United States Supreme Court Decisions: 1997-1998 to 2001-2002 Terms



2001 - 2002 Term

  • Patterson v. Texas, No. 02-6010. The Court denied Toronto Patterson's appeal for a stay of execution in order to consider whether the execution of juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment. Three Supreme Court Justices - Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer - dissented, stating that the Court should consider reviewing the death penalty for those who commit crimes before the age of 18. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote, "Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate for the court to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity." (Washington Post, August 29, 2002). Read Justice Stevens's dissenting opinion.
  • Horn v. Banks, No. 01-1385. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case of George Banks of Pennsylvania to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit finding that the lower court erred in not performing a Teague retroactivity analysis before granting Bank's petition for federal habeas corpus relief from his death sentence. The Court, in an unsigned opinion and without oral arguments in the case, held that the lower court must determine if new standards for jury instructions, set by the Supreme Court in Mills v. Maryland in 1988 and later clarified in 1990, should be applied retroactively to Banks, who was convicted before the new jury instructions went into effect. (Horn v. Banks, No. 01-1385. June 17, 2002)
  • Allen v. United States, No. 01-7310. The Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of federal death row inmate Billie J. Allen and remanded the case back to the Eighth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the Court's recent ruling in Ring v. Arizona. In Ring, the Court held that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case (see below). Allen was sentenced under federal law, which provides that the jury determine whether certain aggravating factors exist. However, under the federal system, the specific circumstances that the government intends to prove are not part of the indictment, which appears to be required by Ring. (New York Times, 6/29/02)
  • United States v. Bass, No. 01-1471. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Sixth Circuit opinion upholding a federal court's decision to grant defendant John Bass's discovery motion based on selective prosecution. Bass alleged that the government was seeking the death penalty against him because of his race and was granted a motion for discovery regarding the Government's capital charging practices. The Sixth Circuit found that Bass made a threshold showing based on national statistics that "the United States charged blacks with a death-eligible offense more than twice as often as it charges whites." The U.S. Supreme Court, however, found that Bass did not make a threshold showing for a selective prosecution case, which requires evidence of a discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent. The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, holding that a discriminatory effect could not be found because "raw statistics regarding overall charges say nothing about charges brought against similarly situated defendants." (U.S. v. Bass, 536 U.S. ___ (2002)).
  • Ring v. Arizona, No. 01-488 - On June 24, 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court decided 7-2 that it is unconstitutional to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide the critical sentencing issues in a death penalty case. The case applies an earlier U.S. Supreme Court case, Apprendi v. New Jersey (500 U.S. 466 (2000)), in which the Court held that a judge could not make findings which would increase a defendant's sentence beyond the maximum, since that amounted to an additional conviction. In Arizona and eight other states, judges have decided whether to impose the death penalty after a jury has determined guilt. (Associated Press, 1/11/02) See also, DPIC's Web Page, U.S. Supreme Court: Ring v. Arizona.
  • Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that executing those with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (Associated Press, 6/20/02)

  • In 1989, the Court held that executing persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment because a "national consensus" had not developed against executing those with mental retardation. At the time, only two states prohibited such executions. Since then, 16 more states and the federal government have enacted laws prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded. See also, Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty.
  • Kelly v. South Carolina, No. 00-9280. The Court decided 5-4 that the South Carolina trial court violated Simmons v. South Carolina (512 U.S. 154 (1994)) when it refused to inform Kelly's sentencing jury that he would never be eligible for parole if the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment rather than to death. In Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if the state characterizes the defendant as displaying future dangerousness - and the only available alternative sentence to death is life imprisonment without parole - the jury must be informed of the defendant's parole ineligibility under a life sentence.

  • In Kelly's case, the prosecution argued during the sentencing phase that "murders will be murderers" and informed the jury that, when previously incarcerated, Kelly had planned escapes from jail. Kelly was subsequently sentenced to death. On appeal, Kelly argued that the state raised the issue of future dangerousness when it brought up evidence of his escape attempts because a successful escape would imply a risk to the public. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the evidence of the escape attempts is not the kind of future dangerousness contemplated by Simmons. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision and granted Kelly a new sentencing trial. (Associated Press, 1/9/02 and Kelly v. South Carolina, No. 00-9280) Read the decision.

