United States Supreme Court Decisions: 2019 – 2020 Term

Opinions of the Court

McKINNEY v. ARIZONA, No. 18-1109

Cert. granted: June 10, 2019
Argument: December 11, 2019
Decided: February 25, 2020

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court declined to overturn James Erin McKinney’s Arizona death sentences. McKinney was sentenced to death in 1993 for the killings of two people in the course of a series of burglaries. McKinney’s mitigation evidence included evidence of a childhood filled with instability, abuse, and neglect. This severe childhood abuse resulted in McKinney being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

At the time McKinney was tried, Arizona did not allow for jury sentencing in death penalty cases. While the trial judge in McKinney’s case recognized that McKinney’s childhood was so horrific that it was “beyond the comprehension of most people,” the judge dismissed this evidence because he found it was not causally connected to the crime. On direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted an independent review and affirmed the death sentence.

McKinney’s death sentence was found unconstitutional in 2015 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because Arizona courts refused to consider mitigating evidence without a “causal nexus” to the crime. The Ninth Circuit found that Arizona’s practice (in McKinney’s cases and all other cases decided in a 15-year time period) violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982). Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentence after reweighing the aggravating and mitigating evidence. In doing so, the court gave McKinney’s PTSD little weight.

In his petition for certiorari, McKinney challenged the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling, arguing that correcting an Eddings error about consideration of mitigation evidence requires a resentencing, not just state supreme court review. McKinney also claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona entitled him to jury-sentencing.

On February 25, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected McKinney’s arguments and let his death sentences stand. In a majority opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Court held that McKinney’s Eddings argument was foreclosed by an earlier Supreme Court case, Clemons v. Mississippi, which allowed a state supreme court to reweigh evidence if one of the aggravating circumstances on which a death sentence relied was later invalidated. Justice Kavanaugh concluded that a supreme court could conduct the same reweighing to remedy a deficiency in the consideration of mitigating circumstances. He further found that the reasoning relied upon in Clemons was not affected by the court’s more recent decisions about jury sentencing. Justice Kavanaugh stated that notwithstanding the Court’s rulings in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, “a jury (as opposed to a judge) is not constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.”

Justice Kavanaugh also rejected McKinney’s argument that the Arizona Supreme Court’s independent review of the case reopened the direct appeal process. In doing so, he accepted the state’s assertion that independent reweighings conducted after a defendant’s initial appeal are not considered direct review proceedings. Under this interpretation of the Arizona Supreme Court’s actions, McKinney was not entitled to a jury sentencing because his conviction became final before Ring v. Arizona was decided.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent which Justices Stephen Breyer, Elana Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor joined. The dissenting Justices took issue with the majority’s interpretation of the Arizona Supreme Court’s actions. Justice Ginsburg observed that the Arizona Supreme Court’s review of McKinney’s case mirrored its consideration of his case during his initial appeal. She argued that “the Arizona Supreme Court was not conducting garden-variety harmless-error review of a lower court decision; it was rerunning direct review to correct its own prior harmful error.” As a result, the dissenting Justices would have found McKinney entitled to a jury resentencing.

You can read case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.


KAHLER v. KANSAS, No. 18-6135

Cert. granted: March 18, 2019
Argument: October 7, 2019
Decided: March 23, 2020

On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Kansas death-row prisoner James Kahler. Kahler was sentenced to death for killing four of his family members in the midst of a major depressive episode. Kahler’s evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist showed that Kahler may have experienced “stress induced short-term dissociation” and that he felt compelled to commit the homicides without the ability to control his behavior.

Kahler’s attorneys argued that this mental health evidence could have provided the basis being found not guilty by reason of insanity except for the fact that Kansas has abandoned this traditional defense. Kansas law only allows a mental-health-based acquittal if evidence shows that due to a “mental disease or defect” a defendant lacked the mental state required to commit the crime charged. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Utah have similar laws. Kahler argued that the lack of an insanity defense for a person who cannot recognize his crime as morally wrong violates the United States Constitution.

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s arguments. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, reviewed the history of the insanity defense in Anglo-American jurisprudence and concluded that no one particular definition of insanity was so deeply rooted in this history that it was required by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The Court resultingly “decline[d] to require that Kansas adopt an insanity test turning on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong.”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. The dissenting Justices disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the history of the insanity defense and its characterization of Kansas’ statutory scheme. Justice Breyer explained, “Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense. Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.”

You can read the opinion and case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.


