United States Supreme Court Decisions: 2015-2016 Term
LAST UPDATED ON July 1, 2016
The Court decided all of the death penalty cases for which it granted review and held oral argument during the 2015-2016 Term. Several death penalty cases are among the cases that are scheduled for conference before the start of the 2016-2017 Term in October.
WILLIAMS v. PENNSYLVANIA, No. 15-5040
Cert. granted Oct. 1, 2015
Argument: Feb. 29, 2016
Decided: June 9, 2016
By a 5-3 vote, with an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled that Pennsylvania violated Terry Williams' right to due process when a state supreme court justice who, in his former position as Philadelphia District Attorney, had personally involvement in Williams' capital prosecution later participated as a judge in an appeal in the same case.
Ronald Castille had served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply "a kind man [who had] offered [Williams] a ride home." After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." The Court ruled that "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, dissented, agreeing that Castille's participation in the appeal was problematic, but arguing that the state ethics rules provided the appropriate remedy for addressing the state judge's conduct. Justice Thomas dissented separately, saying that reduced due process protections applied to post-conviction appeals, after a defendant had been sentenced to death, than in earlier stages of the judicial process when the defendant enjoyed a presumption of innocence.
On February 13, two weeks before the Court granted certiorari to review the case, Governor Tom Wolf granted Williams a reprieve of his death sentence and announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania.
(L. Hurley, "U.S. top court blasts death penalty judge for not stepping aside," Reuters, June 9, 2016; J. Roebuck, "U.S. Supreme Court: Castille should have recused himself from Pa. death-row case," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 2016; R. Barnes, "Supreme Court rules for Pa. death row inmate in judge recusal case," Washington Post, June 9, 2016.) Read the Court's decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania here.
LYNCH v. ARIZONA, No. 15–8399
Cert. granted and decided May 31, 2016
In a 6-2 per curiam decision, the Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court, and summarily reversed the death sentence Arizona had imposed on Shawn Patrick Lynch. The Court held that Lynch's death sentence violated its 1994 decision in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U. S. 154 (1994), which established that, when a capital defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue and the only sentencing alternative to death available to the jury is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, due process entitles the defendant to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility.
In Lynch's case, it was uncontested that the prosecution had placed Lynch's future dangerousness in issue and that the only alternative to a death sentence offered under Arizona law was life imprisonment without parole. Nonetheless, the prosecution moved to prevent Lynch's counsel from arguing to the jury that life without parole was the only alternative to a death sentence, and the trial court granted the motion. The court did not inform the jury during its closing instructions that Arizona's life-sentencing option carried no possibility of parole.
Arizona argued that Simmons did not apply, because "under state law, Lynch could have received a life sentence that would have made him eligible for 'release' after 25 years." However, "the only kind of release for which Lynch would have been eligible" under Arizona law was executive clemency, and SImmons had "expressly rejected" the argument that hypothetical future developments such as commutation, clemency, or a legislative change in the law "diminishes a capital defendant’s right to inform a jury of his parole ineligibility."
The case was Lynch's third penalty phase. In his first penalty trial, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous penalty verdict and the court declared a penalty mistrial. Lynch was sentenced to death at his second penalty trial, but that sentence was overturned because of misconduct by prosecutor Juan Martinez, who had misrepresented to the jury that the aggravating factor “excessively cruel, heinous or depraved” constituted three separate aggravating circumstances. Lynch also alleged prosecutorial misconduct against Martinez in his 2012 resentencing. The Arizona Supreme Court held that Martinez had “disturbingly made a number of inappropriate comments, prompting valid objections,” and had engaged in "some instances" of misconduct. However, it ruled that the “prosecutorial misconduct ... was not so pronounced or sustained as to require a new sentencing trial.”
(M. Kiefer, "Supreme Court overturns Arizona man's death sentence," The Arizona Republic, May 31, 2016.) Read the Court's decision in Lynch v. Arizona here.
FOSTER v. CHATMAN, No. 14–8349
Cert. granted May 26, 2015 as Foster v. Humphrey
Argument: Nov. 2, 2015
Decided: May 23, 2016.