  • McCarver v. North Carolina, No. 00-8727. The Court dismissed the case of Ernest McCarver, a death row inmate in North Carolina with mental retardation. After the Justices had agreed to review McCarver's case, North Carolina passed a bill prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded, rendering McCarver's case moot. The Court instead will decide the case of Daryl Atkins, a Virginia death row inmate with mental retardation, to consider whether executing those with mental retardation offends society's "evolving standards of decency" and thus violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (Associated Press, 9/25/01)
  • Weston v. United States, No. 01-6161. The Court declined to review the case of Russell Weston, the man accused of killing two U.S. Capitol police officers in 1998. Weston was appealing a U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding the government's efforts to force Weston to take antipsychotic medication. If the treatment is successful, he will stand trial, and could possibly face the death penalty. (Washington Post, 12/11/01)
  • Mickens v. Taylor, No. 00-9285. By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the capital conviction of Walter Mickens, who had been represented by a lawyer who had also represented the victim from Mickens' crime. The majority held that this apparent conflict of interest did not warrant a reversal without a showing of an "adverse effect" on the representation. The dissent remarked: "Mickens had a constitutional right to the services of an attorney devoted solely to his interests." "That right was violated." (New York Times, 3/28/02) Mickens is scheduled for execution on June 12. Read the decision.
  • Bell v. Cone, No. 01-400. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Gary Cone from Tennessee, 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. 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. (Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. ___ (2002); see also Associated Press, May 28, 2002). Read the opinion.
  • Cockrell v. Burdine, No. 01-495. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide an appeal by the state of Texas of a Fifth Circuit Court ruling that granted Texas death row inmate Calvin Burdine a new trial on the basis of ineffective counsel. According to several witnesses, Burdine's attorney dozed repeatedly during his original trial. The Circuit Court held that "unconscious counsel equates to no counsel at all," and that Burdine was therefore "denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial." (New York Times, June 4, 2002)
  • Stewart v. Smith, No. 01-339. The U.S. Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion reversed the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which had granted relief to death row inmate Robert Smith. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled independently of federal law when it denied Smith's claim of ineffectiveness of counsel. The Arizona Court held that Smith failed to comply with Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

2000 - 2001 Term

  • Shafer v. South Carolina, 00-5250. In a 7-2 vote, the Court re-affirmed that defendants facing the death penalty have the right to inform jurors when a life sentence would include no possibility of parole. The Court found that Wesley A. Shafer's right to due process was violated when a South Carolina trial judge refused to clarify for jurors that, if they sentenced Shafer to life, he would have no possibility of parole. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, stated that the jury was obviously confused about the meaning of a life sentence under South Carolina's new law because they sent a note to the trial judge asking if there was "any remote chance" of parole. In response, the trial judge instructed the jury that "parole eligibility or ineligibility is not for your consideration." The jury then sentenced Shafer to death.

  • The decision reiterates the Court's 1994 ruling in Simmons v. South Carolina, holding that whenever the prosecution makes an issue of the defendant's future dangerousness, the defendant has the right to an accurate jury instruction that a life sentence means no possibility of release. (New York Times, 3/21/01) Shafer's case was remanded back to South Carolina to determine whether future dangerousness was, in fact, argued by the prosecution.

  • Texas v. Cobb, 99-1702. In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police did not have to notify Cobb's lawyer when they questioned him about one crime while he was under indictment for a related crime. In 1993, Raymond Cobb confessed to the burglary of his neighbor Maggie Owings, but denied involvement in the disappearance of her and her daughter. While awaiting trial, the police questioned Cobb about the disappearances without notifying his lawyer. Cobb was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals which held that the police should have notified Cobb's attorney before questioning him.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the Texas Court holding that the burglary and the killings were separate crimes and a lawyer working on one case is not automatically the lawyer for the second case. The dissenting justices argued that the police were required to notify Cobb's lawyer when investigating him in the killings and that the majority's decision "undermines Sixth Amendment protections while doing nothing to further effective law enforcement." (Associated Press, 4/3/01)
  • Penry v. Johnson, 00-6677. The U.S. Supreme Court held that a sentencing jury considering the death penalty must be given proper instructions about how to weigh mental retardation as a mitigating factor. The decision overturned the death sentence of John Paul Penry, a Texas death row inmate suffering from mental retardation, and sent the case back to the trial court for re-sentencing. The Supreme Court first decided Penry's case in 1989, and held that, although executing those with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment, Penry's rights were nevertheless violated because the sentencing jury was not properly allowed to take his mental capacity into account. At retrial, Penry was again sentenced to death. (CNN.com, 6/4/01)

