Patterson v. Texas, No. 02-6010

The Court denied Toronto Patterson’s appeal for a stay of execution in order to consider whether the execution of juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment. Three Supreme Court Justices - Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer - dissented, stating that the Court should consider reviewing the death penalty for those who commit crimes before the age of 18. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote, “Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate for the court to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity.” (Washington Post, August 29, 2002). Read Justice Stevens’s dissenting opinion.

Horn v. Banks, No. 01-1385

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case of George Banks of Pennsylvania to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit finding that the lower court erred in not performing a Teague retroactivity analysis before granting Bank’s petition for federal habeas corpus relief from his death sentence. The Court, in an unsigned opinion and without oral arguments in the case, held that the lower court must determine if new standards for jury instructions, set by the Supreme Court in Mills v. Maryland in 1988 and later clarified in 1990, should be applied retroactively to Banks, who was convicted before the new jury instructions went into effect. (Horn v. Banks, No. 01-1385. June 17, 2002) Read the decision.

Allen v. United States, No. 01-7310

The Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of federal death row inmate Billie J. Allen and remanded the case back to the Eighth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the Court’s recent ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In Ring, the Court held that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case (see below). Allen was sentenced under federal law, which provides that the jury determine whether certain aggravating factors exist. However, under the federal system, the specific circumstances that the government intends to prove are not part of the indictment, which appears to be required by Ring. (New York Times, 6/29/02)

United States v. Bass, No. 01-1471

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Sixth Circuit opinion upholding a federal court’s decision to grant defendant John Bass’s discovery motion based on selective prosecution. Bass alleged that the government was seeking the death penalty against him because of his race and was granted a motion for discovery regarding the Government’s capital charging practices. The Sixth Circuit found that Bass made a threshold showing based on national statistics that “the United States charged blacks with a death-eligible offense more than twice as often as it charges whites.” The U.S. Supreme Court, however, found that Bass did not make a threshold showing for a selective prosecution case, which requires evidence of a discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent. The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, holding that a discriminatory effect could not be found because “raw statistics regarding overall charges say nothing about charges brought against similarly situated defendants.” (U.S. v. Bass, 536 U.S. ___ (2002)).

Ring v. Arizona, No. 01-488

On June 24, 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court decided 7-2 that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case. The case applies an earlier U.S. Supreme Court case, Apprendi v. New Jersey (500 U.S. 466 (2000)), in which the Court held that a judge could not make findings which would increase a defendant’s sentence beyond the maximum, since that amounted to an additional conviction. In Arizona and eight other states, judges have decided whether to impose the death penalty after a jury has determined guilt. (Associated Press, 1/11/02) See also, DPIC’s Web Page, U.S. Supreme Court: Ring v. Arizona.

Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that executing those with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (Associated Press, 6/20/02)

In 1989, the Court held that executing persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment because a “national consensus” had not developed against executing those with mental retardation. At the time, only two states prohibited such executions. Since then, 16 more states and the federal government have enacted laws prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded. See also, Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty.

Kelly v. South Carolina, No. 00-9280

The Court decided 5-4 that the South Carolina trial court violated Simmons v. South Carolina (512 U.S. 154 (1994)) when it refused to inform Kelly’s sentencing jury that he would never be eligible for parole if the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment rather than to death. In Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if the state characterizes the defendant as displaying future dangerousness - and the only available alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without parole - the jury must be informed of the defendant’s parole ineligibility under a life sentence.

In Kelly’s case, the prosecution argued during the sentencing phase that “murders will be murderers” and informed the jury that, when previously incarcerated, Kelly had planned escapes from jail. Kelly was subsequently sentenced to death. On appeal, Kelly argued that the state raised the issue of future dangerousness when it brought up evidence of his escape attempts because a successful escape would imply a risk to the public. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the evidence of the escape attempts is not the kind of future dangerousness contemplated by Simmons. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision and granted Kelly a new sentencing trial. (Associated Press, 1/9/02 and Kelly v. South Carolina, No. 00-9280) Read the decision.

McCarver v. North Carolina, No. 00-8727

The Court dismissed the case of Ernest McCarver, a death row inmate in North Carolina with mental retardation. After the Justices had agreed to review McCarver’s case, North Carolina passed a bill prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded, rendering McCarver’s case moot. The Court instead will decide the case of Daryl Atkins, a Virginia death row inmate with mental retardation, to consider whether executing those with mental retardation offends society’s “evolving standards of decency” and thus violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (Associated Press, 9/25/01)

Weston v. United States, No. 01-6161

The Court declined to review the case of Russell Weston, the man accused of killing two U.S. Capitol police officers in 1998. Weston was appealing a U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding the government’s efforts to force Weston to take antipsychotic medication. If the treatment is successful, he will stand trial, and could possibly face the death penalty. (Washington Post, 12/11/01)

Mickens v. Taylor, No. 00-9285

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the capital conviction of Walter Mickens, who had been represented by a lawyer who had also represented the victim from Mickens’ crime. The majority held that this apparent conflict of interest did not warrant a reversal without a showing of an “adverse effect” on the representation. The dissent remarked: “Mickens had a constitutional right to the services of an attorney devoted solely to his interests.” “That right was violated.” (New York Times, 3/28/02) Mickens is scheduled for execution on June 12. Read the decision.

Bell v. Cone, No. 01-400

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Gary Cone from Tennessee, despite the fact that his lawyer presented no mitigating evidence on Cone’s behalf and passed up an opportunity to argue for his life. The attorney was reportedly suffering from mental illness and later committed suicide. The Court ruled 8-1 that the attorney’s inaction did not amount to a complete absence of representation, and that the state court did not act unreasonably when it held that the attorney might have been making a tactical decision in not presenting evidence. (Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. ___ (2002); see also Associated Press, May 28, 2002). Read the opinion.

Cockrell v. Burdine, No. 01-495

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide an appeal by the state of Texas of a Fifth Circuit Court ruling that granted Texas death row inmate Calvin Burdine a new trial on the basis of ineffective counsel. According to several witnesses, Burdine’s attorney dozed repeatedly during his original trial. The Circuit Court held that “unconscious counsel equates to no counsel at all,” and that Burdine was therefore “denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial.” (New York Times, June 4, 2002)

Stewart v. Smith, No. 01-339

The U.S. Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion reversed the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which had granted relief to death row inmate Robert Smith. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled independently of federal law when it denied Smith’s claim of ineffectiveness of counsel. The Arizona Court held that Smith failed to comply with Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.