Opinions of the Court

SEARS v. UPTON, No. 09-8858

Cert. granted, judgment vacated, and remanded June 29, 2010 (per curiam)

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court returned a death penalty case to the Georgia Supreme Court to reconsider whether the failures of the defendant’s lawyer probably affected the sentence he received. Demarcus Sears was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of a woman in Cobb County. Sears’ attorneys attempted to convince jurors to spare his life by saying that he came from a stable and loving family who would be devastated if he received the death penalty. However, the defense lawyers failed to conduct an adequate investigation of Sears’ childhood. They neglected to show that his parents had been in a physically abusive relationship, that he was sexually abused and inappropriately disciplined. By the time Sears reached high school, he was “described as severely learning disabled and as severely behaviorally handicapped.” One expert determined he was among the “most impaired individuals in the population” as a result of significant frontal lobe brain damage. Although a lower court in Georgia found the defense attorneys conduct to be faulty, it concluded that the mitigating evidence that was not presented would not have made a difference. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the evidence “might well have helped the jury understand Sears and his horrendous acts ….” The Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment below, and ordered Georgia to reconsider the possible prejudice to Sears from the ineffective representation rendered by his lawyers, especially in light of other Supreme Court decisions where attorneys failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

The Court concluded, “A proper analysis of prejudice under Strickland would have taken into account the newly uncovered evidence of Sears’ ‘significant’ mental and psychological impairments, along with the mitigation evidence introduced during Sears’ penalty phase trial, to assess whether there is a reasonable probability that Sears would have received a different sentence after a constitutionally sufficient mitigation investigation.” Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito would not have granted certiorari. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented from the Court’s decision to send the case back for reconsideration.

(B. Rankin, “Supreme Court says Cobb death case needs another look,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2010)

JEFFERSON v. UPTON, No. 09-8852

Cert. granted and decided May 24, 2010 (per curiam)

On May 24, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, thereby giving the defendant another chance to show that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Lawrence Jefferson was sentenced to death in Georgia, despite the fact that he had suffered serious head injuries as a child. In an appeal in state court, he claimed that his attorney failed to investigate this early trauma. The state court rejected this claim, and asked the prosecutors to draw up an opinion denying the appeal. The court then issued the opinion verbatim without giving the defense a chance to intervene. The Eleventh Circuit gave great deference to the state court’s decision and upheld the death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals failed to adequately consider whether Jefferson had been afforded a fair hearing in state court. The Court held that the Court of Appeals only considered one of the eight exceptions to the usual deference given state court findings. As with a number of capital cases this term, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and rendered its decision the same day, without oral argument or a signed opinion. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented from the per curiam opinion.

Question presented: Whether the majority opinion, in affording trial counsel’s decision to limit the scope of investigation in a death penalty case ‘higher-than-strong presumption of reasonableness’ conflicts with this Court’s precedent as announced in Williams v. Taylor, Wiggins v. Smith, Rompilla v. Beard, and Porter v. McCollum.


Cert. granted on Nov. 16, 2009
Oral Argument Mar. 24, 2010
Decided June 24, 2010

The Court agreed to hear Magwood v. Culliver (No. 09-158). Billy Joe Magwood received a death sentence for killing a sheriff in 1979 in Alabama. At the time, Alabama law required two conditions before the state could sentence a defendant to death, only one of which was satisfied by Magwood’s crime. Magwood’s death sentence was overturned on other grounds in 1985, and he was resentenced to death the next year. However, it was not until 1997 that Magwood’s lawyers challenged whether his crime was death-eligible under Alabama law. Alabama claims Magwood took too long to raise this argument and his appeal is barred by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus petitions. The Eleventh Circuit agreed. Magwood claims that he is bringing his claim under his new death sentence and therefore is not barred by AEDPA.

The issue accepted by the Court in Magwood is: When a person is resentenced after having obtained federal habeas relief from an earlier sentence, is a claim in a federal habeas petition challenging that new sentencing judgment a “second or successive” claim under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) if the petitioner could have challenged his previous sentence on the same constitutional grounds? (See A. Liptak, “30 Years After Murder, Is His Appeal Too Late?,” New York Times, November, 16, 2009).