1999 - 2000 Term

  • Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 98-8384. The Court, voting 6-3, held that the Virginia Supreme Court applied the wrong test when examining a claim that Williams's lawyer was ineffective in the sentencing phase of his trial. The Court also disagreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which had upheld Williams's death sentence. Williams's lawyer had failed to present evidence of child abuse, borderline mental retardation, and potential for reform in his client's history. Such information might well have led to a different sentence. The Fourth Circuit erred when it held that the state could only be overruled if all reasonable jurists agreed. The U.S. Supreme Court said that Virginia had acted unreasonably and contrary to the High Court's precedence, and that was sufficient for federal relief under the AEDPA.

  • On the broader question of how much deference federal courts owe a state court interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Justice O'Connor, writing for a 5-4 majority, said it is not enough if a state court acted incorrectly. It must be unreasonably wrong or contrary to explicit Supreme Court precedent for relief to be given. This part of the Court's decision may make it more difficult for state prisoners to gain federal review than before the enactment of the AEDPA.
  • Domingues v. Nevada, 98-8327, the Court denied certiorari to Michael Domingues, who argued that his execution would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because he was only 16 years old at the time of his crime. The treaty, which prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, was ratified by the United States in 1992. However, the U.S. attached a reservation in order to allow the execution of those who committed crimes while under the age of 18. The Court's decision not to review the case is not a decision on the merits of Domingues's claim, which may be raised in other courts.
  • Knight v. Florida, No. 98-9741; Moore v. Nebraska, No. 99-5291. The Court decided not to decide, at this time, an appeal from two death row inmates concerning the cruelty of the amount of time they had spent on death row. Justice Breyer dissented from the Court's decision: "Both of these cases involve astonishingly long delays flowing in significant part from constitutionally defective death penalty procedures. Where a delay, measured in decades, reflects the State's own failure to comply with the Constitution's demands, the claim that time has rendered the execution inhuman is a particularly strong one." (Nov. 8, 1999).
  • Weeks v. Angelone, No. 99-5746. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a judge presiding over a death penalty case was not obliged to clarify a sentencing instruction that, while constitutional, left the jury confused. The dissent written by Justice Stevens, said there was a "virtual certainty" that the jury was confused, as well as "no reason to believe" the judge's answer had resolved the confusion. (New York Times, 1/20/00)
  • In re Tarver, No. 99-8044. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Alabama death row inmate Robert Tarver, Jr., who challenged the constitutionality of Alabama's electric chair. The Court granted Tarver a stay of execution on February 4, to decide whether to hear oral arguments in his case. The Court may use another case to review the constitutionality of the electric chair in the three remaining states that use electrocution as their sole method of execution. (Associated Press 2/22/00 and New York Times, 2/23/00)
  • Bryan v. Moore, 99-6723, The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as moot. The Court cited recent Florida legislation which changed the state's primary method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. The case would have decided if use of Florida's electric chair violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Three remaining states continue to use the electric chair as their sole method of execution: Alabama, Georgia, and Nebraska. (New York Times, 1/25/00)
  • Williams (Michael) v. Taylor, 99-6615. Although a provision of the AEDPA bars federal courts from holding hearings to determine factual issues if an inmate "failed to develop" such facts in state court, the Supreme Court unanimously held that "failure to develop" is not established unless there is lack of diligence, or some greater fault, attributable to the prisoner or his counsel. The Court held that Williams could not have developed facts to support his claims of juror bias and prosecutorial misconduct because the necessary information was withheld by the prosecution.
  • Slack v. McDaniel, 98-6322. In a 7 to 2 ruling, the Court held that an inmate could not be barred from raising new constitutional challenges to his conviction in a subsequent federal habeas corpus petition when the inmate's initial petition was dismissed on procedural grounds, with its constitutional claims unadjudicated. Although not a death penalty case, the Court's decision affects capital cases under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. (New York Times, 4/27/00)
  • Ramdass v. Angelone, 99-7000. The Court held that Ramdass was not entitled to a jury instruction that informed jurors that if he were given a life sentence, he would never be eligible for parole under Virginia's three-strikes law. The Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit's holding that Ramdass did not qualify under the law because, although he had been found guilty by juries of three separate crimes, one of the trial judges had not yet entered a judgment of guilt.
  • Saldano v. Texas, 99-8119. The Court ordered Texas courts to provide a new sentence hearing to death row inmate Victor Hugo Saldano because prosecutors used racial and ethnic stereotypes in order to obtain a death sentence. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn conceded that the state erred in allowing a psychologist to testify about Saldano's "future dangerousness" based on factors that included the fact that Saldano is Hispanic, and joined Saldano in asking the Court for a new sentencing hearing. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously upheld Saldano's death sentence, stating that the prosecution's use of ethnicity as a factor to be considered in death sentencing was not a "fundamental error" requiring reversal. (Associated Press, 6/5/00)

