Friday, June 23, 2017

SCOTUS decides defendant can show prejudice from bad plea advice and prevail on Sixth Amendment claim even with no defense to charge

The Supreme Court this morning handed down three more opinions, and the one notable criminal case decided today was Lee v. United States, No. 16–327 (S. Ct. June 23, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, which starts and ends this way:

Petitioner Jae Lee was indicted on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute.  Although he has lived in this country for most of his life, Lee is not a United States citizen, and he feared that a criminal conviction might affect his status as a lawful permanent resident.  His attorney assured him there was nothing to worry about — the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty.  So Lee, who had no real defense to the charge, opted to accept a plea that carried a lesser prison sentence than he would have faced at trial.

Lee’s attorney was wrong: The conviction meant that Lee was subject to mandatory deportation from this country.  Lee seeks to vacate his conviction on the ground that, in accepting the plea, he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Everyone agrees that Lee received objectively unreasonable representation. The question presented is whether he can show he was prejudiced as a result....

We cannot agree that it would be irrational for a defendant in Lee’s position to reject the plea offer in favor of trial. But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial?  Almost certainly. If deportation were the “determinative issue” for an individual in plea discussions, as it was for Lee; if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other, as did Lee; and if the consequences of taking a chance at trial were not markedly harsher than pleading, as in this case, that “almost” could make all the difference. Balanced against holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation was a year or two more of prison time.  See id., at 6.  Not everyone in Lee’s position would make the choice to reject the plea. But we cannot say it would be irrational to do so.

Lee’s claim that he would not have accepted a plea had he known it would lead to deportation is backed by substantial and uncontroverted evidence.  Accordingly we conclude Lee has demonstrated a “reasonable probability that, but for [his] counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S., at 59.

Justice Thomas wrote a dissent joined by Justice Alito which gets started this way:

The Court today holds that a defendant can undo a guilty plea, well after sentencing and in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, because he would have chosen to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success if his attorney had properly advised him of the immigration consequences of his plea.  Neither the Sixth Amendment nor this Court’s precedents support that conclusion.  I respectfully dissent.

June 23, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Today's SCOTUS CJ scorecard: government wins in two procedural cases, defendant wins in one substantive case

The Supreme Court this morning handed down opinions in three cases, all three of which involve intricate criminal law and procedure issues. I am going to copy and tweak here the summary of all the action from How Appealing for ease of exposition: 

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued an opinion, in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. And Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. issued an opinion concurring in the judgment. 

2. Justice Stephen G. Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court in Turner v. United States, No. 15-1503. Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. 

3. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240.  Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined.  Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch also joined.  And Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kagan joined. 

As the title of this post indicates, and as the pattern of votes suggests, the defendant prevailed in first of these listed cases, Maslenjak, which concerned the substantive reach of a federal criminal statute.  The government prevailed in the other two cases, one of which concerned the application of Brady (Turner) and the other of which concerned what types of errors can be found harmless in Strickland ineffective assistance analysis (Weaver).

For a variety of reasons, the procedural rulings on behalf of the government in Turner and Weaver seem like a much bigger deal than the Maslenjak ruling, perhaps especially because the government had won below in Turner and Weaver and so it could have been reasonably assumed that the Supreme Court took up the cases in order to reverse the outcome.  Also, of course, issues related to the application of Brady and Strickland impact so many cases, especially on collateral appeal.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this helpful summary post on all these cases simply and appropriately titled "Materiality."

June 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) re-sentenced to life with parole

As reported in this lengthy local article, a defendant whose surname means a lot to a lot of juvenile offenders long ago sentenced to life without parole was resentenced today in Louisiana. Here are just some of the details of the latest chapter of a truly a remarkable case:

A Baton Rouge judge Wednesday gave a 71-year-old man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy when he was 17 a chance to leave prison before he dies.

Henry Montgomery has been locked up for 54 years in the killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt. But Judge Richard Anderson on Wednesday re-sentenced Montgomery to a life sentence with the possibility of parole, following a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings — including Montgomery's own case — that say defendants convicted of murder for killings committed as juveniles cannot automatically be sent away to serve life without parole.

"This is not an easy thing for me to do … because one man is dead and the family is still living through the consequences. But the law is the law," said Anderson, referencing the higher court decisions that said sentences of life without parole for young killers must be "rare and uncommon" and reserved only for those who display "irretrievable depravity."

Anderson's decision during the brief hearing came nearly two months after defense attorneys presented the judge with extensive testimony about Montgomery's conduct in prison and the rough circumstances of his childhood.  Officials from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where Montgomery has spent nearly all of the last half-century, described him as a trustworthy inmate and reliable worker who accumulated a remarkably low number of infractions during his time at the once-notorious prison.

