BELL v. THOMPSON, No. 04-514

Decided: June 27, 2005

By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was wrong to reverse itself, in spite of the fact that the Sixth Circuit announced that its initial denial of Thompson’s appeal was mistaken. Last year a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit issued a split decision denying Thompson’s Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel claim in a 2-1 vote and three separate opinions. The same three judges later unanimously announced their decision to consider whether this prior ruling was mistaken in light of available evidence that Thompson was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the offense. After reconsidering the case and expanding the record on appeal, the Sixth Circuit corrected its earlier decision, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. A five Justice majority of the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit had abused its discretion by withdrawing its first opinion and issuing a second opinion reasoning that the Sixth Circuit did not release its amended opinion for more than five months after the Supreme Court denied rehearing, and failed to give notice to the parties that it was reconsidering its earlier opinion. In dissent, Justice Breyer said:

When we tell the Court of Appeals that it cannot exercise its discretion to correct the serious error it discovered here, we tell courts they are not to act to cure serious injustice in similar cases. The consequence is to divorce the rule-based result from the just result. The American judicial system has long sought to avoid that divorce. Today’s decision takes an unfortunate step in the wrong direction.

See also Representation.

ROMPILLA v. BEARD, No. 04-5462 (Formerly Rompilla v. Horn)

Decided: June 20, 2005

The Court granted habeas relief and ordered a new sentencing trial for Pennsylvania death row inmate Ronald Rompilla after finding that his trial counsel failed to meet the standard of reasonable competence under Strickland v. Washington. The Court held that the state court’s resolution of Rompilla’s ineffective-assistance of counsel claim resulted in a decision that “involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law.”

The 5-4 ruling noted that Rompilla’s trial attorney failed to investigate records showing possible mitigating evidence of mental retardation and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors gave warning they planned to use the same documents against Rompilla. The Court ruled that even when a capital defendant’s family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on as evidence of aggravation at the sentencing phase of trial. The Court stated that the undiscovered mitigating evidence, taken as a whole, “might well have influenced the jury’s appraisal.” Read the full opinion. (Associated Press, June 20, 2005). See Representation.

BRADSHAW v. STUMPF, No. 04-637

Decided: June 13, 2005

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the voluntariness of a guilty plea can be established if either the defense attorney or the defendant shows that the attorney had explained the elements of the charge to the defendant. The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s holding that John Stumpf’s guilty plea was void, despite the use of inconsistent theories about the crime by the state. However, the Court found that the prosecutor’s actions may have influenced the sentencing panel’s conclusion about Stumpfâ’s role in the crime, thus affecting the sentencing determination. The Sixth Circuit, the parties’ briefs, and the questions on which the Court granted certiorari largely focused on the guilty plea. Therefore, the Court held that a ruling on Stumpf’s sentencing claim would be premature before giving the Sixth Circuit the opportunity to consider how the prosecutor’s conduct may have affected Stumpf’s death sentence. The case was reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for consideration of the sentencing issue.

During the course of a robbery, Mary Jane Stout was shot and killed. John Stumpf pleaded guilty to the robbery and aggravated murder but argued that the fatal shots were fired by a co-defendant, Wesley. At a hearing at the time of his guilty plea, Stumpf and his attorneys argued that although Stumpf participated in the robbery, he did not shoot the victim and was not present when the victim was shot. In response, the state argued that Stumpf was the shooter, and the three-judge panel that heard the case agreed with this assertion and sentenced him to death. Later, at the trial of the co-defendant, the state presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant to establish that Wesley was the shooter. Stumpf tried to withdraw his guilty plea on the basis of Wesley’s conviction. However, the state then argued that its own informant’s testimony, which established Wesley as the shooter, was unreliable.

Read the complete decision.

MILLER-EL v. DRETKE, No. 03-9659

Decided: June 13, 2005

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Miller-El, a Texas death row inmate, is entitled to a new trial in light of strong evidence of racial bias during jury selection at his original trial. In choosing a jury to try Miller-El, a black defendant, prosecutors struck 10 of the 11 qualified black panelists. The Supreme Court said the prosecutors chosen race-neutral reasons for the strikes do not hold up and are so far at odds with the evidence that pretext is the fair conclusion. The selection process was replete with evidence that prosecutors were selecting and rejecting potential jurors because of race. And the prosecutors took their cues from a manual on jury selection with an emphasis on race. (See Syllabus of the Opinion.)

Justice Souter, writing for the majority, set out the evidence that race governed who was allowed on the jury, including: disparate questioning of white and black jurors, jury shuffling, a culture of bias within the prosecutor’s office, and the fact that the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanations for the strikes were so far at odds with the evidence that the explanations themselves indicate discriminatory intent.