SHARP* v. MURPHY, No. 17-1107

(*formerly Carpenter v. Murphy and Royal v. Murphy; name changes reflect changes of warden)
Cert. granted: May 21, 2018
Argument: November 27, 2018
Decided: July 9, 2020

Sharp v. Murphy was decided in a one-sentence per curiam opinion affirming the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s grant of habeas relief to Patrick Dwayne Murphy. Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who was sentenced to death row by a McIntosh County, Oklahoma jury. Based on its tribal sovereignty decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Court granted relief to Murphy. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

Sharp v. Murphy presented significant issues of tribal sovereignty. Patrick Dwayne Murphy was prosecuted in Oklahoma state court for the murder of another Creek member. In his federal habeas corpus proceedings, Murphy argued that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction over the case and that he should have been tried in federal court because he is Creek and the offense occurred within the boundaries of the Creek Reservation.

Murphy argued that, under federal law, the federal government had “exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute murders committed by Indians in Indian country.” Therefore, Oklahoma had no authority to prosecute him. The Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with Murphy that Congress had never disestablished the treaty with the Creek Nation setting the boundaries of the Creek Reservation and that the murder had occurred on Indian lands. As a result, the Tenth Circuit vacated Murphy’s conviction and death sentence and issued an order directing the lower court to issue a writ of habeas corpus.

The State of Oklahoma asked the Supreme Court to review the case. On May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court granted Oklahoma’s petition for writ of certiorari. Justice Gorsuch, who as a judge on the Tenth Circuit had previously participated in a procedural ruling in the case, recused himself from consideration of the decision whether to grant review.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Cherokee Nation, and the National Congress of American Indians filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Murphy. Business interests such as the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Legal Foundation, the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, and State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, as well as ten states and the Solicitor General of the United States filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Oklahoma prosecutors.

The Court heard oral argument on November 27, 2018 and, on December 4, 2018, requested further briefing. On June 27, 2019, the Court restored the case to its calendar for reargument in the 2019-20 court term. Instead of hearing argument on the case again, the Court heard argument on and issued a controlling opinion in a non-capital case, McGirt v. Oklahoma.

McGirt v. Oklahoma

Like Murphy, Jimcy McGirt is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. McGirt was convicted of rape in the Oklahoma state courts and challenged his conviction on jurisdictional grounds, saying the offense had occurred on tribal lands. The State of Oklahoma argued to the Court that it should uphold McGirt’s conviction because doing otherwise could result in challenges to thousands of state convictions.

Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Gorsuch concluded that almost half of Oklahoma, including much of the city of Tulsa, remains Indian Country. The Court found that the federal government had reserved land for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation through a series of treaties signed by the U.S. Government and the Creek Nation that was part of the “Trail of Tears,” the forced migration of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to territory west of the Mississippi River.

The Court’s decision recognized that the United States has repeatedly violated treaty obligations to Native Americans. However, it said, this history of faithlessness does not mean that the state of Oklahoma can ignore treaties that reserved land for the Creek Nation. The Supreme Court has previously held that the U.S. can break treaties with Indian nations only through the explicit action of Congress to “disestablish” reserved lands. Justice Gorsuch wrote, “it’s no matter how many other promises to a tribe the federal government has already broken. If Congress wishes to break the promise of a reservation, it must say so.”

In response to arguments that the long-standing practice of prosecuting Native Americans in state court was proof that the reserved lands were “disestablished,” the Court recognized that “[u]nlawful acts, performed long enough and with sufficient vigor, are never enough to amend the law.” Because Congress never disestablished the Creek Nation’s reservation, much of Oklahoma remains Indian Country. Gorsuch wrote that the federal Major Crimes Act vests federal courts with exclusive jurisdiction over enumerated serious crimes committed by Indians in Indian Country, so the Oklahoma state courts had no authority to convict Jimcy McGirt.

The State of Oklahoma argued that recognizing the continued existence of the Creek Nation’s reservation could lead thousands of Native American defendants to challenge their state convictions. It also argued that a ruling in favor of tribal sovereignty would lead to chaos in a wide range of non-criminal matters. The Court rejected this argument, finding the scope of the potential remedy irrelevant. Justice Gorsuch noted that “the magnitude of a legal wrong is no reason to perpetuate it.”

Justice Gorsuch was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor in the McGirt v. Oklahoma majority. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas dissented.

You can read case-related documents on Sharp v. Murphy on the Supreme Court website. Read the McGirt v. Oklahoma opin­ion here; read the Sharp v. Murphy opin­ion here.


Per Curiam Opinions

In Andrus v. Texas, No. 18-9674, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) ruling upholding the death sentence imposed on Terence Andrus. The Court held that Andrus’ counsel had provided substandard representation in the penalty-phase of his trial, and directed the TCCA to determine whether counsel’s deficient performance may have affected the jury’s sentencing decision. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a strident dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neal Gorsuch.

