U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Stevens Says Texas Executed an Innocent Man

In a discussion at the University of Florida Law School, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that recent research reveals that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man in 1989. Stevens said, "Within the last year, Jim Liebman, who's a professor at the Columbia Law School and was a former law clerk of mine, has written a book...called The Wrong Carlos...He has demonstrated, I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Texas case in which they executed the wrong defendant, and that the person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished. And I think it's a sufficient argument against the death penalty...that society should not take the risk that that might happen again, because it's intolerable to think that our government, for really not very powerful reasons, runs the risk of executing innocent people." Prof. Liebman's research showed that Carlos DeLuna's case involved faulty eyewitness testimony and police failure to investigate an alternative suspect.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Oklahoma's Lethal Injections

On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed  to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures, particularly its use of midazolam that was used in three botched executions in 2014. Four Oklahoma inmates asked the Court to review the state's procedures, but one of them, Charles Warner, was executed before the Court agreed to take the case. It is likely the other three defendants will be granted stays. When Warner was executed, Justice Sotomayor along with three other Justices, dissented from the denial of a stay, saying, "I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol...." The case will be argued in April and likely decided by the end of June. The questions presented by the petitioners appear below. Florida uses the same drugs as Oklahoma.

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Missouri Inmate New Attorneys for Federal Appeal

On January 20 the U.S. Supreme Court (7-2) granted Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson new attorneys to assist him in pursuing his federal appeal. Christeson's appointed attorneys missed a crucial filing deadline for his federal appeal, not even meeting with him until a month after the deadline. New attorneys offered to represent Christeson, arguing that his current attorneys had a conflict of interest, since advocating for him would mean admitting their own error. The District Court and Court of Appeals both denied the request for substitution of counsel, and Christeson's execution date was set for Oct. 29, 2014. The Supreme Court granted a stay, and, in deciding the case, wrote, "[Christeson's original attorneys'] contentions here were directly and concededly contrary to their client's interest, and manifestly served their own professional and reputational interests." Fifteen former judges filed a brief in support of Christeson, saying, "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court."

Supreme Court Allows Defendant to Present All Grounds Showing Ineffective Counsel

On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3) handed down a ruling in Jennings v. Stephens, a capital case from Texas dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court held that when a defendant wins relief in a lower federal court and the state appeals, the defendant may offer theories rejected by the lower court as part of his defense of the relief granted. He does not have to file a new appeal on that rejected theory. In his initial federal appeal (habeas corpus), Robert Jennings had presented three instances of ineffective assistance of counsel. The District Court granted him relief based on two of them, but rejected the third. The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and Jennings presented all three instances in his defense. The Fifth Circuit said it did not have jurisdiction to consider the third claim because Jennings' lawyers had not obtained a "certificate of appealability." Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Jennings' case will be returned to the Fifth Circuit to consider his third claim of ineffectiveness.

Texas Sets December Execution for Delusional Inmate

Texas has set an execution date of December 3, 2014 for Scott Panetti, a death row inmate with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Panetti represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy outfit, and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and the pope, among many others. Inmates who are ruled insane are ineligible for execution, but Texas officials argue Panetti can be put to death because he sees some connection between his crime and his execution. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Panetti's execution and determined that Texas had not considered Panetti's long history of mental illness in evaluating his competency, sending the case back for further review. The lower courts again found Panetti competent, and in October the Court denied a request for reconsideration of Panetti's case. Greg Wiercioch, one of Panetti’s attorneys, remarked, “Scott Panetti is not competent for execution and therefore his execution would serve no retributive purpose. It is unfortunate that an execution date has been set. His execution would be a miserable spectacle.” Prominent national mental health experts have called for a halt to the execution. Texas has recently been setting execution dates in 2015, but Panetti's date was pushed ahead of others.

Supreme Court to Review Impact of Eliminating Black and Hispanic Jurors in Captial Case

On October 20, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Chappell v. Ayala (No. 13-1428), a death penalty case from California in which all the black and Hispanic potential jurors were struck from the defendant's trial. Hector Ayala was convicted in 1989 of three murders in San Diego. At his trial, Ayala's attorneys argued that the prosecutor was improperly striking jurors on the basis of race. The judge reviewed the prosecutor's explanation for the strikes without defense attorneys present, saying it was necessary to protect the prosecutor's trial strategy, and concluded the strikes were not racially motivated. The California Supreme Court found that any potential constitutional error related to the racial makeup of the jury or the subsequent closed review was harmless, rejecting Ayala's appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala relief and ordered California to retry him. The 9th Circuit held that the constitutional issues could be reviewed without deference to the state court opinion because no ruling based on federal law had been made against Ayala, and that the errors made at trial had an injurious effect on the jury's verdict. The Supreme Court will consider whether more deference was due the state court's decision and whether the 9th Circuit used the correct standard in determining that the trial errors were harmful.

Supreme Court Begins New Term with at Least One Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2014-15 term on October 6. One of the cases the Court will hear during its first month is Jennings v. Stephens, a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel and whether a separate appeal is necessary for each such claim. Oral arguments will take place on October 15. The Court has been asked to review an appeal from Scott Panetti, another death row inmate from Texas, who may be mentally incompetent. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability. In that case, Hall v. Florida, the Court concluded that "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world."

Georgia Judge Would Allow Execution of Intellectually Disabled Man, But Calls for Higher Court Review

A county judge in Georgia denied relief for Warren Hill, a death row inmate whose diagnosed intellectual disabilities have failed to meet the state's narrow standard for exemption from the death penalty. However, the judge encouraged the state Supreme Court to consider whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hall v. Florida, should require Georgia to modify its standard. Chief Judge Thomas Wilson of Butts County said, "In light of the severity of the penalty in this case, this Court hopes that, in reviewing [Mr. Hill’s] application to appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court will fully consider any potential application of Hall v. Florida to [his] case." In Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court directed Florida to broaden its interpretation of intellectual disability. Florida refused to spare an inmate whose IQ was just one point above their cutoff. Similarly, Georgia has the narrowest standard of proof for intellectual disability in the entire country, requiring defendants to prove their disability beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, an attorney for Hill, said,"Mr. Hill should not be eligible for execution in a nation which does not execute persons with intellectual disability, and he would not be eligible for execution in any other jurisdiction in the nation."

Pages