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Billy Joe Magwood, an Alabama defendant convicted of a 1979 murder whose challenge to the state’s death penalty law had been ruled untimely by lower courts. Magwood’s first death sentence was overturned, but he was sentenced to death a second time. When Magwood filed a habeas petition challenging his new death sentence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Magwood’s challenge to his new death sentence was an unreviewable “second or successive” challenge since he could have brought the same challenge to his first death sentence. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, said “because Magwood’s habeas application challenges a new judgment for the first time, it is not ‘second or successive.’” The Supreme Court decision allows Magwood to challenge his second death sentence as a brand new judgment, even if it raises issues that could have been made against the original sentence. Justices Stevens, Scalia, Breyer, and Sotomayor concurred. Justice Kennedy, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg and Alito, dissented.

(K. Russell, “Court rules in favor of capital defendant in Magwood v. Patterson,” SCOTUSblog, June 24, 2010; M. Orndorff, “Alabama death sentence reversed by U.S. Supreme Court,” Birmingham News, June 24, 2010; Magwood v. Patterson, No. 09-158 (June 24, 2010).


Cert. granted on Oct. 13, 2009
Oral argument on Mar. 1, 2010
Decided June 14, 2010

The Court agreed to hear Holland v. Florida, a case raising the question of “whether ‘gross negligence’ by a state-appointed defense attorney in a death penalty case provides a basis for extending the time to file a federal habeas challenge, in a case where the habeas plea was filed late despite repeated instructions from the client.” (scotusblog.com). In his petition for certiorari to the Court, the defendant stated, “Despite the State of Florida’s promise to Petitioner that he have counsel to competently and effectively represent him in both his state and federal postconviction litigation, a promise that would be purportedly enforced by judicial monitoring, Petitioner’s state collateral attorney, Mr. Collins, failed to timely file a (habeas corpus) §2254 petition on behalf of Petitioner.” The defendant then filed his own petition for habeas corpus and, while admitting it was filed late, asked that the deadline be extended because of the serious error by his appointed attorney.

On June 14, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision, saying that its standard was too rigid. The Court said, “We have previously held that a garden variety claim of excusable neglect, such as simple miscalculation that leads a lawyer to miss a filing deadline, does not warrant [an exemption from the deadline]. But this case before us does not involve, and we are not considering, a garden variety claim of attorney negligence. Rather, the facts of this case present far more serious instances of attorney misconduct.” Holland’s lawyer failed to communicate with him for several years, despite letters from Holland asking information regarding his appeals. Holland also contacted state courts and the Florida Bar Association in an effort to have the lawyer removed from the case.

The Court held that equitable tolling may apply to AEDPA’s statute of limitations. The case was reversed and remanded back to the 11th Circuit for consideration of an extension of time for Holland’s filing a federal appeal in light of the Supreme Court’s standards contained in its opinion. Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice ROBERTS and Justices STEVENS, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, and SOTOMAYOR joined. Justice ALITO filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice SCALIA filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice THOMAS joined in part.

(W. Richey, “Supreme Court gives hope to some death-row inmates,” Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 2010; Holland v. Florida, No. 09-5327 (June 14, 2010)).

Read the Supreme Court opinion here.

Questions Presented:

  • In determining that Petitioner was not entitled to equitable tolling to excuse the late filing of his habeas petition, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the reason for the late filing was the “gross negligence” on part of Petitioner’s state-appointed collateral attorney’s failure to file the petition in a timely fashion despite repeated instructions from the Petitioner to do so. However, under the new test announced by the Eleventh Circuit in Petitioner’s case, no allegation of attorney negligence or failure to meet a lawyer’s standard of care, in the absence of bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment, could ever qualify as an exceptional circumstance warranting equitable tolling.
  • This Court should grant certiorari to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether “gross negligence” by collateral counsel, which directly results in the late filing of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, can qualify as an exceptional circumstance warranting equitable tolling, or whether, in conflict with other circuits, the Eleventh Circuit was proper in determining that factors beyond “gross negligence” must be established before an extraordinary circumstance can be found that would warrant equitable tolling.