Andrus was sentenced to death in 2012 for shooting two people during a 2008 carjacking attempt. According to the Court’s decision, Andrus’ attorney, James “Sid” Crowley, conceded his guilt, then “informed the jury that the trial would ‘boil down to the punishment phase,’ emphasizing that ‘that’s where we are going to be fighting.’” Yet during the penalty phase, Crowley failed to rebut the state’s case that Andrus “had displayed aggressive and hostile behavior while confined in a juvenile detention center” and that he had gang affiliations. Crowley presented Andrus’ mother as a witness, who refused to reveal information about Andrus’ upbringing, including the fact that she had been addicted to drugs throughout his childhood, leaving her children alone for days or even weeks at a time, and that she had engaged in prostitution to fund her drug habit, bringing home violently abusive men. According to the Court, as a result of his mother’s behavior, “Andrus took on the role of caretaker for his four siblings” even before he reached adolescence.

The Court recounted additional mitigation that Crowley failed to present, writing that Andrus had been sent to a juvenile detention facility for having acted as a lookout while friends robbed a woman, “where, for 18 months, he was steeped in gang culture, dosed on high quantities of psychotropic drugs, and frequently relegated to extended stints of solitary confinement. The ordeal left an already traumatized Andrus all but suicidal. Those suicidal urges resurfaced later in Andrus’ adult life.” According to the six-justice majority, “[d]uring Andrus’ capital trial, however, nearly none of this mitigating evidence reached the jury. That is because Andrus’ defense counsel not only neglected to present it; he failed even to look for it.”

Andrus challenged his death sentence under Strickland v. Washington, the Supreme Court case that established the standard for determining whether a defendant received ineffective representation. Strickland sets forth a two-part test, requiring a defendant to demonstrate that counsel’s performance was deficient and that counsel’s deficiencies were prejudicial. “To show deficiency,” the Court explained, “a defendant must show that ‘counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.’ And to establish prejudice, a defendant must show ‘that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.’” The Court said “the record makes clear” that counsel’s penalty-phase representation was deficient. Because the TCCA “may have failed properly to engage with the follow-on question whether Andrus has shown that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him,” the Court vacated the TCCA’s judgment and returned the case to the state appeals court to consider that issue.

Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent used sarcasm to criticize the Court’s decision and argued that the TCCA had adequately considered the Strickland standard. Justice Alito characterized the majority’s reasoning as “hard to take seriously.” He wrote, “Perhaps the Court thinks the CCA should have used CAPITAL LETTERS or bold type. Or maybe it should have added: ‘And we really mean it!!!.’”



Orders of the Court and Related Items

In a one-paragraph order, the Supreme Court denied the federal government’s motion to stay or vacate a preliminary injunction halting federal executions. A federal district court had entered an injunction stopping the executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken. The injunction was granted based on the prisoners’ likelihood to succeed on the claim that federal authorities exceeded their statutory authority by adopting a federal lethal injection protocol instead of following state protocols.

The Supreme Court’s December 6, 2019 order allowed the injunction to remain in place while the Court expressed its expectation that “the Court of Appeals will render its decision with appropriate dispatch.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote a statement respecting the denial that was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Alito expressed his opinion that the prisoners were unlikely to win on the merits and that he would have preferred the order to inform the parties “that the denial of the application to vacate is without prejudice to the filing of a renewed application if the injunction is still in place 60 days from now.”


Notable Decisions on Stay of Execution Motions

On July 8, 2020, the Court denied stay requests from Texas death-row prisoner Billy Joe Wardlow, clearing the way for his execution on the same day. Wardlow was 18 years old when he committed the crime for which he was sentenced to death. He challenged the constitutionality of the state’s use of “future dangerousness” findings to impose the death penalty on defendants who were younger than age 21 at the time of their offense.

Wardlow’s challenge was supported by three professional organizations and eight practitioners in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology who filed a brief in support of Wardlow’s request for Supreme Court review. The neuroscience experts’ brief explained that new research in the field of brain science has “made visible the differences between the developing brain and the adult brain as never before, effecting a paradigm shift in the way the behavior of emerging adults is understood in the scientific community. Well-established, peer-reviewed research, as well as our collective professional experience, demonstrate that it is scientifically impossible reliably to predict the future dangerousness of an offender who commits a crime while under the age of 21.”

