Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of June 292020

NEWS (7/2/20) — Florida: The Florida Supreme Court denied relief to death-row prisoner Leroy Pooler, applying two recent decisions that retroactively rescinded case precedent that could have overturned his death sentence.

The court ruled that it would not apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hall v. Florida to Pooler’s intellectual disability claim, leaving in place a prior state court decision that had used an unconstitutionally narrow standard to reject his claim. The court also ruled that Pooler was not entitled to relief from a non-unanimous death sentencing verdict, saying the jury had unanimously found him to be eligible for the death penalty when it convicted him of a second crime whose existence established an aggravating circumstance.

NEWS (7/1/20) — Texas: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued three death penalty decisions on July 1, remanding two cases for further proceedings and denying relief in a third.

The court remanded Mark Robertson’s case to the Dallas trial court, directing it to obtain a full record of Robertson’s trial to determine whether prosecutors and his lawyer colluded to exclude Black jurors from serving in his case. It also remanded Larry Estrada’s case to a Harris County trial court to properly review his intellectual disability claim, which the state courts had previously rejected, applying unconstitutional criteria for determining intellectual disability.

The court affirmed a Rusk County post-conviction court’s denial of relief to Blaine Milam on his intellectual disability claim and his claim that the prosecution presented scientifically false bite mark evidence against him.

NEWS (7/1/20) — Tennessee: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled against Tennessee death-row prisoner Stephen Hugueley’s mental competency claim and upheld the dismissal of his habeas corpus petition.

The court rejected Hugueley’s argument that he was mentally incompetent when the Tennessee state courts permitted him to withdraw his post-conviction petition and that the procedures Tennessee employed to find him competent violated the Eighth Amendment. The court ruled that, because Hugueley had waived state court review of his conviction and death sentence, he could not later attempt to raise those same issues in federal habeas corpus proceedings.

NEWS (6/30/20) — Pennsylvania: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has granted a stay of execution to Leeton Thomas, who had received a notice of execution prematurely scheduling his execution for July 28.

The Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was required by the terms of Pennsylvania’s 1995 automatic death warrant statute to set an execution date for Thomas despite the fact that he had never been afforded an opportunity to seek either state or federal post-conviction review of his conviction and death sentence. More than 400 death warrants have been issued under the law, not one of which has been carried out.