In 2002, Miller-El had previously petitioned the federal courts to enforce the rule of Batson v. Kentucky, which prohibits racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges in jury selection. The federal District Court denied him habeas relief and the Fifth Circuit ruled that there were no appealable issues, and denied a certificate of appealability.

In 2003, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that reasonable jurists could differ on whether Miller-El had appealable issues and ordered that the Fifth Circuit to grant a certificate of appealability to further review the case (Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U. S. 322 (2003)). The Court, in an 8-1 opinion, criticized the Fifth Circuit’s “dismissive and strained interpretation” of critical facts and ruled that the lower court’s refusal to consider Miller-El’s Batson claim was based upon a standard of review that was too demanding. On remand, the Fifth Circuit held that Miller-El failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s finding of no discrimination was wrong, whether his evidence was viewed collectively or separately.

The Supreme Court reversed again. Because this was a habeas corpus proceeding, the Court needed to find that the state court’s interpretation of the facts was unreasonable under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The Court stated that the Texas courts finding of no discrimination “blinks reality,” and was both unreasonable and erroneous, reversing the Fifth Circuit, and granting Miller-El habeas relief and a new trial. (See Associated Press, June 13, 2005).

In a related case, Johnson v. California, No. 04-6964, decided the same day, the Court struck down California’s standard for reviewing Batson v. Kentucky challenges as too demanding. California required a defendant to present not merely enough evidence to permit an inference that discrimination has occurred, but sufficiently strong evidence to establish that the challenges, if not explained, were more likely than not based on race.

MEDELLIN v. DRETKE, No. 04-5928

Dismissed: May 23, 2005, as improvidently granted

On December 10, 2004, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Jose Medellin to determine what effect U.S. courts should give to a recent ruling by the United Nations’ highest tribunal, the International Court of Justice at the Hague (ICJ). On May 23, 2005, the Court dismissed its writ of certiorari as improvidently granted primarily because President Bush intervened and ordered state courts to abide by the ICJ ruling. In an unsigned decision, the Court noted that once this matter is reviewed in Texas state courts, the Supreme Court “would in all likelihood have an opportunity to review the Texas courts’ treatment of the President’s memorandum and [the] Case Concerning Avena and other Mexican Nationals….” (footnote 1).

The ICJ had determined that the U.S. government had failed to comply with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations’ requirement of consular access for foreigners arrested in the United States, and it directed that U.S. courts consider the claims of almost all of the Mexican nationals on U.S. death rows who had not been afforded this protection. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit acknowledged the ruling of the ICJ, but held that it was precluded from giving effect to the judgment by prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Breard v. Greene. (In Breard, the Supreme Court said that the Vienna Convention does not prevent the United States from applying its procedural default rules to bar consideration of a Vienna Convention claim.) The Fifth Circuit further stated that the treaty does not confer rights upon individuals.

After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but before oral argument, President Bush issued an Executive Order directing the state courts to abide by the ICJ ruling and review the cases of Medellin and the other Mexicans. Attorneys for Medellin had asked the Court stay the case until after Medellin had his hearing in state court. Attorneys for Texas argued that Medellin’s federal claim was barred on procedural grounds and that President Bush does not have the constitutional authority to order Texas courts to comply with the international court’s judgment. In today’s dismissal, the Court cited the President’s Executive Order as a chief reason for not reviewing the case, and reserved the right to hear a future appeal once the case had run its course in state court.

Justice Ginsburg would have granted Medellin’s request for a stay but concurred in the dismissal of the case. Four other Justices (O’Connor, Stevens, Souter and Breyer) dissented from the Court’s dismissal of the case and would have decided whether the Fifth Circuit was correct in holding that there were no debatable issues for appeal. Justice O’Connor wrote in dissent:

In this country, the individual States’ (often confessed) noncompliance with the treaty has been a vexing problem. It has three times been the subject of proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The problem may have considerable ramifications, because foreign nationals are regularly subject to state criminal justice systems. For example, in 2003, over 56,000 noncitizens were held in state prisons. Noncitizens accounted for over 10% of the prison populations in California, New York, and Arizona.
Noncompliance with our treaty obligations is especially worrisome in capital cases. As of February 2005, 119 noncitizens from 31 nations were on state death row. In Avena, the ICJ determined that the United States had breached its obligation to inform 51 Mexican nationals, all sentenced to death in this country, of their right to consular< notification. Medelli­n is just one of them. His case thus presents, and the Court in turn avoids, questions that will inevitably recur (internal citations omitted).