1998 - 1999 Term

  • Jones v. U.S., 97-9361, The Court, reviewing the sentencing provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 for the first time, held that jurors in death penalty cases do not have to be told about the consequences of their failing to agree on whether life or death is the appropriate sentence. The sentencing provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act allow for three sentencing options: death, life without parole and a lesser sentence. The Court's instructions to the jury in Jones were unclear about these options and the effect of an un-unanimous verdict by the jury.
  • Strickler v. Greene, No. 98-5864. The Court upheld a Fourth Circuit decision ruling that Virginia did not violate Brady v. Maryland when it failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. The Supreme Court held that even if the evidence had been disclosed, there was not a reasonable probability that it would have changed the case's outcome. (AP 6/17/99)
  • Lilly v. Virginia, No. 98-5881. The Court overturned the conviction of Virginia Death Row inmate, Benajmin Lee Lilly. In a unanimous decision, the Court opined that Lilly's Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him was violated when a co-defendant, who had given a statement to police accusing Lilly, refused to testify at Lilly's trial, citing his right to remain silent. The justices ordered a lower court to determine whether the error could be considered harmless. (Associated Press 6/10/99). The Virginia Supreme Court found that the error was not harmless and therefore his conviction was overturned and remanded for re-trial.
  • Federal Republic of Germany v. United States, 119 S.Ct. 1016. The Court denied an application by the German government to file a complaint and a motion for injunction against the United States and the Governor of Arizona to stop the execution of Walter LaGrand.
  • Stewart v. LaGrand, 119 S.Ct. 1018. This order by the Court reversed an order by the Ninth Circuit that had enjoined the State of Arizona from executing Walter LaGrand by lethal gas. The Court held that LaGrand's claim was procedurally barred and he had nonetheless waived his ability to challenge lethal gas when he chose it over lethal injection.
  • Calderon v. Coleman, No.98-437. The Court recently made it more difficult for federal courts to reverse a state death sentence because of a constitutional error. In a 5-4 vote, the justices imposed strict standards on federal judges as they weigh the impact of a trial error on the jury's verdict. In a California case involving the rape and murder of a woman, the jury was informed that the governor could commute a sentence of life without parole to a lesser sentence; they were also told to disregard this information in deciding what sentence to give the prisoner, Russell Coleman. However, the jury was not told that under the California constitution, the governor does not have the authority to reduce the sentence of someone with multiple felony convictions (which Coleman had) without the approval of four state Supreme Court justices. The jury sentenced Coleman to death.

