In Texas Justice Keller's Trial, What if the US Supreme Court had ruled the other way?

The San Antonio Express-News has provided a video containing snippets from the closing arguments in the trial of Sharon Keller, Chief Justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in that state).   It bears viewing, and it's only 2:24 minutes long.

Listening to it, you'll hear an attorney's deep voice talking about the death penalty and how capital punishment depends upon a public trust that there will not be a erroneous death sentence.

As you'll recall (we've posted the details of Justice Keller's trial here and the short video gives a synopsis as well), Justice Keller is being challenged for denying the attorneys for Death Row inmate Michael Richard the ability to file a motion to stay execution on the day he was scheduled to die  - they were running late, and Justice Keller admits to telling her clerk to respond that "the clerk's office closes at 5."  The motion to stay execution didn't get filed on time, and Mr. Richard was executed by lethal injection at 6 pm that day.

Mind you, that same morning -- the very same morning -- the US Supreme Court had granted writ in a Kentucky case which put lethal injection as a method of execution under scrutiny.  Keller's supporters point out that six months later, the Supreme Court decided that this method was not "cruel and unusual" and accordingly, Richard would have been executed anyway.

Here's the question that I'm not seeing: what if the US Supreme Court has RULED THE OTHER WAY in the Kentucky case?  Then, would we have a very clear example of the erroneous execution that is referenced in the closing arguments of Justice Keller's trial?

Today John Marek Appeals to US Supreme Court, Scheduled to Die in 12 Days

John Marek's attorneys are fighting hard to stop the State of Florida  from killing their client.

Today, they filed an appeal with the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, to try and stop the execution of John Richard Marek.  With the Florida Supreme Court ruling that it will not hear anything further in this case, Marek is left with only the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of Florida between him and an otherwise certain execution.  (Read docket notice of Marek's Motion to Stay Execution here -- Justice Thomas is assigned to this request. )

What arguments can Marek possibly make to the U.S. Supreme Court now -- over 25 years after the crime occurred for which he was convicted, and within two weeks of his scheduled execution?  Lots of people don't understand the importance of the appellate process in death penalty matters, but Marek's case gives us some idea of how vital appeals can be.  When the government is about to kill one of its own citizens, then the courts must insure that the government is not violating any legal rights in doing so. 

And it appears that Marek has some valid legal arguments to make, such as:   

Evidence that Marek Was Not the Killer

It is not contested at this point that Marek was present at the scene where Adella Simmons was murdered one night on Dania Beach, back in 1983.  However, there is evidence that Marek did not kill the woman that he and his buddy, Ray Wigley, picked up on the Turnpike where her car had broken down. 

The evidence comes from Wigley himself.  Seems he admitted to killing the woman to several folk while he was incarcerated.  Those inmates have come forward with testimony that Ray Wigley -- who was not sentenced to death, as Marek was -- told people on several occasions that he murdered Ms. Simmons, not his pal Marek.  Wigley himself cannot testify.  Wigley is dead.

Past Appellate Arguments Regarding Recusal of Trial Court Judge 

Part of Marek's earlier arguments have been based upon the issue of when a judge should recuse himself.  (For those interested, the Reply Brief filed by Marek's counsel before the Florida Supreme Court is online for viewing.)  This is an issue recently addressed by the US Supreme Court. 

In a far-reaching decision released this past March,  Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. [08-22] (5-4 opinion),  the high court recognizes that due process is violated when someone is before a trial court judge has "...had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent...." and that judge does not recuse himself (withdraw from presiding over the matter).  Caperton has been criticized for not giving enough direction on when a trial judge should and should not recuse himself (as the dissents themselves discuss), therefore judicial recusal is a topic in Marek's appeal which may be of interest to the Justices. 

What is Before the US Supreme Court Right Now Regarding John Marek

First things first.  Justice Thomas is overseeing the Motion to Stay Execution.  Of course, halting the killing scheduled in 12 days is the first priority.  Afterwards, the Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis will be heard.  The deadline for the State of Florida to respond is September 7, 2009.   As of this posting, briefing was not available for review.

In Depth Look: Death in Florida - 3

As stated earlier, a separate multi-step process exists between conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. After a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense subject to the death penalty, the first step is a second trial to determine whether death will be imposed. At this trial, the jury hears evidence concerning aggravators, circumstances that weigh toward death, and mitigators, which weigh in favor of mercy. The trial judge performs the next step by actually determining the sentence. Although the trial judge gives great weight to the jury recommendation, the trial judge is not bound by the jury's recommendation.

A trial judge has more experience in both the criminal process and facts of crimes themselves. What the average person, inexperienced in crimes, thinks is incredibly significant or especially heinous, may not in balance be so significant or heinous. The cool reasoning of a judge also serves to counterbalance any overly inflammatory prosecution.

Then the trial judge must justify a sentence of death in writing. This step is necessary so that the sentence is open to judicial review to ensure that the issue of life or death was decided according to the rule of law.

The final safeguard before imposing death is that the Supreme Court of Florida must review all death sentences. The court reviews the sentence for proportionality to ensure that the application is not unreasonable or inappropriate when compared to other cases. Thus, the defendant has one last opportunity before a court of law to argue against the most severe and final of all punishments.

 
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