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June 16, 2008

Will Texas try to ensure record death-row stay gets longer?

As detailed here at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court's work today did not include any notable criminal justice decision.  As detailed in this AP article, however, the Justices did make headlines with a notable cert denied in a capital case:

The longest-serving prisoner on Texas' death row won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that his case must go back to his trial court in Dallas.  Ronald Chambers, 53, has been on death row for more than 32 years, sent there in 1976 for the abduction and fatal shooting of 22-year-old Mike McMahan, a Texas Tech University student from Washington state.

Without comment, the high court Monday declined to review a federal appeals court's decision to send back Chambers' case because questions used by jurors to decide his death sentence were improper.  The Texas attorney general's office had appealed a ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was based on a Supreme Court decision last year involving jury instructions given to three other condemned Texas prisoners.

"The 5th Circuit had reversed his death sentence," Jordan Steiker, one of Chambers' lawyers, said Monday. "The state appealed and the state lost. Now it goes back for resentencing.  "This is very good for him."  Dallas County prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek the death penalty at a new punishment trial.

I wonder how much time and Texas taxpayer money has been spent by the state trying to get Ronald Chambers executed.  As the AP article details, Chambers has been tried three times for the abduction and shooting of McMahan, with each trial resulting in a death sentence:

His first conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because a state-appointed psychiatrist who questioned him failed to warn Chambers his responses would be used against him.  He was retried in 1985 and convicted again.  The Supreme Court threw out that conviction four years later, ruling prosecutors improperly excluded three black people from his jury. Chambers is black. In January 2007, Chambers was set to die for the punishment reached at his third trial.  The lethal injection, however, was stopped until the justices ruled on the cases of the three other inmates who were challenging the jury instructions.

Anyone want to predict whether Texas will finally give up trying to keep Chamber on death row or instead will use more time and taxpayer money to pursue his execution?

June 16, 2008 at 03:49 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jun 16, 2008 4:46:11 PM


The state should absolutely not give up. There is a victim still alive, and the Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under Texas (and the victims). This is, yet again, another example of why the federal courts should be out of the business of reviewing death sentences.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2008 3:59:58 PM

I know...I, too, hate these examples where a person's rights are upheld to make sure they are not wrongly put to death. (note the sarcasm).

This is, yet again, just another example of a federalist response that has nothing persuasive to add, and contains a non-sequitur argument

Posted by: DEJ | Jun 16, 2008 5:40:00 PM

DEJ, perhaps if you were a little more informed, you'd understand what I was getting at. Texas, in reliance on Jurek v. Texas, prosecuted people for capital crimes and got death sentences. Then, the Supreme Court decided to pull the rug out from under Texas. Whatever you think of capital punishment, you have to agree that a system where the rules change so much in such a short period of time is appallingly cruel to victims' families (and in this case a surviving victim). The Supreme Court is directly responsible for that state of affairs, and the responsibility for this appalling cruelty can be laid at their feet. I know that people like you make the ability of murderers to escape death sentences a categorical imperative, but perhaps, just perhaps, you should stop and think about how these endless appeals over minutiae affect victims and our right, as a free people, to impose a lawful punishment.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2008 6:07:52 PM

federalist -
Your reliance on the argument of cruelty to victim's families is false. Acceptance of a lesser sentence, as happens in other cases of murder, in other similar cases in other states, and throughout many other countries, would have triggered closure for the family many, many years ago. Also, your insistence on ignoring the reality that many victims families actively speak out against the death penalty again demonstrates your own prejudices much more than any genuine or justified concerns for families. Your interference in their grief is unhelpful.

Posted by: peter | Jun 17, 2008 1:35:19 AM

I don't ignore the views of victims who oppose the death penalty. My point is simple--the limbo, created by a weird fetish in our justice for flyspecking cases in which the death penalty is imposed is cruel to all victims, whether they oppose the death penalty or not. Certainly, most people would rather have the damned thing end.

In this case, there is a surviving victim. She has been left in limbo for over 30 years. There is no question about guilt here, and no question this was a heinous crime. He should have been executed already, and the Supreme Court, in a bit of judicial legerdemain, knocked out the legal support for this sentence. It was wrong to do so, and the Justices that saw fit to do it have been appallingly cruel. The Supreme Court has failed miserably in its duty to apply the law in death cases and to supervise federal courts. This means that the federal courts should no longer be in the business of reviewing death sentences on habeas.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 17, 2008 8:44:10 AM

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