(See Scotusblog, Albert Holland v. State of Florida, No. 09-5327, Oct. 13, 2009; Petition for Writ of Cert. to 11th Cir., May 13, 2009, at 8-10)).

THALER v. HAYNES, No. 09-273

Cert. granted and decided Feb. 22, 2010 (per curiam)

On February 22, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear, and then summarily reversed, a federal appeals court decision that would have given a Texas defendant a new trial based on improper jury selection. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had ruled that Anthony Haynes should be retried or released because a prospective juror was improperly excluded based on the juror’s race. Two different judges had presided over the jury selection; one actually observed the juror’s demeanor during questioning, and the second listened to the prosecution’s explanation for excluding this juror. The Fifth Circuit said that the second judge’s decision was not entitled to special deference because he had not observed the actual juror. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a per curiam decision, held that the lower court had misinterpreted its prior rulings, and deference should have been accorded to the judge’s decision. The high court’s ruling did not exclude a review of the juror’s exclusion under the proper standard.

Richard Ellis, an attorney for Haynes, said he could seek a rehearing before the U.S. Supreme Court or renew his challenge to the juror’s exclusion in arguments to the 5th Circuit. In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the Supreme Court established the practice for challenging the dismissal of a juror because of race. The current case is Thaler v. Haynes, No. 09-273 (Feb. 22, 2010).

WOOD v. ALLEN, No. 08-9156

Cert. granted on May 18, 2009
Oral argument: Nov. 4, 2009
Decision: January 20, 2010

On January 20, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence for Holly Wood for the 1993 shooting of his former girlfriend in Alabama, despite the fact that the attorney working on the penalty phase of the case failed to investigate or tell the jury about Wood’s borderline “mental retardation”. A federal District Court had overturned his death sentence because of the inadequate performance of the inexperienced lawyer, although other lawyers working on the case had seen a report on Wood’s mental status and did not use it. There was ample other evidence indicating Wood had an IQ of less than 70 and had been classified as mentally retarded that was not pursued by any of the attorneys. The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Wood failed to show that the lawyers were constitutionally ineffective. The Court stated, “[T]he state court’s conclusion that Wood’s counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of his mental deficiencies was not an unreasonable determination of the facts.” Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, noted, “There is a world of difference between a decision not to introduce evidence at the guilt phase of a trial and a failure to investigate mitigating evidence that might be admissible at the penalty phase… the only reasonable factual conclusion I can draw from this record is that counsel’s decision to do so was the result of inattention and neglect.” (Wood v. Allen, 558 U. S.__, No. 08–9156 (Jan. 20, 2010); “Supreme Court upholds death penalty for mentally impaired Ala. man with inexperienced lawyer,” Associated Press, January 20, 2010).

The Court accepted the defendant’s petition in Wood v. Allen, a case from Alabama. Holly Wood claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, “mental retardation”, and discrimination in the jury selection process during his trial. After the trial, state and defense experts found that Wood, with an IQ below 70, had serious deficits in intellectual functioning and in at least one area of adaptive functioning—clear evidence of “mental retardation”. However, despite obvious pre-trial indications of this disability, the defense attorney presented no mitigating evidence on this issue to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial. The novice attorney had no experience in death penalty cases or in any criminal law. In federal habeas proceedings, the District Court vacated Wood’s death sentence due to ineffectiveness of counsel, stating that “[c]ounsel’s failure to investigate and present any evidence of intellectual functioning…is sufficient to undermine confidence in the application of the death sentence.”