Wardlow also challenged the federal courts’ categorization of his motion for relief from judgment as a successive federal habeas petition and refusal to grant relief on his ineffective assistance of counsel claims. The Court declined to review all pending petitions for certiorari and denied all motions for a stay of execution on July 8th.


On November 3, 2019, South Carolina executed Charles Rhines after the United States Supreme Court denied his applications for a stay of execution and petitions for certiorari. Rhines challenged several aspects of his conviction and sentencing, including jurors’ anti-gay bias. In addition, Rhines sought review of lower federal courts’ refusal to intervene when state officials blocked medical experts from being admitted to the prison to evaluate Rhines. Rhines had argued that these evaluations were necessary for his federally appointed counsel to investigate and present a clemency petition. Although she did not dissent from the denial of certiorari, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement “to emphasize that clemency is not a matter of mercy alone, but rather is the fail safe in our criminal justice system” (internal quotations omitted).


Denials of Review, With Statements by Individual Justices

On April 6, 2020, the Court declined to review the case of Jewish death-row prisoner Randy Halprin, who was tried and sentenced to death in Texas before a judge who made anti-Semitic and racist comments about Halprin and his co-defendants.

Halprin was convicted and sentenced to death in a trial presided over by Dallas County Judge Vickers Cunningham, who referred to Halprin as a “f***ing Jew” and a “G*dd**n k**e” and called Halprin’s Latino co-defendants “wetb***s.” Halprin’s lawyers filed his appeal after reading a 2018 Dallas Morning News report that the former judge had made racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic remarks, and had even set up a trust that rewarded his children if they married a white Christian of the opposite sex. During an unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Dallas District Attorney, Cunningham also said, “My job is to prevent n*****s from running wild again” and made derogatory comments about “n*****s, Jews, ‘w******s,’ and dirty Catholics.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement in conjunction with the Court’s action, in which she called the case “deeply disturbing” but agreed that the Court should not take up Halprin’s case at this time. Justice Sotomayor noted that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had stayed Halprin’s execution and that “state-court proceedings are underway to address—and, if appropriate, to remedy—Halprin’s assertion that insidious racial and religious bias infected his trial.” Her statement also emphasized that the Court’s denial of review was not a ruling on the merits of Halprin’s judicial bias claim and that review in the Supreme Court was still possible if the state courts deny the claim.


On February 25, 2020, the Supreme Court denied certiorari review of Rodney Reed’s Texas conviction and death sentence. Reed had requested relief based on new evidence that he claimed demonstrated the state’s violation of Brady v. Maryland and his actual innocence of the crime. In a statement regarding the denial of certiorari, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that Reed had filed a subsequent state habeas petition following the denial of the petition for which he was seeking certiorari review. This petition provided additional evidence of Reed’s actual innocence, and as a result, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Reed’s execution and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Though not addressing the merits of Reed’s claims, Justice Sotomayor expressed concern about the issues he raised, writing: “there is no escaping the pall of uncertainty over Reed’s conviction.”

Justice Sotomayor noted with approval the Texas courts’ recognition that the execution of an actually innocent person would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. She also cautioned that the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari review should not be read as an assessment of the strength of Reed’s claims, leaving the door open for review of a future petition if the Texas courts ultimately deny habeas relief to Reed.


On November 25, 2019, the Supreme Court denied Kenneth R. Isom’s petition for writ of certiorari. Isom sought review of the Arkansas courts’ denial of his post-conviction challenge to the prosecution’s suppression of evidence. The Arkansas Supreme Court gave Isom permission to file a writ of coram nobis in the trial court to raise this issue. Isom requested that his trial judge recuse himself from the case because, before ascending to the bench, the judge had prosecuted Isom three times and taken the extraordinary step of personally petitioning the governor to rescind Isom’s parole. The trial judge denied the request and coram nobis relief. Justice Sotomayor wrote a statement regarding the denial of certiorari. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recognized the gravity of the appearance of bias in this case but did not disagree with the Court’s decision since Isom failed to raise the issue of bias when the same judge presided over his trial and other post-conviction proceedings.


On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Fred Anderson Jr.’s challenge to his Florida death sentence. Anderson was sentenced to death by a jury that had been advised that its sentence would be advisory and that “[t]he final decision as to what punishment shall be imposed[] rests solely with the Judge of this court.” The jury recommended death in a 12-0 advisory verdict. After the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida that this advisory sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, Anderson sought a resentencing. The Florida Supreme Court denied Anderson relief, holding that the Hurst error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the unanimous jury recommendation. The Florida Supreme Court has applied this holding to any death sentence that became final after Ring v. Arizona was decided in which a unanimous jury recommended death. Although the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted her “dissent for the reasons set out in Reynolds v. Florida, 586 U. S. ___ (2018) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).”


