U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of Three Cases in Light of Jury Selection Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in three jury discrimination cases on June 20, vacating each of them and directing state courts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to reconsider the issue in light of the Court's recent decision in Foster v. Chatman. Two of the petitioners, Curtis Flowers of Mississippi and Christopher Floyd of Alabama, are currently on death row. The third, Jabari Williams, was convicted in Louisiana of second-degree murder. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court granted Timothy Foster a new trial because prosecutors illegally excluded blacks from his jury. Flowers, Floyd, and Williams all raised issues of racial discrimination in jury selection that were rebuffed in the state courts. As in Foster's case, the prosecutor's notes in Floyd reflect race-conscious jury strikes. Floyd's prosecutor marked African American potential jurors with a "B" on its list of jurors to remove, then struck 10 of 11 black prospective jurors. Flowers has been tried six times. His first two convictions were overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct, and his third as a result of racial bias in jury selection. His fourth trial ended in a mistrial and his fifth trial resulted in a hung jury. At his most recent trial, eleven white jurors and one black juror convicted him after just 30 minutes of deliberation. The Equal Justice Initiative, which represents Floyd, released a statement saying, "Racial bias has been a longstanding problem in Alabama, where more than two dozen cases have been reversed after courts found that prosecutors engaged in intentional racial discrimination during jury selection." EJI Executive Director, Bryan Stevenson, said racial bias in jury selection “undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system.” He told the Montgomery Advertiser, "What we’ve found is regardless of the race of the defendant, a lot of prosecutors appear not to trust black people in juries, which is illegal and unconstitutional.”

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

Former Louisiana Chief Justice Asks Supreme Court to Review Case Presenting "Endemic" Prosecutorial Misconduct

Pascal Calogero (pictured), former associate and chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, has called upon the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of David Brown, a Louisiana death row prisoner who is challenging his sentence on the grounds that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. Brown says prosecutors violated the Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which requires disclosure of evidence that would be favorable to a defendant, whether relating to his guilt or in reaching a sentencing decision. In Brown's case, prosecutors had known for months that one of his co-defendants had confessed to having committed the killing with the help of a third co-defendant. They nonetheless withheld the confession from the defense, undermining Brown's claim that he was not the killer and that the victim was still alive the last time Brown had seen him. The evidence withheld in Brown's case is strikingly similar to the evidence presented to the Supreme Court in Brady itself—a co-defendant's admission that he, and not the defendant, was the actual killer. Nevertheless, the Louisiana Supreme Court said the withheld evidence would not have been favorable to Brown and ruled that no constitutional violation had occurred. "Brady issues are and have been, for decades, an endemic and persistent problem in Louisiana courts in both capital and noncapital cases," Calogero wrote in an op-ed in The National Law Journal. "The Louisiana Supreme Court had a chance to address this in Brown, but instead, once again, neglected to do so." The Open File, a website devoted to prosecutorial accountability, said that "Louisiana has a uniquely sordid history when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct." The Supreme Court has overturned three Louisiana death penalty cases for withholding exculpatory evidence, including the case of Michael Wearry earlier this year, and police or prosecutorial misconduct has been a factor in all ten Louisiana death-row exonerations to date. In addition, The Open File reported that the state court's rejection of Brown's Brady claim has "perversely ... undercut" the state's process for attorney discipline. Although it is undisputed that the prosecutors knew about and withheld evidence of the co-defendant's confession, the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel was unable to disclipline the prosecutors involved because the state court had ruled that the confession was not "favorable" evidence and the so the failure to disclose it could not be considered a violation of state ethical rules. The Court is scheduled to conference on June 16 on whether to accept Brown's case for review.

Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Penalty Cases Dealing with Racial Bias, Intellectual Disability

On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in two Texas death penalty cases, and will review the constitutionality of those death sentences during its next term. The two cases are Buck v. Stephens, in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after a psychologist testified at his penalty trial that the fact that Buck is African-American increases the likelihood that he presents a future danger to society; and Moore v. Texas, a challenge to Texas' unscientific test for determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. Texas, through its then-Attorney General John Cornyn, had conceded that seven death row prisoners, including Buck, had been unfairly sentenced to death after juries in their cases had been exposed to expert mental health testimony improperly linking race and future dangerousness. The other defendants whose trials were tainted by such testimony were granted new sentencing hearings, but Buck's case did not reach the courts until Cornyn had become a U.S. Senator, and the new Attorney General (now Governor), Greg Abbott, opposed granting Buck a new sentencing hearing. The Court granted review on one of two issues presented in Bobby James Moore's petition for certiorari, whether a state may reject current medical standards in determining intellectual disability. It initially appeared to have granted review of a second issue as well, whether Moore's "extraordinarily long" confinement on death row violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, in an updated order, the Court clarified that it was limiting its review to only the intellectual dsability question. Moore was sentenced to death more than 35 years ago, and has been diagnosed as intellectually disabled by medical professionals. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his intellectual disability claim in 2015 because he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors,” a set of unscientific criteria based on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men." 

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.

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