Ultimately, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of relief. The first question before the Supreme Court is whether the state court acted unreasonably in concluding that the inexperienced defense lawyer’s decision to leave out this mitigating evidence was strategic, when a review of the entire record indicated it was due to attorney ineptitude. Secondly, the Court will consider a split among the federal circuit courts about the deference they should give to state courts under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Wood maintains that the federal court is obligated to consider the entire record of the case when reviewing the reasonableness of a state court finding, rather than focusing on only parts of the record. See Wood v. Allen, Petition for Writ of Certiorari (March 12, 2009). UPDATE: Holly Wood is scheduled for execution on Sept. 9, 2010.

Questions Presented (Note: Court agreed to hear case only on first two questions):

  • Whether a state court’s decision on post-conviction review is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts when it concludes that, during the sentencing phase of a capital case, the failure of a novice attorney with no criminal law experience to pursue or present evidence of defendant’s severely impaired mental functioning was a strategic decision, while the court ignores evidence in the record before it that demonstrates otherwise?
  • Whether the rule followed by some circuits, including the majority in this case, abdicates the court’s judicial review function under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act by failing to determine whether a state court decision was unreasonable in light of the entire state court record and instead focusing solely on whether there is clear and convincing evidence in that record to rebut certain subsidiary factual findings?
  • Whether a state court unreasonably applies Atkins v. Virginia when it bases its finding that a defendant does not have significant deficits in adaptive functioning and thus is not mentally retarded on an analysis of the defendant’s relative strengths in adaptive functioning without considering the defendant’s limitations, which is inconsistent with the accepted and established clinical definitions of “mental retardation”?
  • Whether a petitioner seeking habeas relief in federal court may rely on a comparative juror analysis to demonstrate a Batson v. Kentucky violation where that analysis is based on facts from the state trial court record, but was not presented to the state trial court?
  • Opinion below (11th Circuit)
  • Petition for certiorari
  • Brief in opposition
  • Petitioner’s reply

WELLONS v. HALL, No. 09–5731

Cert. granted and decided Jan. 19, 2009 (per curiam)

The Court granted certiorari and reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, ordering the lower court to re-examine the appeal of Marcus Wellons, who received the death penalty for a 1989 rape and murder in Georgia. The Court’s per curiam opinion described “unusual events going on behind the scenes” at Wellons’ trial, including contacts outside the courtroom between the jury and the judge, and the fact that some jury members gave the trial judge and bailiff provocative gifts. The Supreme Court rejected the 11th Circuit’s opinion that Wellons’s claims of misconduct were merely speculation. The Court’s opinion stated, “From beginning to end, judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect. The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial, and this petition raises a serious question about whether the Court of Appeals carefully reviewed those facts before addressing petitioner’s constitutional claims.”

Two dissenting opinions were filed (Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas), stating that more deference should have been given to the state court which found no prejudice from the gifts, and to the Court of Appeals, which examined the issue.

(R. Barnes, “Supreme Court mandates ‘dignity and respect’ in death sentencing,” Washington Post, January 20, 2010; Wellons v. Hall, 558 U. S.__, No. 09–5731 (Jan. 19, 2010) (vacating the judgment and remanding to 11th Cir. for further consideration in light of Cone v. Bell)).

SMITH v. SPISAK, No. 08-724

Cert. granted on Feb. 23, 2009
Oral argument: October 13, 2009
Decision: Jan. 12, 2010

The Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that had granted sentencing relief to Frank Spisak, who was sentenced to death in Ohio. After his initial appeals were denied, he filed a habeas corpus petition claiming that: 1) the jury instructions and verdict forms used at his trial unconstitutionally required the jury to be unanimous in choosing any mitigating factors; and 2) his attorney’s closing argument was so inadequate as to deprive him of effective assistance of counsel. In reversing the Sixth Circuit, the Court held that there was no “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” They also held that its prior decision in Mills v. Maryland regarding jury instructions was more narrow than the way the lower court had applied it in this case. Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in the outcome of the case but wrote separately, criticizing the “catastrophe of [defense] counsel’s failed strategy.” He added, “Indeed, the argument was so outrageous that it would have rightly subjected a prosecutor to charges of misconduct.” Justice Stevens, however, agreed that the defendant would probably still have been sentenced to death. (See R. Barnes, “Killer Frank Spisak, not his attorney, brought on death penalty, justices rule,” Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2010).