DECK v. MISSOURI, No. 04-5293

Decided: May 23, 2005

The Supreme Court ruled (7-2) that it is unconstitutional to visibly shackle and handcuff a defendant in a sentencing proceeding that could lead to the death penalty unless the shackling is justified by an “essential state interest” such as courtroom security specific to the defendant on trial. The law has long forbidden routine use of visible shackles during a capital trial’s guilt phase, permitting shackling only in the presence of a special need. The Court noted that visible shackles at the penalty phase raise concerns similar to those motivating the guilt phase rule (presumption of innocence, securing a meaningful defense, and maintaining dignified proceedings). The Court reasoned that the need for accuracy in making a decision between life and death is as critical as in the guilt phase determination, and that the appearance of shackles undermines the jury’s ability to accurately weigh all relevant considerations thereby adversely influencing the jury’s perception of whether the defendant deserves death.

The rule announced by the Court is not absolute. Security concerns allow for shackling in order to protect the courtroom and its occupants, when the trial judge determines in his discretion that shackling is justified by the special circumstances in a particular case. However, where a court, without adequate justification, orders the defendant to wear shackles visible to the jury, the State must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt that the [shackling] did not contribute to the verdict obtained.” (quotes from the the majority opinion).

RHINES v. WEBER, No. 03-9046

Decided: March 30, 2005

South Dakota death row inmate Charles Rhines filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court within the one-year statute of limitations. His petition was a “mixed” petition: it included some “exhausted” claims (claims that had been previously denied by state courts), and some “unexhausted” claims (claims that had not yet been raised and ruled upon in state courts). Although the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act requires that habeas claims be “exhausted” in order to be considered by a federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the district court had the discretion to stay the petition to allow Rhines to present his unexhausted claims to the state court and then return to federal court for review. The Supreme Court ruled if a petitioner has good cause for his failure to exhaust claims, the unexhausted claims are potentially meritorious, and there is no indication that the petitioner deliberately delayed the case, a petitioner’s interest in obtaining federal review of his claims outweighs the competing interests in finality and speedy resolution of federal habeas petitions. Therefore, in such cases only, the district court has discretion to stay the petition and impose reasonable time limits for the petitioner to exhaust claims in state court, or permit the petitioner to delete the unexhausted claims and proceed with the exhausted claims.

BROWN v. PAYTON, No. 03-1039 (Formerly Goughnour v. Payton)

Decided: March 22, 2005

The Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, deciding by a 5-3 vote (the Chief Justice not participating) that the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) required the 9th Circuit to uphold Payton’s death sentence. The California Supreme Court had earlier ruled that the jury deciding upon a possible death sentence need not be told explicitly that it must consider favorable post-crime evidence as a mitigating factor. Defense attorneys had argued that Payton’s religious conversion in prison should be considered as a mitigating circumstance, and that the judge’s instructions to the jurors precluded that argument. The 9th Circuit had set aside Payton’s death sentence on the basis of the judge’s instructions, holding that the California Supreme Court’s ruling to the contrary was an unreasonable application of established law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s ruling was not an unreasonable application of established law and therefore the AEDPA dictated that it’s decision must stand.

ROPER v. SIMMONS, No. 03-0633

Decided: March 1, 2005

By a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court on March 1, 2005 declared the execution of juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional. This historic ruling held that the practice violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The decision will result in a new sentence for Christopher Simmons and the other 71 other juvenile offenders currently on state death rows across the country. Simmons’ position was joined by many professional organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Bar Association, and by numerous countries from around the world. Prior to this ruling, 19 states (including Missouri) with the death penalty prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders. Twenty-two inmates have been executed for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. (Associated Press, March 1, 2005).

BELL v. CONE, No. 04-394

Decided: March 1, 2005

The Supreme Court had previously reversed the Sixth Circuit in Cone’s case, when it upheld Cone’s death sentence in 2002, 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. In the 2002 case, 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.

On January 24, 2005 in the Tennessee death penalty case of Gary Cone, the Supreme Court simultaneously granted certiorari and reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit that had ruled Cone’s death sentence unconstitutional. In Tennessee, when determining whether a particular crime warrants the death penalty, a jury may consider as an aggravating factor whether the murder was “especially heinous, atrocious and cruel.” The Sixth Circuit found that the terms “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” were so vague that they provided no guidance for the sentencing jury to fairly apply this aggravating circumstance. The Tennessee Supreme Court had set out a narrower definition of the aggravating circumstance in an earlier death penalty case, in order to provide the constitutionally required guidance for sentencing juries. However, Cone’s jury was not given the narrower definition. The Sixth Circuit found that when the Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed the jury’s decision on appeal in this case, it applied the unconstitutionally vague terms without consideration of the narrowed definition. For this reason, the Sixth Circuit found the “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” aggravating circumstance, as applied in this case, allowed for a sentencing process that was arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Sixth Circuit, and ruled that the state court had applied a constitutional interpretation of the aggravating circumstance. The Supreme Court ruled that even if the jury received an unconstitutionally vague definition, and although the state court did not explicitly cite the narrower definition, the state court cured the constitutional defect by applying the narrower definition on appeal. The Court ruled that because the Tennessee Supreme Court’s review of the jury’s decision was not contrary to clearly established federal law, the Sixth Circuit was without power to grant its writ of habeas corpus.


