SCOTUS hears Brumfield v Cain on Execution of the Mentally Disabled

 This week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in the case of Brumfield v. Cain, a death penalty case coming out of Louisiana and filed by Death Row inmate Kevan Brumfield.

 
The crux of the case is how someone is determined to be mentally disabled and therefore, not subject to capital punishment and the death penalty under the federal constitution.  
 
 
Of course, this isn’t the first time that the High Court has considered this issue; it’s a complex legal question that the Supreme Court has considered in earlier, landmark cases like Atkins v. Virginia, where it found that convicted individuals who are “mentally retarded”  cannot be executed because this would violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment.  
 
In Brumfield, the question isn’t whether or not someone with severe mental disability can be executed — it’s whether or not the means that the State of Louisiana has in place to determine whether or not the person is mentally disabled, and therefore protected by this Eighth Amendment bar, past constitutional muster.
 
Brumfield Questions Presented
 
 
 
(1) Whether a state court that considers the evidence presented at a petitioner’s penalty phase proceeding as determinative of the petitioner’s claim of mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia has based its decision on an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); and 
 
(2) whether a state court that denies funding to an indigent petitioner who has no other means of obtaining evidence of his mental retardation has denied petitioner his “opportunity to be heard,” contrary to Atkins and Ford v. Wainwright and his constitutional right to be provided with the “basic tools” for an adequate defense, contrary to Ake v. Oklahoma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Returning Death Penalty to Other Execution Methods On the Books

 

There are several different methods of execution used by the states (as well as the federal government and the U.S. Military) that offer ways to carry out a sentence of death other than the lethal injection method.  

Image:  Florida's Electric Chair

 

Guillotines, for example, are well known execution methods (as sadly are beheadings by other means), but the United States does not recognize this as an acceptable means of carrying out capital punishment.

Alternative Execution Methods

These are already in the law, and have been superseded by lethal injection as the preferred method of carrying out capital punishment.  They have passed constitutional challenge already, these methods just haven't been used in decades.  But they're available, statutorily.  

In these jurisdictions, lethal injection is considered the primary means of carrying out a death sentence, but other execution methods remain as acceptable alternatives in the state law.  
 
As lethal injections come under more and more scrutiny, these statutes are being reconsidered as ways to impose the death penalty and it’s probably going to be in the near future that these older methods may be used again.  
 
It may not take much more than an executive order from the governor (say, in Tennessee where the electric chair was restored by the governor in May 2014) for the state to opt for these alternative methods.  
 
4 Methods of Execution In U.S. Death Penalty Cases Other Than Lethal Injection
 
 
1.  Firing Squad
 
This month, the State of Utah made news by returning to the firing squad as an alternative, acceptable execution method to lethal injection.  However, this may not be a real surprise to those living in Utah; after all, the firing squad has been used as recently as 2010, when Utah law allowed a Death Row inmate to choose the firing squad over lethal injection as the method of execution.
 
 
Other states with firing squad as an approved method of execution:  Idaho and Oklahoma.
 
2.  Electrocution
 
States with electrocution (electric chair) as an execution method in their laws, while lethal injection became the preferred method of execution, are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
 
3.Gas Chamber
 
Gas chambers as a means of capital punishment exists in 5 states: Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, and Wyoming.  Oklahoma is currently legislating nitrogen in gas chambers as a means of execution, since the lethal injection method used in that state is being reviewed right now by the Supreme Court of the United States. 
 
4. Hanging
 
For New Hampshire and Washington, death sentences can be carried out by hanging as well as lethal injection.  
 
 

 

Jodi Arias and Death Penalty Sentencing

Right now, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to review (”granted writ”) the decision by the Florida Supreme Court in a case brought by a Florida Death Row inmate. (For details, check our recent post on this pending appeal.)

This decision by the nation’s High Court may well decide if the State of Florida’s “death penalty scheme” should include an unanimous decision by jurors in deciding on the death penalty in a case.

Right now Florida does NOT require 100% agreement of the jury before capital punishment can be sentenced in a case.

Will this change? Should it?

Well, consider the recent decision in the Jodi Arias matter. After all the time and money spent on not one but TWO juries hearing arguments over whether or not Jodi Arias should be sentenced to death, one single individual held out against the death penalty and the result?

