U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court to Review Death Penalty Case Involving Ineffective Representation

On March 24, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in Jennings v. Stephens (No. 13-7211), a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel. In his request for federal relief from his death sentence, Robert Jennings cited three instances in which his trial lawyers failed to adequately represent him. A U.S. District Court granted him relief on two of those claims (including failure to present evidence of his mental problems), while denying the third (his own lawyers told the jury they agreed he was eligible for the death penalty). Texas appealed the District Court's grant of relief on the first two claims to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which then held they could not consider Jennings' third claim of ineffective representation because his lawyers failed to file formal appeal papers on that claim. Jennings' attorneys maintain that no such filing was required since the Fifth Circuit was already reviewing the general issue of ineffectiveness of counsel at the state's request. The case may be set for argument in the fall.

Furman v. Georgia Reenactment Raises Questions of Arbitrariness

The Georgia State Bar's constitutional symposium recently staged a reenactment of Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the temporary suspension of the death penalty in 1972. Stephen Bright (pictured), president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, played the role of Anthony Amsterdam, who argued on behalf of death row inmates in two of the four cases that the Court decided in Furman. The roles of the justices were performed by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Herbert Phipps and Judge Beverly Martin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Bright argued that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it was applied rarely and randomly. The judges asked about many of the details of Furman's trial, noting that the entire trial took just six hours, and that blacks and Jews were excluded from the jury. The judges in the reenactment did not offer their opinions on the case, but the real Furman v. Georgia resulted in a 5-4 decision to suspend the death penalty, with some in the majority saying it was imposed arbitrarily and others saying the death penalty was unconstitutional in all cases.

Should State Executions Proceed Under a Veil of Secrecy?

In his Sidebar column in the N.Y. Times, Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak recently discussed the concerns about states denying death row inmates information about how they will be executed. Liptak highlighted the recent execution of Michael Taylor in Missouri, where the state has made the pharmacy providing the drugs for lethal injection part of its "execution team," thus obscuring any failings the pharmacy may have. This secretive approach drew criticism from a minority of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and a dissent from three Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have granted Taylor a stay of execution to consider his due process rights to information about the state's method for killing him. As Liptak said, "[I]t is hard to see how death row inmates can argue that a given method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment if they are barred from knowing what the method is." Though Taylor was executed, other death row inmates are raising similar claims that may come before the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Returns Case to Alabama Because Attorney Was Ignorant of the Law

On February 24, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered an Alabama court to reconsider the case of Anthony Hinton, who has maintained his innocence since he was sentenced to death 28 years ago. Mr. Hinton's lawyer wrongly believed that he could spend only $1,000 on a firearms expert during the trial, and as a result, hired a witness whom he knew was unqualified, and who the Court said was "badly discredited" by the prosecution. Hinton's appellate lawyers later claimed that his trial lawyer's mistake constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. During Hinton's appeals, three experts testified that they could not conclude Hinton's gun had fired the bullets used in the crime, essentially rebutting the prosecutor's primary evidence. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who has represented Hinton since 1999, said, "There’s dramatic evidence that he’s been wrongly convicted and no one can credibly assert that a capital defendant can get the assistance he needs for $1000." The Court returned the case to Alabama's courts to determine whether the trial's lawyer error preudiced the outcome of the case.

Supreme Court to Examine Florida's Narrow Standard for Mental Retardation

On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a case addressing the strict standard for intellectual disability that Florida uses to determine if inmates are exempt from execution. Under the Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, individuals with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) are constitutionally barred from receiving the death penalty. The decision "le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction," resulting in various standards for determining intellectual disabilities across the states. Unlike almost all other states, Florida rigidly requires an IQ of 70 or below to demonstrate mental retardation, with no allowance for the test's margin of error. Freddie Hall, the death-row petitioner in this case, was first diagnosed with intellecutal disabilities in elementary school. Prior to the Atkins, a Florida court determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” Despite these findings, Hall is still facing execution. Cornell Law Professor John Blume said, while the issue is limited, the case is important, "to make clear that states cannot narrow a categorical ban created by the Supreme Court intended to protect a vulnerable group from wrongful execution."

Upcoming Death Penalty Events in 2014

As the new year begins, there are several notable events related to the death penalty likely to occur in the next few months. The first execution of the year is scheduled for January 7 in Florida. The execution of Askari Muhammad had originally been scheduled for December 3, 2013, but was stayed due to a challenge to the state's new execution protocol. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new protocol, and the execution was rescheduled, though legal challenges are continuing in federal court. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Dennis McGuire for January 16, and the state plans to use a lethal injection protocol never tried before in any state. Ohio will use midazolam and hydromorphone, drugs formerly listed in the state's backup procedure. This latest change in Ohio was caused by a shortage of the drug pentobarbital, after restrictions on its use were imposed by its European manufacturer. On January 22, Texas is scheduled to execute Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican citizen who was denied consular access at the time of his arrest, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Objections to the execution have been raised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by numerous other governments. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a challenge to Florida's strict procedure for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The Court previously ruled that intellectually disabled defendants are barred from execution.

Supreme Court Reverses Kansas Self-Incrimination Ruling

On December 11, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that had granted relief to death row inmate Scott Cheever. The Kansas court had held that Cheever's 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated because testimony was given at his sentencing hearing by a psychiatrist who examined Cheever pursuant to a court order. Cheever had claimed he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the crime. The psychiatrist testified that his "antisocial personality," rather than his drug use, explained his crime. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the Court, said, "[W]here a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit an offense, the prosecution may present psychiatric evidence in rebuttal." Since Cheever was relying on his mental state for his defense, the prosecution was entitled to present contrary evidence on his mental state. In an earlier case, the Court had ruled psychiatric statements could not be used against a defendant who "neither initiates a psychiatric evaluation nor attempts to introduce any psychiatric evidence."

Secretary of State John Kerry Urges Texas to Reconsider Death Sentence of Mexican Citizen

In a letter to Texas officials, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged a review of the conviction of Edgar Arias Tamayo, a Mexican citizen scheduled to be executed in January 2014. Tamayo was not notified of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty that the U.S. has signed and ratified. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ordered the U.S. to review the convictions of Tamayo and 50 other Mexican citizens who had been sentenced to death without being notified of their rights under the Vienna Convention. No U.S. court has examined the consular issues in Tamayo's case. Kerry's letter warned that executing Tamayo could damage U.S.-Mexican relations and hinder the ability of U.S. officials to help American citizens detained abroad. “Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation,” he said. Eduardo Medina Mora, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, said, “[T]his issue has become and could continue to be a significant irritant in the relations between our two countries.”

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