Dismissed: January 24, 2005, as improvidently granted

In this death penalty case, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution require that juries be instructed on at least one lesser included offense when the lesser included offense is recognized in state law and supported by the evidence. The Court asked the parties to submit arguments regarding whether the underlying issue had been properly raised before the Mississippi Supreme Court for purposes of the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under 28 USC 1257, the federal statute that sets out which judgments of state courts may be reviewed by the Supreme Court by writ of certiorari. On January 24, 2005, upon review of these briefs, the Court determined that it would not yet consider the underlying constitutional issue concerning lesser included offenses, because the claim had not been raised in the state court. The Court dismissed the writ as “improvidently granted.”

FLORIDA v. NIXON, No 03-931

Decided: December 13, 2004

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the effectiveness of defense counsel’s performance must be judged by standards previously set out by the Court in Strickland v. Washington. In Florida v. Nixon, Joe Nixon’s attorney told the jury his client was guilty without his client’s express consent. After the jury sentenced Nixon to death, the Florida Supreme Court overturned Nixon’s conviction, holding that counsel’s concession of guilt automatically fell below an objective standard of reasonable performance, necessitating a new trial. The court ruled that counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance was presumptively prejudicial to Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Florida court, holding that a concession of guilt by counsel made without the express consent of the defendant does not automatically constitute ineffective assistance of counsel, but must be judged by Strickland’s two-pronged test: sub-par representation AND a likely effect on the outcome of the case. The case is Florida v. Nixon, No 03-931, 543 U.S. _ (2004). (Associated Press, December 13, 2004) See Representation.

SMITH v. TEXAS, No. 04-5323

Decided: November 15, 2004

The Court overturned the sentence of Texas death row inmate LaRoyce Lathair Smith, who was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a former co-worker. In a 7-2 vote (Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting), the Court reversed the death sentence based upon previous court precedents requiring judges to include in their jury instructions that proper and meaningful consideration be given to all mitigating evidence. (Associated Press, November 15, 2004).


The Court stayed the ruling of the 6th Circuit that granted Kenneth Richey of Ohio a new trial because of ineffectiveness of counsel, pending consideration of the state’s petition for cert. Thus, Ohio will not have to re-try Richey until the Supreme Court decides whether to review the case. (Lima (OH) News, July 28, 2005).

LOVITT V. TRUE, No. 05-5044

The Court granted a stay of execution to Robin Lovitt from Virginia on July 11, 2005, pending consideration of his petition for cert. Update: See 2005-06 Orders.


Ordered on June 28, 2005: Cert. granted, judgment vacated, case remanded. The Supreme Court again granted certiorari in this case (see 2002-03 term below), vacated the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of its decision in Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. ___ (2005). In Gonzalez, the Court held that when no “claim” is presented (i.e., the motion does not substantively address federal grounds for setting aside the defendant’s conviction), there is no basis for contending that a Rule 60(b) motion for rehearing (which provides that in some instances an applicant may file a motion to reconsider a previous ruling of the court) should be treated like a habeas petition. Because allowing the 60(b) motion to proceed creates no inconsistency with the habeas statute, the motion need not be dismissed as a successive habeas petition. In Gonzalez, the Court ruled that because the petitioner’s Rule 60(b) motion challenged only the District Court’s previous ruling on the statute of limitations, it is not the equivalent of a successive habeas petition and can be ruled upon by the District Court. The Court’s ruling remands Abdur’Rahman’s case to the Sixth Circuit so that it can apply the Court’s holding in Gonzalez to reevaluate whether Abdur’Rahman’s Rule 60(b) motion should ruled upon by the District Court.

BROWN v. BELMONTES, No. 03-1503

Ordered on March 28, 2005: Cert. granted, judgment vacated, case remanded. The Supreme Court granted California’s petition for a writ of certiorari after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the jury instructions improperly precluded the jury from considering post-crime mitigating evidence. Last week, in Brown v. Payton (another California case), the Supreme Court ruled that the same jury instruction would not have prevented jurors from considering the evidence presented to them. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit, and remanded Belmontes’ case for further consideration in light of the decision in Brown v. Payton, No. 03-1039.

ABDUL-KABIR v. DRETKE, No. 04-5867

The writ of certiorari was granted, the judgment vacated, and the case remanded back to the 5th Circuit in light of Tennard v. Dretke.