Other Notable Denials of Review

On July 20, 2020, the Court denied three petitions for certiorari that raised questions about the scope of the protections its prior rulings afford to intellectually disabled death-row prisoners. In Sharp v. Smith, the Court’s decision allowed a federal appeals court’s grant of relief to an Oklahoma death-row prisoner stand. In the other two cases, Keen v. Tennessee and Smith v. Dunn, the Court’s denial of a hearing left in place decisions favoring the state.

In Sharp, Oklahoma prosecutors sought Supreme Court review of a federal appeals court decision that found Roderick L. Smith ineligible for the death penalty because of his intellectual disability. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit applied the principles set forth in the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas to Smith’s case. The Tenth Circuit concluded that “no rational trier of fact could have found that Smith did not meet the adaptive-functioning prong” of the criteria for determining intellectual disability. The state of Oklahoma argued that the court should not have applied Moore to Smith’s case because Moore had not been decided by the time the Oklahoma courts first considered Smith’s appeal.

In Keen v. Tennessee, death-row prisoner David Keen’s lawyers argued that the Tennessee courts had “closed the courthouse doors” to intellectually disabled prisoners by failing to establish a procedural mechanism under which they can present their claims. Keen identified 14 cases in which the Tennessee courts had ruled that no procedural mechanism existed to hear claims that prisoners were ineligible for execution because of intellectual disability. The Tennessee Supreme Court, Keen said, has recognized that without such a mechanism the state may unconstitutionally execute an intellectually disabled prisoner, but the court has failed to create any process for litigating these claims. In addition, while the court has urged the legislature to create a procedural mechanism for litigating intellectual disability in capital cases, the legislature has not done so.

The third case, Smith v. Dunn, was an appeal from Alabama death-row prisoner Willie B. Smith III. Alabama had denied Smith’s claim of intellectual disability, in part because his IQ score, unadjusted for measurement errors, was 72 — two points above the state’s unconstitutional IQ cutoff requirement of 70. It rejected his claim of adaptive deficits by unconstitutionally focusing on his adaptive skills and asserting that those skills outweighed his deficits. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Hall v. Florida explicitly declared the use of IQ cut-off scores to be unconstitutional, and Moore explicitly stated that the focus of the determination of adaptive functioning is on the presence or absence of deficits, not on whether there are countervailing strengths. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed that Smith would be ineligible for execution had Alabama applied a constitutionally valid standard for determining intellectual disability, but denied relief on the grounds that Hall and Moore should be applied only to cases that had not yet been decided on appeal at the time of the Supreme Court decisions.


On March 30, 2020, the Court declined to review death-row prisoner Billy Daniel Raulerson, Jr.’s challenge to the constitutionality of Georgia’s evidentiary requirement that capital defendants prove they are intellectually disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt” before they are exempted from execution. In 1988, Georgia became one of the first states in the nation to prohibit the death penalty for the intellectually disabled. Yet, 32 years later, not a single defendant charged with intentional murder has been able to meet the state’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof.

Raulerson’s petition drew friend-of-the-court support in briefs filed by a coalition of disability rights organizations and mental disability professionals and by The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. Citing Cooper v. Oklahoma, a 1996 Supreme Court decision that struck down a lesser “clear and convincing evidence” standard that Oklahoma required defendants to meet for proving incompetence and Atkins’ absolute bar to executing the intellectually disabled, Raulerson asked the Court to take his case and declare Georgia’s burden of proof unconstitutional.


In Woodward v. Alabama, No. 18-1298, the Court declined to review the constitutionality of Alabama’s since-repealed statute that permitted the trial judge to impose the death penalty despite a jury vote in favor of life. A Montgomery, Alabama jury had convicted Mario Woodward, an African-American defendant, of killing a white police officer during a traffic stop, but had voted 8-4 to sentence him to life. The trial judge overrode the jury and imposed the death penalty.


Several petitions for certiorari challenged the constitutionality of California’s death sentencing scheme. In California, at the end of the guilt phase of a capital murder trial, a jury must determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether one of the enumerated “special circumstances” exists. If so, the case continues to a penalty phase where the jury determines whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, allowing a death sentence to be imposed. Several petitioners argue that this sentencing scheme violates the Constitution by failing to require the jurors to unanimously find the aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. This issue was raised by petitioners Michael Leon Bell (cert denied 10/7/19), Kerry Lyn Dalton (cert denied 11/12/19), Julian Alejandro Mendez (cert denied 11/4/19), among others.