U.S. Supreme Court

Mid-Year Review: Executions, New Death Sentences Remain Near Historic Lows in First Half of 2017

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States. As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled. By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued. Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low. However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27—that state's first executions since 2005—there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990. New death sentences also remain near historically low levels. DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional. Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017—Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida—bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness. A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

New Podcast: Duane Buck's Appeal Lawyer Tells Story of His Case, Discusses Future Dangerousness and Racial Bias

In DPIC's latest podcast, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns (pictured, center, outside the U.S. Supreme Court following the argument in Buck v. Davis) discusses the issues of race, future dangerousness, and ineffective representation presented in the landmark case. She calls the case—in which a Texas trial lawyer who represented 21 clients sent to death row presented an expert witness who testified that his own client was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black—"astonishing" and "a complete failure, literally, of all aspects of the criminal justice system." Swarns argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of Texas death-row prisoner Duane Buck, one of seven death-row prisoners whose trials were tainted by the racist testimony of Texas psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck presented a greater risk of future dangerousness because he is black. The Texas Attorney General's office conceded the impropriety of the testimony and agreed to new sentencing hearings in the other cases, but when a new attorney general was elected, opposed relief for Buck. In Texas, a jury must find that a defendant is a future danger to society as a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and the prosecutor seized on Dr. Quijano's testimony as a reason to sentence Buck to die. On February 22, 2017, nearly 20 years after his trial and after all state and federal courts to have considered his case had denied relief, the Supreme Court overturned Buck’s death sentence. In a conversation with DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, Swarns explains how Buck's case made its way to the Supreme Court, and how racial bias and the concept of future dangerousness are inextricably linked. Texas had argued that Quijano's testimony, while improper, was harmless because his and the prosecutor's comments on race were very short. Swarns, however, explains that "[t]he race-as-dangerousness link is so pernicious and so ingrained in history and culture and the death penalty in this country, that ... the explicit introduction of that evidence by a defense expert can only be deeply prejudicial ... no matter how many lines of transcript space it occupies." Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the Court's majority opinion, agreed, stating, "When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses." Later in the discussion, Swarns places the Buck case in the broader context of the historically racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in the U.S. "This is a story as old as the death penalty itself," she says. "There has never been a time, there has never been a place in the administration of the death penalty where there isn't a race effect. Period. Hard stop."

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Texas Death-Row Prisoner Cannot Challenge Ineffectiveness of His Appeal Lawyer

In a 5-4 decision released June 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, denying review of Texas death-row prisoner Erick Daniel Davila's claim that he had been provided ineffective representation by his state appeal lawyer. The case, Davila v. Davis, raised the question of whether two earlier Supreme Court decisions (Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler) permitted a federal court to review a prisoner's claim that his direct appeal counsel had been ineffective, if—because of his state post-conviction lawyer's ineffectiveness—the appellate ineffectiveness claim had never been presented to the state courts. Davila's federal habeas corpus lawyer challenged an improper jury instruction to which his trial lawyer had objected at trial, but both his direct appeal and his state habeas lawyers failed to raise the issue. When his state habeas lawyer also failed to challenge the adequacy of his appellate lawyer's performance in failing to raise the issue, the federal habeas court ruled that the claim was procedurally defaulted and would not be reviewed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that Martinez is limited to claims of trial counsel's ineffectiveness and does not apply to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. "Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default," Thomas wrote. He said granting prisoners like Davila federal review of meritorious claims of constitutional error "could flood the federal courts with defaulted claims of appellate ineffectiveness," calling that "especially troublesome because those claims could serve as the gateway to federal review of a host of trial errors." Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that the majority had interpreted Martinez too narrowly. "[E]ffective trial counsel and appellate counsel are inextricably connected elements of a fair trial," Breyer wrote. He added, “[t]he fact that ... nearly a third of convictions or sentences in capital cases are overturned at some stage of review suggests the practical importance of the appeal right, particularly in a capital case such as this one.” The dissent also said the majority’s concern was unfounded that granting review of the type of constitutional violation in Davila's case would overburden federal habeas corpus courts. He wrote, “there is no evidence before us that Martinez has produced a greater-than-expected increase in courts’ workload.”

