Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of May 182020

NEWS (5/22/2020) — Washington, D.C.: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has stayed the issuance of its mandate in the federal execution-protocol lawsuit until June 8, 2020, to allow the federal death-row prisoners to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 21, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction barring the federal government from implementing the challenged protocol. A split panel of the appeals court lifted the injunction on April 7. The order assures that federal executions will not go forward before the prisoners file their Supreme Court appeal.

The prisoner’s motion asserted that careful review of the appeals court decision was crucial because the D.C. Circuit decision lifting the injunction had employed “a novel interpretation” of the frequently used statutory language “prescribed by the law of the State.” If left standing, the prisoners argued, the decision could have an unintended impact far beyond the federal death penalty statute, affecting “thousands of other statutes that use the phrase ‘prescribed by law’ and virtually every challenge to [federal] agency action.”

NEWS (5/22/2020) — Texas: Jury selection in the first death-penalty trial in San Antonio since Joe Gonzales was elected Bexar County district attorney in November 2018 has been delayed again as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Otis McKane had been scheduled to go on trial on April 27, accused of capital murder in the killing of San Antonio Police Detective Benjamin Marconi. However, in March, the Bexar County courts suspended all jury trials and, on May 22, the suspension of jury service was extended through June 30, delaying jury selection in McKane’s case until at least July.

No one has been sentenced to death in Bexar County since January 2016.

NEWS (5/21/2020) — Nevada: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld a Nevada district court ruling that denied death-row prisoner Joseph Weldon Smith’s habeas corpus challenge to his conviction and death sentence. The court found two separate constitutional violations in Smith’s case but ruled that the violations were not prejudicial.

Smith was convicted in 1992 for the murders of his wife and two step-daughters and sentenced to death for his step-daughters’ murders. The Nevada Supreme Court reversed his death sentences, finding they were based on an unconstitutionally vague aggravating circumstance. In his resentencing trial, the jury again sentenced him to death for the two murders, but the state appeals court vacated one of the death sentences, again because it was based solely on the invalid aggravating circumstance. In his federal habeas corpus proceedings, the Ninth Circuit found that portions of the jury instruction on the remaining death sentence were unconstitutionally vague and that the jury did not unanimously agree on the factual predicate for finding an aggravating circumstance. However, the court ruled that this constitutional violation was harmless because the jury unanimously found the aggravating circumstance, even if they did not unanimously agree on the reasons why the aggravator was proven.

The court also found that Smith’s lawyers in the second penalty-phase trial and in his state post-conviction proceedings had failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence to spare his life. However, while the court determined that counsel’s performance fell below professionally acceptable norms, it denied relief on Smith’s ineffectiveness claim, ruling that there was no reasonable probability the mitigating evidence presented by Smith’s federal habeas corpus counsel would have changed the sentencing outcome.

NEWS (5/21/2020) — Texas: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has denied Texas death-row prisoner David Renteria permission to appeal a federal district court’s denial of his habeas corpus challenge to his conviction and death sentence. Renteria was sentenced to death for the 2001 abduction and murder of a five-year-old girl. The Texas federal courts have granted relief to only one of 151 capital habeas petitioners convicted after 2000 who have completed federal habeas corpus review.

The Fifth Circuit denied Renteria a certificate of appealability, precluding him from appealing a number of issues, including: that he was incompetent to stand trial and his state appointed trial and post-conviction counsel failed to investigate his mental condition, request a competency hearing, and litigate the issue; that the trial court prevented Renteria from presenting expert testimony on the amount of time he would serve before becoming eligible for parole if sentenced to life and on his lack of dangerousness to society if sentenced to life; and that the district court had improperly denied him funding to investigate his habeas claims.

NEWS (5/21/2020) — Florida: In an unsigned opinion, the Florida Supreme Court abandoned a key procedural protection for intellectually disabled death-row prisoners, refusing to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that had struck down unconstitutional limitations the state had placed on determining whether a prisoner’s intellectual impairments barred his or her execution.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida’s establishment of a 70-IQ cutoff score before a prisoner could be deemed intellectually disabled was inconsistent with the clinical criteria for diagnosing intellectual disability and contrary to a national legislative consensus on the definition of intellectual disability. After Hall struck down Florida’s unconstitutionally narrow interpretation of intellectual disability, the state supreme court ruled that Hall would be applied to all intellectual disability cases. In its decision in Phillips v. Florida, the court reversed itself, saying it would enforce Hall only in those cases that reached the state appeals court for the first time after Hall was decided. The court had rejected Harry Phillips’ intellectual disability claim in 2008, applying the unconstitutional definition of intellectual disability to his case.

NEWS (5/20/2020) — Texas: A federal district court judge has overturned the conviction and death sentence of Texas death-row prisoner Ronald Prible, finding that celebrity “true crime” host Kelly Siegler (pictured) had engaged in extensive misconduct as a Harris County homicide prosecutor in Prible’s capital trial in 2002.

The court granted Prible relief on six separate claims of misconduct involving the suppression of evidence, including that Siegler — now host of the Oxygen Network’s Cold Justice — had an organized system of providing favors to prison informants in exchange for fabricating false confessions, that the informants fabricated testimony against Prible, that Siegler hid evidence that could have impeached the informants and withheld exculpatory evidence that the trial court had ordered produced to the defense, that Siegler illegally used informants as state agents to question Prible outside of the presence of counsel after he was represented by counsel, and that Siegler had suppressed exculpatory evidence that the head of the Harris County Crime Lab had confirmed that semen found in the victim could have been deposited up to 72 hours earlier, consistent with Prible’s defense that he had consensual sex with the victim days before the murder.


Jeffery Martin, Federal Executions Delayed Until June 8 as Death Row Inmates File Appeals to Supreme Court, Newsweek, May 23, 2020; Elizabeth Zavala, COVID-19 put the brakes on San Antonio’s first cap­i­tal case in killing of offi­cer in 2016, San Antonio Express-News, May 23, 2020; Danielle Haynes, Judge orders new pro­ceed­ings or release for Texas death row inmate, UPI, May 202020.

Read the order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in In re Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Execution Protocol Cases and the opin­ions of: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Smith v. Baker; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Renteria v. Davis; the Supreme Court of Florida in Phillips v. State; and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Prible v. Davis.