  • A federal court overturned the sentence, holding that the jury had been misled with the inaccurate instruction and that this was not a "harmless error". This decision was affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. California argued that although the instruction was incomplete, it was not a reversible error using the 1993 standard for federal review of state verdicts. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that even if the jury instruction failed to meet constitutional standards, the 9th Circuit failed to show that "in the whole context" of a case, the misleading instruction had a "substantial and injurious" effect on the verdict. (Dec. 14, 1998)

  • Elledge v. Florida, No.98-54210. Elledge was denied cert. and in his dissenting opinion to that denial, Justice Breyer wrote that a lengthy delay between sentencing and execution may be unconstitutional. Justice Breyer seriously questioned whether William Elledge's 23 years under a sentence of death was cruel and unusual punishment and thus prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. As support for the argument that the punishment is "cruel," Justice Breyer noted that the inmate "experienced the delay because of the State's own faulty procedures and not because of frivolous appeals on his own part." Justice Breyer also questioned the effectiveness of the punishment: "After such a delay, an execution may well cease to serve the legitimate penological purposes that otherwise provide a necessary constitutional justification for the death penalty." (October 13, 1998).

1997 - 1998 Term

  • Buchanan v. Angelone, 66 U.S.L.W. 4075, The Eighth Amendment does not require that a capital jury be instructed on the concept of mitigating evidence generally, or on particular statutory mitigating factors.
  • Calderon v. Ashmus, 66 U.S.L.W. 4382, Death row inmates can challenge the applicability of AEDPA only as part of their habeas petition, not as a separate challenge.
  • Calderon v. Thompson, In a 5-4 decision issued April 29th, the Supreme Court overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and denied relief to Thomas Thompson, a death row inmate in California. The decision, Calderon v. Thompson, was based not on the merits of new evidence that indicated he should not have been sentenced to death, but rather on the State's interest in finality and judicial economy. Thompson was executed in California on July 14, 1998.
  • Campbell v. Louisiana, 66 U.S. L.W. 4258, White defendants can challenge the composition of the indicting grand jury on the basis of discrimination against blacks in the selection of jury members.
  • Hopkins v. Reeves, 66 U.S.L.W. 4449, The Court limited the scope of Beck v. Alabama, that required jurors in capital cases to consider convicting defendants of lesser offenses. The Court held that Beck does not apply in states where felony murder does not include any lesser offenses.
  • Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal. In a May 18th opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a death row inmate to federal review of his mental competency. Arizona inmate Ramon Martinez-Villareal had filed a federal habeas petition and among other claims, he raised the issue of competency to be executed. The claim was dismissed as premature since Martinez-Villareal did not yet have an execution date. Once an execution date was set, Martinez-Villareal again sought to raise the issue of mental competency in federal court. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the petition was a second petition and thus barred by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The Court found the petition to be an extension of the first rather than a second petition.
  • Ohio Adult Parole Authority et al v. Woodward, 96-1769, the Supreme Court held that Ohio's clemency guidelines were constitutional. The Court found that the Due Process Clause could apply to the clemency process in flagrant circumstances, but that Ohio's clemency process did not violate the due process clause.
  • Trest v. Cain, 66 U.S.L.W. 4023, If a state inmate's habeas petition is flawed and state prosecutors fail to point out the flaw, federal appeals courts are not required to dismiss the petition on procedural default grounds.
  • Paraguay et al. v. Gilmore. In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court denied Paraguay's petition for certiorari. Paraguay asserted a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations when Paraguayan national Angel Francisco Breard was arrested and not informed of his right to contact the Paraguayan consulate. Angel Breard was executed in Virginia on April 14, 1998.
  • Four Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote on October 20, 1997 that they were "troubled" by Texas's death penalty law. In Arthur Brown, Jr. v. Texas, No. 96-9187, Justice Stevens wrote, with three other Justices, that Texas law currently forbids the judge in a death penalty case from explaining to the jury the meaning of a life sentence. Currently, if a person does not receive the death penalty, he would serve a life sentence in which he would not be eligible for parole for 40 years. This situation created an "obvious tension" between Texas's rule and earlier holdings of the Supreme Court which require a jury to be told when a person faces life without parole if not sentenced to death. Justice Stevens also cited recent opinion polls which show public support for alternatives to the death penalty. (See Public Opinion for poll results.)