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.
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These are already in the law, and have been superseded by lethal injection as the preferred method of carrying out capital punishment.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.
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.
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.
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).
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.