Frank Spisak was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of three people at Cleveland State University in 1982. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment handed down by the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case to be reconsidered in light of Carey v. Musladin and Schriro v. Landrigan. However, the Sixth Circuit found those cases distinguishable and reinstated its grant of sentencing relief to Spisak. The U.S. Supreme Court again granted the state’s petition for certiorari in this case.

(See also Spisak v. Mitchell, No. 03-4034 6th Cir. April 11, 2008).

Questions Presented:

  • Did the Sixth Circuit contravene the directives of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) and Carey v. Musladin, 127 S. Ct. 649 (2006), when it applied Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 (1988), to resolve in a habeas petitioner’s favor questions that were not decided or addressed in Mills?
  • Did the Sixth Circuit exceed its authority under AEDPA when it applied United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), to presume that a habeas petitioner suffered prejudice from several allegedly deficient statements made by his trial counsel during closing argument instead of deferring to the Ohio Supreme Court’s reasonable rejection of the claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)?

BEARD v. KINDLER, No. 08-992

Cert. granted on May 18, 2009
Oral argument: Nov. 2, 2009
Decision: Dec. 8, 2009

The Court overruled a lower federal court that had given relief to Joseph Kindler, a Pennsylvania death row inmate. Kindler had been convicted of murder in 1982, but then escaped to Canada from the Philadelphia Detention Center in 1984. Prior to his escape, his attorneys had filed post-verdict motions challenging his conviction and sentence. Kindler was subsequently caught and, upon his return to the U.S., he tried to reinstate his claims. The state supreme court held that Kindler forfeited his appeal when he escaped. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Kindler’s issues could be reviewed in federal court because the state forfeiture rule was inadequate to support the judgment barring the appeal, given the discretion the state courts had in applying it. The Third Circuit also upheld the federal District Court that had found the jury instructions in Kindler’s trial to be unconstitutional under Mills v. Maryland (1988). The U.S. Supreme Court held that discretion in a state rule does not render it inadequate to bar further review, and thus Kindler’s escape forfeited his challenge to the jury instructions in both state and federal courts.

(See Beard v. Kindler, No. 08-992 (U.S. Dec. 8, 2009); see also K. Caparella, “Supreme Court rules against Philly killer, who might now face death sentence,” (Philadelphia Daily News, December 9, 2009)). If Kindler faced extradition from Canada today, he would not be returned to the U.S. unless the state agreed not to seek the death penalty. See International.

Questions Presented:

  • After murdering a witness against him and receiving a sentence of death, respondent broke out of prison, twice. Prior to his recapture in Canada years later, the trial court exercised its discretion under state forfeiture law to dismiss respondent’s post-verdict motions, resulting in default of most appellate claims. On federal habeas corpus review, the court of appeals refused to honor the state court’s procedural bar, ruling that, because “the state court.., had discretion” in applying the rule, it was not “firmly established” and was therefore “inadequate.”
  • Is a state procedural rule automatically “inadequate” under the adequate-state-grounds doctrine - and therefore unenforceable on federal habeas corpus review - because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory?

PORTER v. McCOLLUM, No. 08-10537

Cert. granted and decided Nov. 30, 2009 (per curiam)

On November 30, the United States Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of George Porter, a Korean War veteran from Florida who had been convicted of murder in 1988. The Court stated that Porter’s trial lawyer failed to investigate and present ample mitigating evidence, including the fact that Porter’s battle service in the war left him severely traumatized. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had held that such evidence would not have made a difference at sentencing. The Supreme Court accepted Porter’s petition and without dissent issued its opinion the same day, stating, “Petitioner George Porter is a veteran who was both wounded and decorated for his active participation in two major engagements during the Korean War; his combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man. His commanding officer’s moving description of those two battles was only a fraction of the mitigating evidence that his counsel failed to discover or present during the penalty phase of his trial in 1988.”

