capital punishment

Hall v. Florida

Issues: 

Does Florida’s use of a cutoff IQ to establish mental retardation violate Atkins v. Virginia’s ruling that executing mentally retarded criminals violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment?

Court below: 

The state of Florida sentenced Freddie Lee Hall to death on September 9, 1982 for murdering Karol Hurst. Hall challenged his sentence multiple times, and the Florida state courts vacated and reinstated the sentence each time. During one resentencing trial, the court found Hall to be mentally retarded. At an evidentiary hearing to determine his mental competence, the court found that Hall’s IQ exceeded the minimum cut-off for mental retardation in Florida. Hall’s most recent challenge therefore involves the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that executing mentally retarded criminals violates their Eighth Amendment right against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Hall argues that Florida’s measure of mental retardation, which uses an IQ score cutoff, violates Atkins, and that Atkins prohibits Florida from executing him. Florida argues that the state’s definition of mental retardation complies with Atkins. In turn, the state asserts that under its definition of mental retardation, Hall can be executed. This case could determine whether Florida can execute Hall and, more broadly, states’ ability to establish standards for mental retardation based on IQ testing.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Whether the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital cases violates Atkins v. Virginia.

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Facts

On September 9, 1982, the governor of Florida signed Freddie Lee Hall's death warrant for the murder of Karol Hurst, after Hall was tried and convicted in Putnam County and the Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction. See Hall v. State,  109 So. 3d 704, 705–706 (Fla. 2012). After his appeals to the Florida state courts failed, Hall filed an appeal in federal court. See id.

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White v. Woodall

Issues: 

Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?

Robert Keith Woodall pled guilty to the murder, rape, and kidnapping of a sixteen-year-old victim. At the penalty phase, Woodall put on fourteen witnesses but did not himself testify. The trial court rejected his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction regarding his decision not to testify. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the trial court accepted this recommendation. After exhausting state court avenues, Woodall filed for and received habeas corpus relief from a federal district court. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the trial court violated Woodall’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination by rejecting his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction. In this case, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to consider whether the rejection of a request for a no-adverse-inference at the penalty phase of a trial, even where the defendant has pled guilty to all charged crimes, violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This case will impact the rights of criminal defendants charged with capital crimes and will clarify prior Supreme Court precedent. 

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Robert Keith Woodall, amidst overwhelming evidence of his guilt, pled guilty to kidnapping, raping, and murdering a 16-year-old child, and thus pled guilty to all aggravating circumstances. At the penalty phase trial, the prosecutor elected to present evidence of guilt and the circumstances of the crimes. Woodall did not testify; and his request that the jury be instructed not to draw any adverse inference from his decision not to testify (a "no adverse inference instruction") was denied. He was sentenced to death by a Kentucky jury. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed. 

Even though this Court has never held that a defendant is entitled to a no adverse inference instruction at the sentencing phase of a trial where the defendant has pled guilty to the offense and all aggravating circumstances, the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief to Woodall on the ground that the trial court's failure to provide such an instruction violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The questions presented are: 

  1. Whether the Sixth Circuit, violated 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1) by granting habeas relief on the trial court's failure to provide a no adverse inference instruction even though this Court has not "clearly established" that such an instruction is required in a capital penalty phase when a non-testifying defendant has pled guilty to the crimes and aggravating circumstances. 
  2. Whether the Sixth Circuit violated the harmless error standard in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), in ruling that the absence of a no adverse inference instruction was not harmless in spite of overwhelming evidence of guilt and in the face of a guilty plea to the crimes and aggravators.

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Facts

A grand jury indicted Respondent Robert Keith Woodall for the murder, kidnapping, and rape of a sixteen-year-old female victim, and Woodall pled guilty in Kentucky state court to all of the charges and aggravating circumstances.

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Acknowledgments: 

The authors would like to thank Professor John H. Blume of Cornell Law School for his insights into this case.

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Tibbals v. Carter (11-218)

Sean Carter was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and rape, and was sentenced to death in Ohio. His counsel filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his conviction and requested a pre-petition competency hearing to determine whether Carter was competent to participate in the federal habeas proceeding. The district court granted both the petition and the request. Two years later, the district court determined that Carter was incompetent and dismissed his petition while also stopping the one-year statute of limitations. When the warden at the facility where Carter is imprisoned challenged the district court's decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that even though the district court was justified in finding Carter incompetent, the proper course of action was to stay, rather than dismiss, the habeas proceedings until Carter was competent. Another warden now argues that a district court does not have the authority to stay federal habeas proceedings, nor does Carter have a right to competence in his own habeas proceedings. How the Supreme Court decides this case will determine the balance between recognizing the finality of state-court criminal judgments and allowing federal courts to use their discretion to implement stays in federal habeas proceedings where a capital prisoner’s competence to assist counsel is questionable.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

1. Do capital prisoners possess a "right to competence" in federal habeas proceedings under Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966)?
2. Can a federal district court order an indefinite stay of federal habeas proceeding under Rees?

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