Arias escaped the death penalty even though most of the jurors who reviewed her case were in favor of it.

The public was not happy with this result and there were death threats against that single juror. It was the requirement of an unanimous jury that saved Jodi Arias from the death penalty.

Trial By Media Impact? 

NOTE: as for trial by media, it’s interesting to consider the reasoning of that holdout juror: it’s reported that the Lifetime TV Movie that portrayed the Jodi Arias case through her meeting with murder victim Travis Alexander through her trial and conviction was a great influence on the juror’s stubborn resolve not to vote for death.

SCOTUS Will Hear Another Challenge to Florida's Death Penalty Statute

This week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by Florida Death Row inmate Timothy L. Hurst that brings another challenge to the constitutionality of the Florida statute allowing for capital punishment and how a jury works in assessing the death penalty.

Read the Supreme Court Order here.  The sole question to be addressed by SCOTUS is this:  

 Whether Florida's death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the  Eighth Amendment in light of this Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 (2002). 

In Hurst's petition to the High Court, his attorneys are arguing that the Florida death penalty statute is unconstitutional because of the way that it allows a jury to decide if a defendant facing capital punishment is intellectually challenged.  

Hurst's lawyers are arguing that he should not be given the penalty of death because it goes against federal constitutional protections of cruel and unusual punishment when the defendant is intellectually disabled.

Interesting how the Supreme Court has combined the two questions presented to it in Hurst’s petition into the single issue above.  

In the Death Row inmate's petition, he asked the High Court to rule on two questions:  

  • first, the role of the Florida jury in cases where a death penalty defendant argues intellectual disability and
  • second, the role of the Florida jury in the overall death sentencing phase -- including the lack of unanimous juries being required under Florida law.  

There is no real argument that Timothy Hurst is mentally challenged.  In the Hurst case, one test shows that Hurst has an IQ of 69.  This and other evidence was provided to the jury during the punishment phase of his criminal trial. His intellectual disability was presented as a mitigating factor. 

(For more on mitigating factors, check out our earlier blog posts discussing mitigation and Terry Lenamon's focus on mitigation and the sentencing phase of death penalty cases.)

Florida Supreme Court Decision Under Review of SCOTUS 

The Florida Supreme Court has heard Hurst's arguments and ruled against him.  The state's highest court has determined that the criminal trial jury did not have do make a decision (a "factual determination" as the factfinder) on Hurst's intellectual disability.  

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court will review that opinion and its rationales against the federal constitutional protections and determine if Florida's current procedure regarding juries and their responsiblities in this aspect of mitigation is unconstitutional.
 
 
 

Georgia Halts Executions Out of Concern for Pentobarbital Quality

Georgia is halting its lethal injection executions for now because of concerns voiced by state officials about the quality of the chemicals available to be used by executioners.

Kelly Gissendaner's Execution Has Been Stayed.

According to the New York Times, lawyers for Kelly Gissendaner have explained that representatives for the State of Georgia stated that the pentobarbital that would have been used in the execution was found to be "cloudy" by a pharmacist expert.  

Note that pentobarbital is NOT a drug being considered by the Supreme Court of the United States in the pending lethal injection cocktail case (read our prior post for details).

_______________________

Here is the full text of the news release issued by the GeorgiGa Department of Corrections:

Homer Bryson, Commissioner

Director of Public Affairs Joan Heath

Contact: Gwendolyn Hogan (478) 992-5247 Hogang00@dcor.state.ga.us

STATE OF GEORGIA

For Immediate Release

Court Ordered Executions Postponed - Kelly Renee Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell FORSYTH, Ga. –

The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) announced today that, out of an abundance of caution, the scheduled executions of Kelly Renee Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell, have been postponed while an analysis is conducted of the drugs planned for use in last night's scheduled execution of inmate Gissendaner.

The sentencing courts will issue new execution orders when the Department is prepared to proceed.

The GDC has one of the largest prison systems in the U.S. and is responsible for supervising nearly 55,000 state prisoners and over 160,000 probationers. It is the largest law enforcement agency in the state with approximately 12,000 employees.

 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...