Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of December 142020

NEWS (12/18/20) — Texas: The Texas Supreme Court has overturned a ruling by the state’s comptroller that had denied death-row exoneree Alfred Dewayne Brown’s application for compensation and directed the comptroller to pay Brown the compensation mandated by state law.

Brown was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in 2005. Following his exoneration, he applied for compensation under Texas’ Tim Cole Act, but his application was denied because he had not been adjudicated “actually innocent” at the time charges against him were dismissed. After the trial court reopened his case and declared Brown actually innocent, Brown again applied for compensation. The comptroller denied the application again, this time asserting that the trial court had lacked jurisdiction to issue its declaration of innocence. The Texas Supreme Court admonished the comptroller that it lacked authority to question the trial court’s ruling and said that the comptroller had only a ministerial role in the compensation process. The court returned the case to the comptroller to provide compensation to Brown.

NEWS (12/17/20) — Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court has vacated the death sentence imposed on Damantae Graham for the shooting death of a Kent State student during an apartment robbery and directed that the trial court resentence Graham to life without parole. The court ruled that the aggravating circumstances found by the jury in the case did not outweigh the mitigating factors presented by Graham beyond a reasonable doubt.

Although the court rejected Graham’s claim that his death sentence was unconstitutional because he was barely 19 years old at the time of the offense, it held that the aggravating circumstances in his case — which related solely to the circumstances of the offense — did not outweigh beyond a reasonable doubt the “strong and compelling mitigating evidence regarding Graham’s history and background.” That evidence including Graham’s age, dysfunctional family, unstable home environment, history of mental-health issues, inadequately treated drug dependency, positive adjustment in a structured environment, and expression of sympathy to the victim’s family.

NEWS (12/16/20) — Alabama: The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has vacated the death sentence of Lionel Francis, ordering a life sentence after finding the evidence insufficient to establish any aggravating circumstance that would have made Francis eligible for the death penalty.

Alabama law requires proof of at least one aggravating circumstance before a defendant can be subject to capital punishment. In Francis’ case, prosecutors offered evidence of a single aggravating circumstance, that the defendant had previously been “convicted of another capital offense or a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person” and attempted to prove it with evidence that he had been convicted in North Dakota of being an accomplice to aggravated assault.

Prosecutors argued that the conviction qualified as proof of the aggravating circumstance because it constituted a felony under Alabama law. The offense, however, was a misdemeanor under North Dakota law. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the state in which the conviction occurred determines whether the offense was a felony or a misdemeanor. Accordingly, the court found the North Dakota conviction failed to establish that Francis had been convicted of a felony, held that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to establish any aggravating circumstance, and directed that the trial court resentence Francis to life without possibility of parole.

NEWS (12/14/20) — Arizona: In an unsigned 6-3 opinion, the United States Supreme Court granted Arizona’s petition to review the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that had overturned George Kayer’s death sentence, reversed the decision, and reinstated Kayer’s death sentence. Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor dissented.

In overturning the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the conservative bloc of the Court extended its judge-made rule that federal courts must ascertain hypothetically reasonable justifications for a state court ruling when a state court fails to articulate its reasons for rejecting a state prisoner’s constitutional claims, extending that rule to instances in which a state court set forth its reasons for rejecting one prong of a constitutional claim but not another.

In addressing the Arizona courts’ failure to provide reasons for its view that Kayler did not suffer prejudice from his lawyer’s failure to present a range of available mitigating evidence, the Court wrote: “Insofar as the state court offered its conclusion on the prejudice question without articulating its reasoning supporting that conclusion, we ‘must determine what arguments or theories … could have supported the state court’s’ determination that Kayer failed to show prejudice.” The Court ruled that fair-minded jurists could devise a hypothetically reasonable basis to find that Kayer did not suffer prejudice, and it rejected his ineffectiveness claim.