Porter represented himself during his pre-trial proceedings and for much of the guilt-phase of the trial. He then pleaded guilty, but asked for counsel during the penalty phase of the case. His inexperienced lawyer put on only one witness in mitigation—Porter’s ex-wife. In addition to the evidence that was not presented about the trauma from his participation in the war, there was significant evidence of violent abuse in Porter’s childhood. The Court noted: “It is unreasonable to discount to irrelevance the evidence of Porter’s abusive childhood, especially when that kind of history may have particular salience for a jury evaluating Porter’s behavior in his relationship with [his girlfriend] Williams. It is also unreasonable to conclude that Porter’s military service would be reduced to ‘inconsequential proportions,’ simply because the jury would also have learned that Porter went AWOL on more than one occasion. Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did.” (citations omitted).

UPDATE: Prosecutors have elected not to seek the death penalty in a re-sentencing hearing for Porter, who is 78. (Florida Today, July 21, 2010).

WONG v BELMONTES, No. 08-1263

Cert. granted and decided Nov. 16, 2009 (per curiam)

On November 16, the United States Supreme Court accepted for review and handed down a per curiam decision in Wong v. Belmontes (No. 08-1263). The Court reinstated Fernando Belmontes’ death sentence and overturned the decision of the Ninth Circuit granting relief because of ineffectiveness of counsel. Belmontes was sentenced to death for murdering a woman during a robbery in 1981 in California. The appeals court ruled in 2008 that Belmontes’ lawyer had represented him incompetently by neglecting to introduce evidence of family strife and depression that would have likely led to a different sentence. The Supreme Court assumed that the attorney should have presented more evidence but concluded it would not have made any difference in sentencing. Justice Stevens issued a concurring opinion stating that he believed the Supreme Court had erred in a previous consideration of this same case.

(See B. Egelko, “Central Valley killer back in line for death,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2009)

BOBBY v. VAN HOOK, No. 09–144

Cert. granted and decided Nov. 9, 2009 (per curiam)

On November 9, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Bobby v. Van Hook and issued a per curiam opinion overturning a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which had granted Robert Van Hook a new sentencing hearing based on ineffectiveness of counsel. Van Hook had been convicted and sentenced to death for a murder committed in 1985 following an encounter in a bar. The Supreme Court held that, judging by professional standards existing at the time of Van Hook’s trial (rather than by more recent American Bar Association standards), the attorneys conducted an adequate investigation and provided sufficient representation. The Court said, “This is not a case in which the defendant’s attorneys failed to act while potentially powerful mitigating evidence stared them in the face, cf. Wiggins, or would have been apparent from documents any reasonable attorney would have obtained, cf. Rompilla v. Beard. It is instead a case, like Strickland itself, in which defense counsel’s ‘decision not to seek more’ mitigating evidence from the defendant’s background ‘than was already in hand’ fell ‘well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments.’” (citations omitted).


Cert. granted and decided Oct. 20, 2009 (per curiam)

Joseph Corcoran of Indiana presented five issues in his federal habeas petition. The U.S. District Court granted him relief on his Sixth Amendment sentencing claims and did not resolve his other claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s habeas grant but did not review the other four claims. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court held: “We now grant certiorari and hold that the Seventh Circuit erred in disposing of Corcoran’s other claims without explanation of any sort. The Seventh Circuit should have permitted the District Court to consider Corcoran’s unresolved challenges to his death sentence on remand, or should have itself explained why such consideration was unnecessary.”

Orders of the Court

MELSON V. ALLEN, No. 09-5373

“The petition for rehearing is granted. The order entered October 5, 2009, denying the petition for a writ of certiorari is vacated. The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration in light of Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S.___ (2010).” (June 21, 2010) (see Holland above, under Opinions).

WHITFIELD V. McNEIL, No. 09-5776

FORD V. McNEIL, NO. 09-7493

“The motions of petitioners for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petitions for a writs of certiorari are granted. The judgments are vacated, and the cases are remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration in light of Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S.___ (2010).” (June 21, 2010) (see Holland above, under Opinions).

