U.S. Supreme Court

Florida Court to Hear Argument on Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Declaring Death Penalty Process Unconstitutional

On May 5, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Timothy Hurst, whose death sentence was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Hurst v. FloridaThe state court must determine whether the high court's ruling, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, entitles Hurst to a new sentencing hearing, reduces his sentence to life without parole, or requires some other outcome. The case may also decide how the Hurst ruling will affect the nearly 400 people on Florida's death row. Hurst's attorneys say he should have his death sentence reduced because, "persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony are entitled to have their now-unconstitutional death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole." That position received support in an amicus brief filed by three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, a former state representative, a former prosecutor, and past presidents of the American Bar Association. The justice and legal experts argue that  Hurst "held Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional," and that in such circumstances Florida law requires all death sentences imposed under the statute to be reduced to life without parole. The state attorney general's office has argued that state law requires blanket imposition of new sentences only if the death penalty itself is declared unconstitutional, and that Hurst only declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has the nation's second-largest death row, with 396 people as of January 1, 2016, before the state legislature rewrote the sentencing procedure to require a unanimous jury finding of at least one aggravating circumstance, and at least a 10-2 vote to impose a death sentence.

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

Arbitrariness Remains Pervasive 40 Years After Court Decision Upholding Capital Punishment

Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld newly enacted death penalty statutes in Gregg v. Georgia and two other cases, Professor Evan J. Mandery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice says arbitrariness continues to plague the administration of capital punishment across the United States. In a piece for The Marshall Project, Professor Mandery revisits the death penalty in light of the constitutional defects that led the Supreme Court to overturn existing capital punishment statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. He finds that "[w]hether one interprets the Furman decision to have been about — individually or collectively — excessive racism, a failure to identify the 'worst of the worst' among murderers, the death penalty’s sporadic use, or simple geographical randomness, the 'guided discretion' statutes endorsed in Gregg haven’t remotely fulfilled their promise. Randomness has not been reduced and in many respects has grown substantially worse." On the issue of "sporadic use," Professor Mandery cites studies that show state-level death sentencing rates for eligible crimes of 0.56% (Colorado) to 5.5% (California), both of which are dramatically lower than the 15-20% threshold that had raised concerns in Furman. States' failures to identify the "worth of the worst" murderers is evident, he says, in both the expansion of death-eligible crimes (91.1% of murders in Colorado are eligible under the state's death penalty statute) and studies that found no consistent differences in egregiousness of crimes that received death sentences and those that didn't. "Whatever they may have written, [Justice] Stewart, Stevens and Powell’s true project in Gregg was to rationalize the American death penalty and make sentencing decisions turn on the severity of a defendant’s offense instead of random factors, such as where the crime occurred, or insidious factors, such as race." Mandery says. He concludes: "On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, we can deem that project a complete and dismal failure." 

U.S. Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Louisiana Death Row Inmate

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision on March 7 granting a new trial to Louisiana death row inmate Michael Wearry as a result of multiple acts of misconduct by prosecutors in his case. No physical evidence linked Wearry to the murder. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of an informant, Sam Scott, who came forward two years after the crime with an account that did not match the details of the crime. Scott altered his story over the course of four different statements, and the testimony he gave in court barely resembled his original statement. Undisclosed police records later revealed that another inmate had heard Scott say he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle cause he jacked over me." A second witness against Wearry was offered a reduced sentence for an unrelated conviction, but prosecutors falsely told the jury that he had "no deal on the table” and was testifying because the victim’s "family deserves to know” what happened. Wearry presented three alibi witnesses - his girlfriend, his sister, and his aunt - who corroborated his story that he had been at a wedding 40 miles away when the crime occurred, but his attorney failed to further investigate the alibi or call as witnesses any of the wedding guests who did not have close relationships with Wearry. The Court wrote, "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 account rather than Wearry’s alibi." Justices Alito and Thomas dissented, saying the case should not have been decided without a full hearing. Louisiana police and prosecutors have been found to have engaged in misconduct in numerous death penalty cases, including those of all ten of its death-row exonerees: Johnny Ross, Curtis KylesShareef CousinMichael GrahamAlbert Burrell, John Thompson, Dan BrightRyan Matthews, Damon Thibodeaux, and Glenn Ford.

Former State Chief Justices: Pennsylvania Justice Should Not Have Approved Death as D.A., Then Reviewed Case on Appeal

In a recent Washington Times op-ed, two former state supreme court chief justices argue that a state supreme court justice who, as district attorney, had authorized the capital prosecution of a defendant, should not have later participated as a judge in deciding an appeal in that case. Gerald Kogan (pictured, l.), former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Michael Wolff (pictured, r.), former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, joined a number of other former judges who had been prosecutors and former appellate court jurists in filing briefs supporting the position of Philadelphia death-row prisoner Terry Williams in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Williams v. Pennsylvania. The case, which the Court will hear on February 29, concerns the participation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the prosecution's appeal of a trial court ruling that had overturned Williams' death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct. The appeals court reversed the trial court and reinstated Williams' death sentence. Kogan and Wolff say that Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal. "We, along with many other former judges, have urged the Supreme Court to find that Chief Justice Castille’s prior relationship to the case created an impermissible risk of bias," they say. "As the former district attorney, Chief Justice Castille personally, in a handwritten note, authorized seeking the death penalty for Mr. Williams. Moreover, he used the Williams death verdict to support his campaign for the Supreme Court seat. And finally, considering the case required Chief Justice Castille to evaluate a court’s finding of misconduct against the office over which he formerly presided."

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.

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