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Alabama Death-Row Prisoner in McWilliams v. Dunn

In a 5-4 decision released June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama had unconstitutionally denied death-row prisoner James McWilliams (pictured) the assistance of an independent mental health expert. The Court wrote that its 1985 ruling in Ake v. Oklahoma, which entitles indigent defendants to the assistance of a mental health expert, encompassed a clearly established right to an expert who is "independent from the prosecution." In his opinion for the Court, Justice Breyer wrote that "Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell ... dramatically short of Ake’s requirements." The defense had no expert to help it prepare to examine the doctors who testified for the state, and only presented testimony about his mental condition from McWilliams and his mother. After the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, the court scheduled a formal sentencing hearing and appointed a state neuropsychologist to examine McWilliams. That doctor prepared a report of the evaluation and consulted with the prosecution. Defense counsel received the neuropsychological report—which stated that McWilliams had “organic brain damage,” “genuine neuropsychological problems,” and “an obvious neuropsychological deficit”—only two days before his sentencing hearing. On the day of the hearing, counsel received extensive prison mental health records that contained evidence that McWilliams was being prescribed anti-psychotic medication. After denying the defense time to consult with an independent expert to develop the mental health evidence for use in mitigation, the court found no mitigating evidence and sentenced McWilliams to death. Justice Breyer wrote, "Ake clearly established that when certain threshold criteria are met, the state must provide a defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively 'conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.'" The Court remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which must now determine whether Alabama's violation of McWilliams' right to an independent expert had the "'substantial and injurious effect or influence' required to warrant a grant of habeas relief." Stephen Bright, who argued on behalf of McWilliams before the Supreme Court, said, "Today’s decision is about fairness. The adversarial process cannot function properly if the prosecution can retain mental health experts, but the defense is not even allowed to consult with an expert." He said, "James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court." 

Duane Buck's Lawyer Discusses How Future Dangerousness Taints Texas Death Penalty System

Thirty years ago, filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed the documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” helped to exonerate Texas death-row prisoner Dale Adams, falsely accused of murdering a police officer. During the course of making the film, Morris met the notorious Texas prosecution psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who routinely testified that capital defendants—including the innocent Mr. Adams—posed a risk of future dangerousness. Morris recently interviewed Christina Swarns (pictured, center), litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, about the case of Duane Buck and the hazards of Texas’s continued use of the concept of future dangerousness in sentencing defendants to death. Swarns argued Buck v. Davis in the U.S. Supreme Court, a case tainted by the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist who told the jury that Buck was more likely to commit future crimes because he was black. On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court overturned Buck’s death sentence, saying Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” Swarns said "[t]he introduction of evidence linking race to dangerousness — like that which was presented in the Duane Buck case — was an inevitable product of future dangerousness in the capital punishment system in Texas.” With a death penalty system already “contaminated and corrupted by racial bias,” she said, Duane Buck’s death sentence “was a predictable outcome of that mess." Swarns called the future dangerousness requirement "insane," saying "The business of predicting future dangerousness without becoming corrupted by the various factors that are so tied to human functioning is impossible. It’s an absurd requirement." She added that Buck's perfect disciplinary record in his more than 20 years in prison is evidence that predictions of future dangerousness are unreliable. On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Jeffery Wood a stay of execution to litigate his claim that the testimony Dr. Grigson presented in his case claiming that Wood was certain to pose a future danger to society if he was not executed was false and scientifically baseless. While the Supreme Court did not address the issue of future dangerousness determinations in its Buck decision, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, sharply condemned the racially biased testimony from Buck's trial. "When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses," Roberts wrote.

