verdict. In a California case involving the rape and murder of a woman, the jury was informed that the governor could commute a sentence of life without parole to a lesser sentence; they were also told to disregard this information in deciding what sentence to give the prisoner, Russell Coleman. However, the jury was not told that under the California constitution, the governor does not have the authority to reduce the sentence of someone with multiple felony convictions (which Coleman had) without the approval of four state Supreme Court justices. The jury sentenced Coleman to death.

A federal court overturned the sentence, holding that the jury had been misled with the inaccurate instruction and that this was not a “harmless error”. This decision was affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. California argued that although the instruction was incomplete, it was not a reversible error using the 1993 standard for federal review of state verdicts. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that even if the jury instruction failed to meet constitutional standards, the 9th Circuit failed to show that “in the whole context” of a case, the misleading instruction had a “substantial and injurious” effect on the verdict. (Dec. 14, 1998)

Elledge v. Florida, No.98-54210. Elledge was denied cert. and in his dissenting opinion to that denial, Justice Breyer wrote that a lengthy delay between sentencing and execution may be unconstitutional. Justice Breyer seriously questioned whether William Elledge’s 23 years under a sentence of death was cruel and unusual punishment and thus prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. As support for the argument that the punishment is “cruel,” Justice Breyer noted that the inmate “experienced the delay because of the State’s own faulty procedures and not because of frivolous appeals on his own part.” Justice Breyer also questioned the effectiveness of the punishment: “After such a delay, an execution may well cease to serve the legitimate penological purposes that otherwise provide a necessary constitutional justification for the death penalty.” (October 13, 1998).