Death-Penalty News and Developments for the Week of June 2430, 2019: New Mexico Supreme Court Clears the State’s Death Row

NEWS: JUNE 28—The New Mexico Supreme Court has overturned the death sentences of the two prisoners who had remained on the state’s death row after the legislature repealed the state’s death-penalty statute in 2009. In 3-2 decisions in Fry v. Lopez and Allen v. Lemaster, the court found that the death sentences imposed on Robert Fry and Timothy Allen were disproportionate to “other equally horrendous cases in which defendants were not sentenced to death.” The justices vacated the death sentences and directed that Fry and Allen be resentenced to life without parole.

NEWS: JUNE 28—The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the death sentence imposed on Georgia death-row prisoner Billy Raulerson, Jr., ruling that that the Georgia courts had not unreasonably applied clearly established federal constitutional law when they rejected his challenges to his death sentence based upon intellectual disability and ineffective representation. Georgia is the only state that requires a defendant to prove his or her intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt as a precondition for enforcing the constitutional prohibition against executing a person with intellectual disability.

NEWS: JUNE 27—The en banc U.S Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has overturned a panel decision that had granted a new sentencing hearing to Oklahoma death-row prisoner James Pavatt. The panel had overturned Pavatt’s death sentence on the grounds that the Oklahoma state courts had applied an unconstitutionally vague interpretation of the state’s “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstances to justify Pavatt’s death sentence. The en banc court did not reach the merits of Pavatt’s challenge to the aggravating circumstance, instead ruling that his claim was procedurally barred.

NEWS: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several decisions relating to death-penalty cases.

JUNE 24—The Court granted a motion by National Public Radio and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to unseal the pleadings in Price v. Dunn relating to Christopher Price’s unsuccessful challenge to Alabama’s execution protocol. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office did not oppose the motion.

The Court denied certiorari in Weisheit v. Indiana, declining to review the Indiana courts’ denial of Jeffrey Weisheit’s post-conviction challenge to the death sentence imposed in connection with his convictions for arson and murder in a house fire in which his two children were killed. Weisheit had asked the Court to review the state courts’ resolution of his claim that his lawyer provided ineffective representation in the penalty-phase of his trial.

The Court also denied certiorari in Wood v. Carpenter, in which Oklahoma death-row prisoner Tremane Wood had sought review of the Oklahoma federal courts’ handling of his claim that his lawyer was ineffective in the penalty-phase of his capital trial. Wood presented evidence that his lawyer, John Albert, was abusing alcohol during the trial and faced disciplinary based upon his conduct in two other capital cases around the time represented Mr. Wood. Albert was found to have provided ineffective representation in both of those cases.

JUNE 28—The Court scheduled Carpenter v. Murphy for reargument in the Fall Supreme Court term. The case, which was originally argued in November 2018, raises the question of whether the murder for which Muscogee (Creek) Nation member Patrick Dwayne Murphy was sentenced to death in Oklahoma occurred on tribal lands under exclusive federal jurisdiction or on state lands. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit invalidated Murphy’s conviction and death sentence in August 2017, ruling that the murder occurred on tribal lands within the borders of the Creek Reservation.

RECENT LEGISLATIVE ACTIVITYThe Oregon legislature has taken the final steps in passing a bill to significantly limit the scope of the state’s death-penalty statute. In a Saturday vote on June 29—the day before the close of the state legislative session—the Oregon Senate concurred in House amendments to the proposal, which restricts the death penalty to acts of terrorism in which more than one person is killed; murders by prisoners already incarcerated for a prior homicide; murders of children aged 13 or younger; and killings of police officers or other law enforcement officials. The bill now advances to Gov. Kate Brown, who has previously imposed a moratorium on executions in the state.

NEWS: JUNE 19—The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has denied a certificate of appealability to Texas death-row prisoner John Steven Gardner, refusing him permission to appeal a federal district court’s dismissal of his challenge to his conviction and death sentence. The Fifth Circuit denies a higher percentage of certificates of appealability in capital cases than any other circuit, disproportionately depriving death-row prisoners of appellate review in their habeas corpus cases.