U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Florida Decision Barring Death Sentences Based on Non-Unanimous Jury Votes

On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida's petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst, refusing to disturb a decision of the Florida Supreme Court that had declared it unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences after one or more jurors in the case had voted for life. The ruling effectively ends Florida prosecutors' efforts to reverse the state court ruling—which could overturn approximately 200 death sentences in the state—requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the high court to consider the Florida decision, arguing that the state court's "expansive reading" of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida was erroneous. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The Florida legislature rewrote the law to require that juries unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, making a case eligible for a death sentence, and raising the threshold for a jury recommendation of a death sentence from a simple 7-5 majority to at least 10 of the 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court held in October 2016 that the new law violated both the state and federal constitutions because it did not require jury unanimity before the court could impose a death sentence. Most of the 386 prisoners currently on Florida's death row were sentenced to death in violation of Hurst. However, the state court has ruled that it will not apply its decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the Sixth Amendment gives capital defendants the right to have a jury find all facts that are necessary to impose the death penalty in their case. The Florida Supreme Court has already ordered more than a dozen new sentencing hearings in cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, and local prosecutors are faced with the prospect of a flood of expensive retrials in cases in which one or more jurors have already rejected the death penalty. Dave Davis, who represented Hurst, said “'[p]rosecutors are going to have to decide is it worth the effort to try to get death again. They're going to have to examine their evidence … and decide what the likelihood is that they're going to get 12 jurors to decide death.”

Supreme Court Tells Alabama to Reconsider the Factors It Has Used to Determine Intellectual Disability

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Alabama state courts' rejection of a prisoner's claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, and directed the state to reconsider his claim in light of the Court's recent decision in Moore v. Texas requiring states to employ scientifically accepted standards in determining whether a death-row prisoner is intellectually disabled. On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Taurus Carroll, and vacated the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in his case after Carroll's lawyer argued that the March 28 decision in Moore established that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants who are found to have intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. In Moore, however, the Court reiterated that this discretion is not “unfettered” and that a state's intellectually disability determination must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The Court struck down Texas' use of an unscientific set of lay stereotypes, known as the “Briseño factors," that Texas had used to determine whether Moore had deficits in adaptive functioning characteristic of intellectual disability. The Court said that, "[i]n concluding that Moore did not suffer significant adaptive deficits, the [Texas courts] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths," but "the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits." In Carroll's case, the Alabama courts had considered Mr. Carroll’s supposed adaptive strengths—that he had passed a GED exam and successfully held down a job in the prison kitchen—as proof that he was not intellectually disabled. Carroll's attorney argued that, “As in Moore, the consideration below of Mr. Carroll’s adaptive functioning ‘deviate[s] from prevailing clinical standards, by ‘overemphasiz[ing] Mr. [Carroll]’s perceived adaptive strengths.” He also argued that Alabama had unconstitutionally employed a strict IQ cutoff score, while at the same time inflating Carroll's IQ score by refusing to apply scientifically established factors that adjust for limitations in IQ testing. With the Supreme Court's ruling in Carroll's case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals must now determine how Moore affects Alabama's methods of determining intellectual disability. John Palombi, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, said he was "pleased" with the Court's decision. “This will require Alabama courts to follow scientific principles when making the life or death decision of whether someone charged with capital murder is intellectually disabled,” he said.

Supreme Court Overturns Texas' "Outlier" Standard for Determining Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously struck down Texas' standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases, calling the state's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." In Moore v. Texas, the Court on March 28 vacated the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), which had applied an unscientific set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them) to overturn a trial court determination that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby Moore was intellectually disabled. The Court described these seven factors—including such things as whether lay people who knew the defendant thought he was intellectually disabled and whether he could hide facts or lie effectively—as an unscientific "invention" of the CCA that was "untied to any acknowledged source" and that lacked support from "any authority, medical or judicial." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of individuals with intellectual disability was unconstitutional, but it left states with some discretion in determining who was intellectually disabled. However, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the five-justice majority, reiterated, "States’ discretion ... is not unfettered.” "[A] court’s intellectual disability determination," she wrote must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Moore decision is the second time in recent years that the Court has addressed state deviations from clinical definitions of intellectual disability, which focus on "three core elements: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits, (2) adaptive deficits, and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." The Court struck down Florida's use of a strict IQ cutoff in the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, noting that Florida's standard, "disregards established medical practice." The Hall decision addressed the first element, intellectual-functioning, while Moore addressed aspects of both the first and second, adaptive deficits. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the portion of the Court's opinion that held that Texas had inappropriately rejected Moore's evidence of the first prong, deficits in intellectual functioning. But they joined the Court in rejecting Texas' use of the Briseño factors, calling it “an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins.”

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