U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Again Asked to Consider Competence to be Executed in Texas Case

Scott Panetti is a death row inmate in Texas, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and believes he is at the center of a struggle between God and Satan. The state has continued to insist he is competent to be executed. Panetti represented himself at his trial, appearing in court wearing a cowboy outfit and making bizarre, rambling statements. He attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope, and 200 others. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Panetti a rehearing on his claim of incompetence, saying that the state's definition of insanity was too restrictive. The state has maintained that because Panetti acknowledges he is being executed for the murder of his in-laws, he is sane enough to be executed. Pointing to the testimony of psychiatric experts, his lawyers have argued the state's simple cause-and-effect criterion is insufficient to establish sanity, especially considering that Panetti views his crime through a lens of delusion. They have asked the Supreme Court to again consider the case, arguing that the state's definition is still overly restrictive and ignores the complete picture presented by Panetti's history of serious mental illness.  

NEW VOICES: Retired Judges Support Death Row Inmate's Appeal

In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, eight retired judges recently asked the Court to review the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed in January 2015. While the judges, who served on federal and state courts in many jurisdictions around the country, did not take a stance on Reed's innocence claims, they urged the Court to hear his appeal so that new evidence in the case could be examined under the light of cross-examination in a full hearing, rather than just through the review of legal papers. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges said. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]." Reed is claiming that his trial lawyers did not adequately investigate forensic evidence that experts now say might be unreliable. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Reed's appeal because they found the new testimony unpersuasive as presented in appellate briefs. The eight judges who petitioned the Supreme Court said the evidence should have been heard by a district judge in an evidentiary hearing, rather than by the appeals court. "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," they said. See list of judges below.

STUDIES: Raising the Minimum Age for Death Sentences

The theory of the modern death penalty is that it is to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court determined (Roper v. Simmons) that those under age 18 at the time of their crime were less culpable than older defendants and should be excluded from the possibility of execution. However, a recent paper by Hollis Whitson (l.) argued that scientific research on older adolescents implied that the Court's analysis should also apply to those under 21. Whitson cited neuroscience research showing, "that older adolescents (including 18-20 year-olds) differ from adults in ways that both diminish their culpability and impair the reliability of the sentencing process." Moreover, youths under 21 are treated as minors by numerous state and federal statutes, including liquor laws, inheritance laws, and eligibility for commercial drivers' licenses. Another problem highlighted in the paper is that minority youth suffer from the application of this punishment more than white youths. From 2000 to 2014, 60% of those executed for crimes committed by 18-20 year-olds were racial minorities, while only 40% were white. For defendants aged 21 and older, the reverse was true: 40% of those executed were minorities, while 60% were white.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's Strict IQ Cutoff for Death Penalty

On May 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hall v. Florida that Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability in capital cases is unconstitutional. The Court concluded, "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world." In 2002, the Court banned the execution of people with "mental retardation," but allowed states leeway in selecting a process for determining who would qualify for that exemption. According to Florida's Supreme Court, defendants with an IQ even one point above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states allow for a margin of error in such tests. The Supreme Court's ruling stated that Florida's strict rule "disregards established medical practice" and noted that the "vast majority of states" rejected such a narrow interpretation of IQ scores. The Court held that, "When a defendant's IQ test score falls within the test's acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits." Hall will receive a new hearing on his intellectual disability claim.

Execution of Inmate with Unique Medical Condition Stayed by Supreme Court

UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, pending the outcome of a review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The Court further noted: "We leave for further consideration in the lower courts whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary."

Earlier: On May 20, just hours before a scheduled execution in Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting through Justice Samuel Alito, granted a temporary stay to Russell Bucklew. Bucklew has a congenital medical condition that impedes his breathing and presents a grave risk of a very painful death by lethal injection. He was to be executed at midnight on May 21, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a stay on the evening of May 20, saying his "unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions." That stay was lifted by the full 8th Circuit, but reinstated by the Supreme Court without comment.

Texas Execution Stayed Over Intellectual Disability Claim

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed the execution of Robert Campbell just hours before he was scheduled to be executed in Texas on May 13, granting him permission to file a new petition on his claim of mental retardation. If Campbell is intellectually disabled, he is barred from execution by the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. The unanimous three-judge panel noted that Texas authorities had withheld IQ test results from Campbell and misled his attorneys: "Throughout this litigation in the state and federal courts regarding Campbell’s ability to assert an Atkins claim on the merits, the State never disclosed that it was in possession of evidence of three intelligence tests suggesting that Campbell was intellectually disabled." State files contained the results of IQ tests including one from Campbell's childhood, with a score of 68, and one from shortly after his arrival on death row at age 19, with a score of 71. Robert Owen, an attorney for Campbell, said, "It’s very clear now that the evidence strongly supports the diagnosis of mental retardation for Mr. Campbell, and it might be best for everyone for the state to give up its pursuit of executing him and resolve this case by reducing his death sentence to life imprisonment rather than face the prospect of months or years of further litigation."

Supreme Court: Kentucky Death Sentence May Be Flawed, But Not 'Unreasonable'

On April 23 the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence of Kentucky inmate Robert Woodall, reversing an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. At Woodall's trial, his attorney asked the judge to instruct the jury not to draw any negative inference from the fact that Woodall had not testified in the sentencing phase. The judge refused to give the instruction. The 6th Circuit held that the failure to instruct the jury was a violation of Woodall's right to remain silent. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court in White v. Woodall, did not say the Kentucky judge acted properly, but only that federal courts must give exceptional deference to state courts, only overturning them when they act "unreasonably." In a dissent joined by two other Justices, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that "The 'normal rule' is that Fifth Amendment protections (about the right to remain silent) apply during trial and sentencing."

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.

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