SKINNER v. SWITZER, No. 09-9000

The Court granted a stay of execution to Hank Skinner of Texas on Mar. 24, 2010, about an hour before his execution. The Court apparently wanted more time to consider Skinner’s cert. petition raising the question of whether a suit for DNA testing can be brought through the civil rights law (42 USC § 1983). UPDATE: The Court granted cert. on May 24, 2010. See Court’s 2010-2011 Term.


Decided March 1, 2010

The motion of respondent for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further consideration in light of Florida v. Powell, 559 U. S. ___ (2010). (In Powell, the Court held that the two warnings given the defendant in combination reasonably conveyed the right to have an attorney present, not only at the outset of interrogation, but at all times, and this satisfied the requirement of Miranda.)
JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting:
In my view, the judgment below rested upon an adequate and independent state ground and the Court therefore lacks jurisdiction over this case. Indeed, the independence of the state-law ground in this case is even clearer than in Powell because the Florida Supreme Court expressly acknowledged its obligation “‘to give independent legal import to every phrase and clause contained’” in the State Constitution and stated that “the federal Constitution sets the floor, not the ceiling, and this Court retains the ability to interpret the right against self-incrimination afforded by the Florida Constitution more broadly than that afforded by its federal counterpart.” (internal citations omitted).

BEARD V. ABU-JAMAL, No. 08-652

On Jan. 19, 2010, the Court granted the state’s petition in Beard v. Abu-Jamal (08-652), vacating the sentencing relief and remanding the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reconsider its decision in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Smith v. Spisak (see decision above in Opinions). Mumia Abu-Jamal had been convicted of killing a police officer in Philadelphia. UPDATE: The Third Circuit upheld the reversal of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. The Supreme Court declined the state’s petition for cert. On Dec. 7, 2011, the D.A.’s office announced that it would not pursue a new death sentence, leaving the defendant with the sentence of life without parole.

JOHN ALLEN MUHAMMAD v. KELLY, No. 09–7328 (09A428)

The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to THE CHIEF JUSTICE and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.
Statement of JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG and JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR join, respecting the denial of the petition for writ of certiorari:
This case highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded. Under our normal practice, Muhammad’s timely petition for certiorari would have been reviewed at our Conference on November 24, 2009. Virginia has scheduled his execution for November 10, however, so we must resolve the petition on an expedited basis unless we grant a temporary stay. By denying Muhammad’s stay application, we have allowed Virginia to truncate our deliberative process on a matter—involving a death row inmate—that demands the most careful attention. This result is particularly unfortunate in light of the limited time Muhammad was given to make his case in the District Court.
I continue to believe that the Court would be wise to adopt a practice of staying all executions scheduled in advance of the completion of our review of a capital defendant’s first application for a federal writ of habeas corpus. Such a practice would give meaningful effect to the distinction Congress has drawn between first and successive habeas petitions. See 28 U. S. C. §2244(b). It would also serve the interests of avoiding irreversible error, facilitating the efficient management of our docket, and preserving basic fairness by ensuring death row inmates receive the same procedural safeguards that ordinary inmates receive.
Having reviewed petitioner’s claims, I do not dissent from the Court’s decision to deny certiorari. “I do, however, remain firmly convinced that no State should be allowed to foreshorten this Court’s orderly review of … first-time habeas petition[s] by executing prisoners before that review can be completed.” (citations omitted).

UPDATE: Muhammad was executed on Nov. 10, 2009.

Court’s order and statement of Justices

IN RE TROY DAVIS, No. 08-1443

Order issued by U.S. Sup. Ct. for evidentiary hearing in District Court, Aug. 17, 2009:

On August 17 the United States Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, whose case has drawn worldwide attention because of new evidence of his possible innocence. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Court has favorably responded to a petition directed to them, rather than as an appeal from other courts. With only two Justices writing in dissent, the Court ordered the lower federal court to hear Davis’ evidence: “The District Court should receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence.”

