U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Oklahoma's Lethal Injection Protocol

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Glossip v. Gross, a case challenging the use of midazolam in lethal injections. Midazolam was used as the first drug in three botched executions in 2014, including the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma exactly one year ago. Prisoners on Oklahoma's death row argued that midazolam should not be used in executions because it could not reliably anesthesize the prisoner to prevent him or her from experiencing extreme pain when the second and third drugs in Oklahoma's execution protocol were injected. The Justices questioned both sides intensely, with the more conservative justices generally favoring the state's arguments and the more liberal justices favoring the prisoners' arguments. Justice Elena Kagan compared the effects of potassium chloride, the third execution drug, to being burned alive, saying, "Suppose that we said we’re going to burn you at the stake, but before we do, we’re going to use an anesthetic of completely unknown properties and unknown effects." Conservatives on the Court criticized the case as a veiled attacked on the death penalty itself. The Court is expected to decide the case before the current term ends in June. 

Supreme Court Grants Review in Three Kansas Cases; Hears Case on Intellectual Disability

On Monday, March 30, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of three Kansas death penalty cases and heard oral argument in a Louisiana case that presented questions on the role of the federal courts in determining whether a state prisoner who faces the death penalty has intellectual disability. In the cases of Kansas v. Reginald Carr, Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason, the Court granted review of the Kansas Supreme Court's decisions overturning the defendants' death sentences because their sentencing juries were not told that, unlike proof of other facts in the case, the defendant did not have to prove mitigating circumstances (reasons for life) beyond a reasonable doubt. It also granted review in the Carr cases of the state court's decision that the brothers should not have been tried together in the penalty phase of their capital trial because some of their mitigating evidence was mutually antagonistic and the jury should not have considered this evidence against the other brother. In Brumfield v. Cain, the Court heard argument in the case of a Louisiana man, Kevan Brumfield, sentenced to death before the Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia banned the execution of defendants with mental retardation (now intellectual disability). (For more on the Brumfield case, click here.)  The Supreme Court will determine whether the federal courts must defer to a decision of the state courts that rejected his claim of intellectual disability based solely upon the evidence presented at his trial or whether to credit the federal district court's finding after a seven-day evidentiary hearing that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled and may not be executed.

States Struggle with Determinations of Competency to Be Executed

A recent article in Mother Jones examines lingering questions in the determination of which inmates are exempt from execution because of mental incompetency. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that a person could not be executed if he or she was "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." The 2007 ruling in Panetti v. Quarterman updated that decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Scott Panetti (pictured), the inmate involved in the 2007 case, knew that the state of Texas planned to execute him for the murder of his in-laws, but also sincerely believed that he was at the center of a struggle between God and Satan and was being executed to stop him from preaching the Gospel. Even after the case with his name was decided, Panetti remained on death row, and the Texas courts found him competent to be executed based upon the testimony of a single psychiatrist who claimed Panetti was faking his mental illness. Panetti came within hours of execution on December 3, 2014, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay. In Missouri, Cecil Clayton -- a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 71 -- was executed on March 17, 2015 without a hearing to determine his competency. By contrast, a recent mental competency hearing for Indiana inmate Michael Overstreet included four days of testimony from 13 witnesses and nearly 1,300 pages of medical records. In a 137-page opinion, the state judge concluded, "Delusions or other psychotic symptoms cannot simply be discounted because a petitioner has a cognitive awareness of his circumstances." Indiana's Attorney General said that the decision adhered so well to the Panetti ruling that there was nothing for the state to appeal.

Growing Number of Pharmaceutical Companies Object to Use of Drugs in Executions

On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of two drugs (midazolam and pentobarbital) that have been used in executions, released a statement announcing measures to block the sale of its products to prisons. Akorn joins at least two other U.S.-based drug companies and several European companies in expressing opposition to the use of their products in lethal injections. In 2014, Par Pharmaceuticals responded to Indiana's proposed use of one of their anesthetics by prohibiting the sale of the drug to prisons. Stephen Mock, a spokesman for Par, said, “It’s not because we take public policy positions on issues like capital punishment. We’re a pharmaceutical company, and we have a mission statement. Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life. Indiana’s proposed use of our product is contrary to our mission.” Akorn's statement announcing their new restrictions said, “The employees of Akorn are committed to furthering human health and wellness. In the interest of promoting these values, Akorn strongly objects to the use of its products to conduct or support capital punishment through lethal injection or other means.”

Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.

Eric Holder Advocates for a Hold on Executions

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

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.

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