In a 7-1 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court granted a new trial to Timothy Foster, an African-American defendant who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors had struck every black prospective juror in his case. The Court held that prosecutors impermissibly struck two African-American jurors on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, which banned the practice of exercising discretionary strikes (called peremptory challenges) against potential jurors on the basis of race. Foster challenged the prosecution’s jury strikes as racially discriminatory at the time of jury selection, but the trial court permitted the strikes. Nineteen years after the trial, his lawyers obtained the prosecutors' notes from jury selection, which contained information that contradicted the “race-neutral” explanations for the strikes that the prosecution had offered at trial.
The notes reflect that the prosecution marked the name of each black prospective juror in green highlighter on four different copies of the jury list; circled the word “BLACK” next to the “Race” question on the juror questionnaires of five black prospective jurors; identified three black prospective jurors as “B#1,” “B#2,” and “B#3”; and ranked the black prospective jurors against each other in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.” Prosecutors said they struck each of the black jurors for race-neutral reasons and did not use the highlighted list in their final decision. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Foster's conviction. Chief Justice Roberts held that the state court's ruling was "clearly erroneous." "Foster established purposeful discrimination in the State’s strikes of two black prospective jurors," the Court wrote. "Evidence that a prosecutor’s reasons for striking a black prospective juror apply equally to an otherwise similar nonblack prospective juror who is allowed to serve tends to suggest purposeful discrimination." Among the reasons given by prosecutors for striking one black juror, Marilyn Garrett, included her age and the fact that she was divorced, but they allowed three out of four divorced white jurors to serve, and also allowed service by white jurors of similar age to Garrett. Justice Thomas dissented.
WEARRY v. CAIN, No. 14–10008
Cert. granted and decided March 7, 2016
In a 6-2 per curiam decision, the Court reversed the state District Court of Louisiana and held "the prosecution’s failure to disclose material evidence (supporting Wearry's innocence) violated Wearry’s due process rights." Michael Wearry will be granted a new trial. The Court concluded "Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction. The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s (a jailhouse informer) account rather than Wearry’s alibi." Justices Alito and Thomas dissented. See DPIC posting.
KANSAS v. JONATHAN CARR, No. 14-449
KANSAS v. REGINALD CARR, No. 14-450
KANSAS v. GLEASON, No. 14-452
Cert. granted Mar. 30, 2015
Argument: Oct. 7, 2015 (1 hr. to burden of proof questions in all 3 cases; 1 hr. to severance questions in Carr cases, consolidated)
Decided: Jan. 20, 2016
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court in three capital cases and reinstated the death sentences of Jonathan Carr, Reginald Carr, Jr., and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas Supreme Court had vacated the men's death sentences because it held the jury should have been informed that mitigating factors presented during the sentencing proceeding do not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that such an instruction was not constitutionally required. "Jurors," he said, "will accord mercy if they deem it appropriate, and withhold mercy if they do not." He wrote that on the facts of these cases, there was little possibility that the jury was confused about its role in finding and giving effect to mitigating evidence. The Court also rejected an argument that the Carr brothers should have had separate sentencing proceedings, saying that even if any evidence against the brothers had been improperly admitted, it did not affect the fundamental fairness of their penalty trial. The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the case should not have been reviewed, saying, "Kansas has not violated any federal constitutional right. If anything, the State has overprotected its citizens based on its interpretation of state and federal law." The decision leaves open the possibility that the Kansas courts could revisit these issues under state law.
(R. Barnes, "Court sides with Kansas officials in upholding death penalty for brothers," Washington Post, January 20, 2016). Read the Court's decision in Kansas v. Carr. See DPIC post Kansas v. Carr. Prior decisions: Kansas v. Reginald Carr, Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason.
Kansas v. Carr was the last death penalty case in which Associate Justice Antonin Scalia participated before his death in February 2016. Here is a DPIC retrospective on Justice Scalia and the Death Penalty.
