death penalty

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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Trevino v. Thaler

Carlos Trevino was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by a Texas jury in 1997. During sentencing, Trevino’s state-appointed trial counsel failed to introduce potentially mitigating evidence of Trevino’s history of extreme childhood abuse and neglect, which might have persuaded the jury to sentence him to life in prison instead of death. His state-appointed habeas corpus counsel also failed to uncover evidence of Trevino’s background, and therefore failed to realize that he might have a colorable ineffective assistance of counsel claim. This failure to assert the claim barred raising the claim on federal habeas corpus review. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan, No. 10-1001, slip op. at 15 (March 20, 2012), had recognized a narrow exception to the procedural default rule, whereby ineffective assistance of counsel in an initial-review collateral proceeding—here, the state habeas proceeding—may excuse such a default. In Martinez, Arizona made state habeas proceedings the exclusive forum for addressing ineffective assistance of counsel claims.Trevino argues that the Martinez exception should apply here because this case implicates the same equitable considerations in post-conviction systems similar to Arizona’s.  In response, Rick Thaler, Director of the Correctional Institutions Division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, contends that Texas’s post-conviction system already provides fair opportunity for such claims to be heard, both in state habeas proceedings and on direct appeal, and thus the Martinez fairness concerns do not apply.  This decision may affect the legitimacy of the state post-conviction process and the balance of victims’ rights and the rights of capital inmates in the post-conviction setting.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Whether the U.S. Supreme Court should grant certiorari, vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and remand the case to that court for consideration of Trevino’s argument under Martinez v. Ryan?

Edited by: 
Acknowledgments: 

The authors would like to thank former Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions Frank Wagner for his assistance in editing this preview.

Additional Resources: 

Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal: Supreme Court to Hear New Case on Competence in Habeas Representation (Oct. 30, 2012).

Wex, Habeas Corpus.

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Boyer v. Louisiana

The State of Louisiana indicted Jonathan Edward Boyer for the murder of Bradlee Marsh in 2002, but the case did not proceed to trial until 2009. The trial resulted in Boyer’s conviction, and a state appellate court affirmed. Boyer now argues before the Supreme Court that Louisiana violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Specifically, Boyer alleges that five years of delay were caused entirely by Louisiana’s failure to fund his appointed, capitally-certified counsel and that this funding failure should be weighed against the state. Louisiana counters that Boyer has no constitutional right to capitally-certified counsel and that Boyer, not the State, is responsible for the delay. In resolving the question presented, the Supreme Court will determine whether a state’s failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent capital defendant should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes. The decision may substantially affect indigent defendants’ constitutional rights as well as state procedures for providing indigent capital defense.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Whether a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years, particularly where failure was the direct result of the prosecution’s choice to seek the death penalty, should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes?

Issue

Whether the State of Louisiana’s five-year failure to fund appointed, specially-qualified counsel for an indigent defendant in a capital case should be weighed against the State for speedy trial purposes?

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Ryan v. Gonzales (10-930)

An Arizona jury convicted Ernest Valencia Gonzales of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death in 1991. After exhausting his state court options, Gonzales initiated federal habeas proceedings in 1999. Over the next few years, Gonzales began to display signs of delusion and paranoia, refusing a number of attempted visits from his attorney. The district court denied his attorney’s motion to stay the habeas proceedings pending a competency determination. The Ninth Circuit eventually granted mandamus relief, holding that the capital inmate’s right to counsel in federal habeas proceedings under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) implicitly includes a right to be competent to assist one’s counsel. Charles L. Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, appeals the Ninth Circuit’s decision arguing that the circuit court misread 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) to include a “right to competency” in assisting counsel. Ryan asserts that such a right would allow for indefinite stays of habeas proceedings based on incompetency that contravene Congress’ intent in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Gonzales contends that district courts have discretion to issue stays, and that such stays are appropriate where incompetency would deprive the capital inmate of “meaningful” right to counsel. This decision implicates federalism concerns over the finality of state court decisions in capital cases and the proper balance between the rights of victims and the rights of inmates.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Several years after Gonzales's counsel initiated federal habeas proceedings and filed an exhaustive petition seeking relief, counsel asserted that Gonzales was incompetent to communicate rationally and the proceedings should be indefinitely stayed pending possible restoration of competency. Based on 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), the Ninth Circuit agreed, even though Gonzales's claims were record-based or purely legal. 

Did the Ninth Circuit err when it held that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2)—which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief "shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys"—impliedly entitles a death-row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel?

Issue

Does an indigent death-row inmate’s right to counsel in habeas proceedings include a right that the inmate is competent to assist counsel where such a right may create an indefinite delay in executing the inmate’s sentence?

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