Since Davis’ initial conviction in 1991, seven of nine eyewitnesses against him have recanted their testimony. Justice Stevens, concurring with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, wrote, “The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.” He further responded to Justice Scalia’s dissent, which would have denied Davis’ request on narrow legal grounds, by strongly rejecting the notion that the law allows the execution of an innocent person: “[I]magine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man. The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning.” An amicus brief had been filed on behalf of Davis by former members of the judiciary and law enforcement officials, including former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and the former director of the FBI William S. Sessions.

Justice Sotomayor took no part in the ruling. Justice Thomas joined Justice Scalia’s dissent. Troy Davis had submitted a petition directly with the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. If ultimately granted, his conviction could be overturned and he could be set free.

(Sources: J. Holland, “Supreme Court says Georgia man should get hearing,” Associated Press, August 17, 2009; In re Troy Anthony Davis, No. 08-1443, U.S., Aug. 17, 2009, Stevens, J., concurring; Scotusblog.com)

UPDATE: The evidentiary hearing in District Court has been scheduled for June 23, 2010 in Savannah, Georgia.

UPDATE: On August 24, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. rejected Troy Davis’s petition to overturn his conviction for killing a police officer in 1989 in Georgia. Judge Moore chose a high standard of proof that Davis would have to meet to establish his innocence claim: Davis needed to prove by “clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence.” Judge Moore did conclude that it would be unconstitutional to execute “those who can make a truly persuasive demonstration of innocence.” This holding has only been assumed for the sake of argument by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also acknowledged that “the State’s case may not be ironclad.” Davis, who has spent nearly two decades on death row, has attracted support from many human rights groups because a number of key prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony, and other witnesses have come forward implicating another suspect. Last year, the Supreme Court issued an historical ruling allowing Davis to present evidence that had been uncovered since his trial. It is possible that Judge Moore’s ruling will now return to the Supreme Court for further review. Read Judge Moore’s ruling: Part I and Part II. (B. Rankin, “Judge rejects Troy Davis innocence claim,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 24, 2010). See Innocence and U.S. Supreme Court. Read Amnesty International’s press release.

UPDATE: On March 28, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court denied all of Davis’s petitions for writs of certiorari and habeas corpus (Nos. 08-1443, 10-949, 10, 950). Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011.

Juveniles and Life Without Parole

On May 4, 2009, the Supreme Court granted cert. in two cases involving juvenile offenders. While the two cases below are not death penalty cases, both rely heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons (2005), regarding juveniles and the death penalty. See Juveniles.

Docket: 08-7412

Title: Graham v. Florida

Oral argument: Nov. 9, 2009 (10:00 am)

Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile (under the age of 18 at the time of the crime) for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the commission of a non-homicide offense.

Petition for certiorari

UPDATE: DECISION: On May 17, 2010, the Court held that the a sentence of life without parole would be unconstitutional for a juvenile defendant who had not committed homicide. Justice Kennedy wrote an opinion that was joined by Justices Stevens, Gingsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. The Court said that the infrequency at which this sentence was applied to non-homicidal juvenile defendants indicated a national consensus against this punishment, even thought 37 states technically allowed such sentences. The Court also borrowed from its analysis in Roper v. Simmons regarding the ways in which juvenile offenders differ from adults.

Justice Roberts joined in the Court’s judgment, but not in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, stating that the sentence given Graham was disproportionate to his offense, but that he would allow courts to make such determinations on a case by case basis.

Justice Thomas wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.

Read the opinions.

Docket: 08-7621

Title: Sullivan v. Florida

Oral argument: Nov. 9, 2009 (11:00 am)

Issue: Does imposition of a life without parole sentence on a thirteen-year-old for a non-homicide violate the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, where the freakishly rare imposition of such a sentence reflects a national consensus on the reduced criminal culpability of children?

UPDATE: DECISION: On May 17, 2010, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted. Presumably, Sullivan will be eligible to resubmit his claim at the appropriate time, asserting that his life-without-parole sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. He would then come under the precedent of the decision in Graham v. Florida (above).

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