U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses 3 Kansas Decisions Overturning Death Penalties

In an 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Carr, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court granting new sentencing hearings in three capital cases, restoring the death sentences of Jonathan Carr, Reginald Carr, Jr., and Sidney Gleason pending further appellate review. The Kansas Supreme Court had vacated the men's death sentences because the jury had not been informed, as required by the Kansas Supreme Court, that mitigating factors presented during the sentencing proceeding to spare a defendant's life 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.

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's Death Sentencing Scheme

In an 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida released on January 12, the U.S. Supreme 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." 

Supreme Court Petition Alleges Second Conflict of Interest by Same Lawyers Accused of Abandoning Executed Texas Prisoner

 Lawyers for Texas death row prisoner Robert L. Roberson III have filed a petition asking the United States Supreme Court to review whether Seth Kretzer and James W. Volberding - the same appointed lawyers who were accused of abandoning Raphael Holiday, whom Texas executed in November - had a conflict of interest that interfered with Mr. Roberson's right to an independent legal advocate in his federal habeas corpus proceedings challenging his conviction and death sentence. In his petition, Roberson argues that his trial lawyer failed to investigate and present important mitigating evidence in the penalty phase of his case and that Kretzer and Volberding have a conflict of interest that prevented them from properly litigating that claim. Volberding represented Roberson in his state post-conviction appeals and failed to present any claim or evidence relating to counsel's penalty-phase investigative failures. He was then appointed to represent Roberson in federal court, but his prior failure to have challenged trial counsel's penalty-phase performance forfeited that claim unless Roberson could show that Volberding had unreasonably failed to raise the claim in state court. Kretzer was appointed as "supplemental counsel" to review Volberding's performance and failed to challenge Volberding's conduct. However, unkown to Roberson, Kretzer and Volbering had a close professional association, having been jointly appointed as paid co-counsel in a number of capital habeas cases. When Roberson learned of their association, he asked for new "supplemental counsel," which Kretzer and Volberding opposed. Charles Herring, Jr., an ethics expert and author of a treatise on Texas legal ethics and malpractice, and Lawrence J. Fox, former chairman of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, say in affidavits supporting Roberson's petition that Volberding and Kretzer have conflicts of interest that should prevent them from representing Roberson. The Court is expected to decide in early December whether to hear Roberson's case. Kretzer and Volberding have written to the Court requesting that it dismiss the petition and permit them to file their own petition raising other issues.

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Georgia Jury Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Foster v. Chatman on November 2. Timothy Foster, an intellectually limited black teenager charged with killing an elderly white woman, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors struck every black member of the jury pool. Foster argued that prosecutors impermissibly exercised their strikes on the basis of race, in violation of the Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, to keep African Americans off his jury. Press reports described the Court as having "signaled support" for Foster during the course of the argument, with at least six justices indicating that black jurors had been "improperly singled out and kept off the jury." Justice Elena Kagan called the case as clear a violation of the Court's prohibition against racially discriminatory jury selection "as a court is ever going to see." The prosecution's notes of jury selection, obtained through an open records request nearly 20 years after Foster's trial, showed that prosecutors had highlighted in green the names of every black juror, included all 5 black jurors on the top of a list of 6 "definite no's," and ranked black jurors against one another "in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." In an op-ed in the New York Times, former deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry D. Thompson said prosecutors "routinely ignore" Batson and exclude black jurors for any number of ostensibly "race neutral" reasons. This is problematic, he says, "because interracial juries make fewer factual errors, deliberate longer and consider a wider variety of perspectives than all-white juries." Studies in nine southern death penalty states have documented "rampant" race discimination in jury selection, Thompson writes. However, "Mr. Foster’s case offers a rare instance of extraordinary and well-documented misconduct." Thompson concludes that "A judicial system that allows for obviously discriminatory jury selection is intolerable. If the court cannot establish discrimination in this case, then the lofty language of Batson rings hollow." 

STUDIES: Requiring Jury Unanimity Would Decrease U.S. Death Sentences by 21%

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 13 in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging provisions in Florida's death penalty statute that do not require jurors to unanimously agree to the facts that could subject a defendant to a death sentence or to reach unanimity before recommending that the judge sentence a defendant to death. Florida is one of just three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. A study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware would have caused a dramatic drop in death sentences over the last 5 years. Overall, the three states would have returned 26 death sentences since 2010, instead of 117 - a 77% drop - and Florida would have imposed 70% fewer death verdicts. The three states that do not require unanimity in death sentencing have produced a disproportionate share of the nation's death sentences, accounting for 28% of all U.S. death sentences since 2010. Had these states followed the sentencing system used by every other death penalty state, the total number of death sentences imposed in the United States  would have decreased by 21%. (Click image for full infographic.)

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Pennsylvania Case Concerning Judicial Bias

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case challenging former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's participation in an appeal of a case that had been tried in Philadelphia while Castille was the city's district attorney. Terrance Williams (pictured) was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1984 for the murder of a man prosecutors had described to the jury as "a kind man [who had] offered [Williams] a ride home." Williams was 18 at the time of the murder. His death sentence was reversed days before his scheduled execution in 2012 because prosecutors under Castille's tenure had withheld information that the victim, a church deacon, had sexually abused teenagers he had met through his church and that the trial prosecutor knew that the victim had sexually abused Williams. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated Williams' death sentence. Williams' lawyers asked Castille to recuse himself from the case, saying he had "personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment" against Williams, continued to head the office when it defended the death verdict on appeal, and, in his electoral campaign for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had touted "the number of defendants he had 'sent' to death row, including [Williams]." Castille denied the motion for recusal and authored a concurring opinion that criticized Williams' lawyers and the judge who had ruled in Williams' favor.

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.

In New Book, Media Interviews, Justice Breyer Addresses International Opinion, Arbitrariness of Death Penalty

In his new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, and in media interviews accompanying its release, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the relationship between American laws and those of other countries and his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. In an interview with The National Law Journal, Breyer summarized the core reasons underlying his Glossip dissent: "You know, sometimes people make mistakes, [executing] the wrong person. It is arbitrary. There is lots of evidence on that. Justice Potter Stewart said it was like being hit by lightning, whether the person is actually executed. If carried out, a death sentence, on average takes place now 18 years after it is imposed. The number of people who are executed has shrunk dramatically. They are centered in a very small number of counties in the United States. Bottom line is, let's go into the issue. It is time to go into it again." In his book, Breyer argues that the laws and practices of foreign countries are relevant to and might be particularly informative on questions regarding the Eighth Amendment. He notes that international opinion has influenced decisions to end the death penalty for juveniles and for crimes that do not result in death. His Glossip opinion also mentioned international practices - that only 22 countries carried out executions in 2013 and that the U.S. was one of only eight that executed more than 10 people - among the reasons American capital punishment may be an unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment." That phrase, he says in his book, is itself of foreign origin. "It uses the word 'unusual,'" Breyer says, "and the founders didn't say unusual in what context." Foreign law and practices, he argues, should form part of that context.

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