Recent U.S. Supreme Court Rulings Address Texas Death Penalty Problems
In recent years, a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have identified and addressed serious problems within the Texas death penalty system. The following are among the key decisions issued by the Court:
2007- Panetti v. Quarterman (No. 06-6407)
The Supreme Court (5-4) blocked the execution of Scott Panetti, ruling that the federal court's standard for mental incompetence was too restrictive and that the Texas courts had not given him an adequate hearing. Panetti suffers from schizophrenia and insisted that he was to be executed for preaching the gospel. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose. It is therefore error to derive. . . a strict test for competency that treats delusional beliefs as irrelevant once the prisoner is aware the State has identified the link between his crime and the punishment to be inflicted."
2007- Smith v. Texas (No. 05-11304); Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (No. 05-11284); Brewer v. Quarterman (No. 05-11287)
In these cases, the Court overturned the death sentences of three Texas inmates in separate 5-4 rulings. In all three cases, the juries had been prevented by the Texas statute (since changed) from fully considering the mitigating evidence presented by the defendants, evidence such as their low IQ or other mental deficiencies. In Smith v. Texas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had held that any error on the mitigation issue was harmless and therefore did not require a reversal. The Supreme Court rejected that analysis. In Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman, the death sentences were affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and by lower federal courts on habeas corpus review. The Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit, holding that it had not properly applied the holdings of prior cases in which the High Court made it clear that "sentencing juries must be able to give meaningful consideration and effect to all mitigating evidence that might provide a basis for refusing to impose the death penalty on a particular individual, notwithstanding the severity of his crime or his potential to commit similar offenses in the future."
2005 - Miller-El v. Dretke (No. 03-9659)
The Supreme Court (6-3) overturned the death sentence of a black man, Thomas Miller-El, after determining that the jury selection procedure for his trial was racially biased. Black potential jurors were questioned more aggressively about the death penalty than their white counterparts, and the jury pool was "shuffled" at least twice in order to increase the chances of more whites being selected. At trial, Miller-El was convicted by a jury consisting of one black and 11 whites after prosecutors had stricken nine of the 10 blacks eligible to serve. "The prosecutors' chosen race-neutral reasons for the strikes do not hold up and are so far at odds with the evidence that pretext is the fair conclusion, indicating the very discrimination the explanations were meant to deny," Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.
2004 - Banks v. Dretke (No. 02-8286)
In a 7-2 decision, the Court overturned the death sentence of Delma Banks Jr., concluding that he was denied a fair trial because prosecutors in Texas failed to disclose key information. In 2003, Banks was just minutes from his scheduled execution. Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg stated: "When police or prosecutors conceal significant exculpatory or impeaching material in the State's possession, it is ordinarily incumbent on the State to set the record straight."
For more information about these cases see U.S. Supreme Court.