Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 98-8384. The Court, voting 6-3, held that the Virginia Supreme Court applied the wrong test when examining a claim that Williams’s lawyer was ineffective in the sentencing phase of his trial. The Court also disagreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which had upheld Williams’s death sentence. Williams’s lawyer had failed to present evidence of child abuse, borderline mental retardation, and potential for reform in his client’s history. Such information might well have led to a different sentence. The Fourth Circuit erred when it held that the state could only be overruled if all reasonable jurists agreed. The U.S. Supreme Court said that Virginia had acted unreasonably and contrary to the High Court’s precedence, and that was sufficient for federal relief under the AEDPA.

On the broader question of how much deference federal courts owe a state court interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Justice O’Connor, writing for a 5-4 majority, said it is not enough if a state court acted incorrectly. It must be unreasonably wrong or contrary to explicit Supreme Court precedent for relief to be given. This part of the Court’s decision may make it more difficult for state prisoners to gain federal review than before the enactment of the AEDPA.

Domingues v. Nevada, 98-8327, the Court denied certiorari to Michael Domingues, who argued that his execution would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because he was only 16 years old at the time of his crime. The treaty, which prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, was ratified by the United States in 1992. However, the U.S. attached a reservation in order to allow the execution of those who committed crimes while under the age of 18. The Court’s decision not to review the case is not a decision on the merits of Domingues’s claim, which may be raised in other courts.

Knight v. Florida, No. 98-9741; Moore v. Nebraska, No. 99-5291. The Court decided not to decide, at this time, an appeal from two death row inmates concerning the cruelty of the amount of time they had spent on death row. Justice Breyer dissented from the Court’s decision: “Both of these cases involve astonishingly long delays flowing in significant part from constitutionally defective death penalty procedures. Where a delay, measured in decades, reflects the State’s own failure to comply with the Constitution’s demands, the claim that time has rendered the execution inhuman is a particularly strong one.” (Nov. 8, 1999).

Weeks v. Angelone, No. 99-5746. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a judge presiding over a death penalty case was not obliged to clarify a sentencing instruction that, while constitutional, left the jury confused. The dissent written by Justice Stevens, said there was a “virtual certainty” that the jury was confused, as well as “no reason to believe” the judge’s answer had resolved the confusion. (New York Times, 1/20/00)

In re Tarver, No. 99-8044. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Alabama death row inmate Robert Tarver, Jr., who challenged the constitutionality of Alabama’s electric chair. The Court granted Tarver a stay of execution on February 4, to decide whether to hear oral arguments in his case. The Court may use another case to review the constitutionality of the electric chair in the three remaining states that use electrocution as their sole method of execution. (Associated Press 2/22/00 and New York Times, 2/23/00)

Bryan v. Moore, 99-6723, The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as moot. The Court cited recent Florida legislation which changed the state’s primary method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. The case would have decided if use of Florida’s electric chair violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Three remaining states continue to use the electric chair as their sole method of execution: Alabama, Georgia, and Nebraska. (New York Times, 1/25/00)

Williams (Michael) v. Taylor, 99-6615. Although a provision of the AEDPA bars federal courts from holding hearings to determine factual issues if an inmate “failed to develop” such facts in state court, the Supreme Court unanimously held that “failure to develop” is not established unless there is lack of diligence, or some greater fault, attributable to the prisoner or his counsel. The Court held that Williams could not have developed facts to support his claims of juror bias and prosecutorial misconduct because the necessary information was withheld by the prosecution.

Slack v. McDaniel, 98-6322. In a 7 to 2 ruling, the Court held that an inmate could not be barred from raising new constitutional challenges to his conviction in a subsequent federal habeas corpus petition when the inmate’s initial petition was dismissed on procedural grounds, with its constitutional claims unadjudicated. Although not a death penalty case, the Court’s decision affects capital cases under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. (New York Times, 4/27/00)

Ramdass v. Angelone, 99-7000. The Court held that Ramdass was not entitled to a jury instruction that informed jurors that if he were given a life sentence, he would never be eligible for parole under Virginia’s three-strikes law. The Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s holding that Ramdass did not qualify under the law because, although he had been found guilty by juries of three separate crimes, one of the trial judges had not yet entered a judgment of guilt.

Saldano v. Texas, 99-8119. The Court ordered Texas courts to provide a new sentence hearing to death row inmate Victor Hugo Saldano because prosecutors used racial and ethnic stereotypes in order to obtain a death sentence. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn conceded that the state erred in allowing a psychologist to testify about Saldano’s “future dangerousness” based on factors that included the fact that Saldano is Hispanic, and joined Saldano in asking the Court for a new sentencing hearing. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously upheld Saldano’s death sentence, stating that the prosecution’s use of ethnicity as a factor to be considered in death sentencing was not a “fundamental error” requiring reversal. (Associated Press, 6/5/00)