HURST V. FLORIDA, No. 14-7505
Cert. granted Mar. 9, 2015
Argument: Oct. 13, 2015
Decision: Jan. 12, 2016
In an 8-1 decision released on January 12, 2016, the Court found Florida's capital sentencing scheme in violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the opinion of the Court. The jury and judge in Hurst's case followed Florida's statutory sentencing procedure, which requires only an "advisory sentence" from a jury. Florida does not require the jury to specify the factual basis of its sentencing recommendation. The sentencing judge must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation, but only the judge ever provides written reasons why a case is eligible for a death sentence. The Court based its decision largely on Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decision in which it struck down Arizona's sentencing scheme because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. While Florida's procedure adds the advisory recommendation that Arizona's lacked, the Court found the distinction, "immaterial." "As with Timothy Ring, the maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurst’s sentence violates the Sixth Amendment."
Justice Alito dissented, citing past decisions upholding Florida's death penalty statute. Justice Breyer concurred with the Court's decision, but would find that the Eighth Amendment requires that a jury determine the actual sentence, not just the facts that make a person eligible for death.(R. Barnes, "Supreme Court finds Florida’s capital punishment process unconstitutional," Washington Post, January 12, 2016). Read the Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida. See DPIC's prior post on Hurst v. Florida. See also Jury Sentencing.
WHITE V. WHEELER, No. 14-1372
Cert. granted Dec. 14, 2015
Decided Dec. 14, 2015
The Court granted cert. and reversed (per curiam) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a case from Kentucky involving jury selection. The Court held that the 6th Circuit did not give sufficient deference to the state court's finding that the exclusion of a particular juror was justified because of his hesitation about the death penalty. The Court said it was not proper for the 6th Circuit to render its own opinion on the juror's views and to reverse the death sentence of Roger Wheeler: "simple disagreement does not overcome the two layers of deference owed by a federal habeas court in this context." The Court concluded with a reprimand to the lower federal court: "As a final matter, this Court again advises the Court of Appeals that the provisions of AEDPA (Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (1996)) apply with full force even when reviewing a conviction and sentence imposing the death penalty." Read the opinion.
Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 14-10486 (U.S. June 20, 2016), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Mississippi Supreme Court for further consideration in light of Foster v. Chatman. Justice Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. Because of the Court's disposition of the jury discrimination issue, it did not reach a second question presented in Flowers' petition for certiorari, whether compelling a defendant to stand trial six times on the same charges, after three judgments were reversed for prosecutorial misconduct and two other trials ended with hung juries, violates the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Floyd v. Alabama, No. 15-7553 (U.S. June 20, 2016), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration in light of Foster v. Chatman. Justice Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Buck v. Stephens, No. 15-8049 (U.S. June 6, 2016), cert. granted to determine whether defense counsel for Duane Buck was constitutionally ineffective for presenting an expert witness who testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black.
Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797 (U.S. June 6, 2016), cert. granted to determine the constitutionality of Texas' standard for determining whether a person challenging his eligibility for the death penalty has adaptive deficits that would qualify him or her as intellectually disabled.
Kirksey v. Alabama, No. 15-7912 (U.S. June 6, 2016), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration in light of Hurst v. Florida.
Wimbley v. Alabama, No. 15-7939 (U.S. May 31, 2016), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration in light of Hurst v. Florida.
Johnson v. Alabama, No. 15-7091 (U.S. May 2, 2016), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration in light of Hurst v. Florida.
Lane v. Alabama, No. 14-10065 (U.S. Oct. 2015), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in light of Hall v. Florida.
Cain v. Brumfield, No. 15-1164 (U.S. June 6, 2016), cert. denied, leaving in place decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals (after remand in Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433) affirming a Louisiana federal district court's ruing that Kevan Brumfield is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability.
Tucker v. Louisiana, No. 15-946 (U.S. May 31, 2016), cert. denied, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting.
Boyer v. Davis, No. 15-8119 (U.S. May 2, 2016), cert. denied, Justice Stephen Breyer dissenting.
Brooks v. Alabama, No. 15-7786 (U.S. Jan. 21, 2016), application for stay of execution and petition for writ of certiorari denied, Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurring in the denial of certiorari, Justice Stephen Breyer dissenting from the denial of the application for stay of execution and the denial of certiorari.