Lindsay Jarrell Blouin, an East Baton Rouge Parish public defender who represents Montgomery, also detailed rough circumstances of Montgomery's childhood, which she wrote included neglect, physical abuse and a lack of education. Court filings also detailed Montgomery's mental limitations, including an IQ estimated by psychologists during his 1969 trial as somewhere in the 70s....

"He's been a model prisoner for 54 years, he's been a mentor and, by all appearances, he's been rehabilitated," Anderson said. "It does not appear (Montgomery) is someone the Supreme Court would consider 'irreparably corrupt.'"

Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School on Nov. 13, 1963, when he ran from Hurt and other deputies who'd arrived to investigate a theft complaint called in by the school.  Hurt tried to detain Montgomery, according to trial transcripts, and Montgomery killed him with a single shot from a .22-caliber pistol.  Hurt's partner that day wrote in an initial report that Hurt had his hands up and was backing away when Montgomery shot him.  But the officer testified at trial that he was some 350 yards away and couldn't see Hurt or Montgomery at the moment of the shooting, according to recent filings by Montgomery's attorneys.  The deputy was wearing plain clothes, Montgomery's attorneys wrote, and the teenager told investigators following his arrest that he thought Hurt was reaching for a gun when he fired. "This was a terrible, split-second decision made by a scared 17-year-old boy who thought he was going to be killed."

Hurt's family did not attend Wednesday's hearing.  But in April, as Anderson considered evidence in the case, Hurt's two daughters took the stand to testify to how that single gunshot upended their family, snapped previously happy childhoods and continues to reverberate in painful ways decades later.  Becky Wilson and Linda Woods both told Anderson through tears that they'd come to forgive and pray for Montgomery.  The deputy's daughters met privately with Montgomery at Angola earlier this year.

But the sisters, as well as Jean-Paul deGravelles, Hurt's grandson who's now a Lafourche Parish sheriff's deputy, all said they felt Montgomery received a just sentence when a jury in 1969 found him guilty of murder "without capital punishment" — a verdict that spared Montgomery the death penalty but sent him away for the remainder of his life.

Anderson echoed that view, noting from the bench that he felt Montgomery's life-without-parole sentence was fair. But the law has changed, Anderson said, regardless of whether the judge agrees with the Supreme Court rulings.

Prosecutors didn't argue for either life with or without parole for Montgomery but noted the gravity of the crime and its impact on the victim's family.  Lawyers with the Attorney General's Office who represented the state at the hearing declined to comment Wednesday.  East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Anderson's "difficult but well-reasoned decision" acknowledged the suffering caused by Montgomery but was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

Wilson, who was 9 years old when her father was killed, said Wednesday she believes Anderson reached "the only decision he could" under current law in offering Montgomery a chance at parole and said she appreciates the judge's careful consideration of the case.  "As for Mr. Montgomery, I just pray for God’s perfect will to be done in his life and hope and pray he is blessed wherever he might be, today and in his future," Wilson said by email. "If he should be paroled, I hope, if given the opportunity, he will use his life experience to help keep young men and women from going down the same path he went down. Also, I pray that he will truly be thankful and humbled by the gift of freedom."

Montgomery's 1969 conviction came after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned an earlier verdict, ruling that widespread and often racially tinged attention to the case "permeated the atmosphere" in Baton Rouge during his first trial.  The court ruled that "no one could reasonably say that the verdict and the sentence were lawfully obtained." Anderson on Wednesday noted the jury in Montgomery's second trial in 1969 chose not to impose a death sentence even though the law allowed it.  Montgomery's attorneys argued earlier that the jury's decision for a lesser sentence suggested they didn't see Montgomery as among the worst killers.

Anderson also admonished Montgomery, who stood before the judge stooped with his hands closely shackled to a belly chain, to take advantage of his opportunity at freedom.  Montgomery didn't speak during the hearing and was quickly led away after the judge read out his new sentence.  Blouin, his attorney, said after the hearing that Montgomery was pleased with the decision but "still grieves for the victim's family and the impact this has had on them."

The next step for Montgomery will be a request for a parole board hearing.  He's already served more than twice as many years as required before parole consideration and has met other requirements to apply for release. Keith Nordyke, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit firm representing Montgomery in the parole process, said a hearing could come before the end of the year.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Close examination of some JLWOP girls who should benefit from Graham and Miller

The latest issue of The Nation has two lengthy articles examining the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern juvenile offender Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Both are good reads, but the second one listed below covers especially interesting ground I have not seen covered extensively before.  Here are their full headlines, with links, followed by an excerpt from the second of the pieces: 

"The Troubled Resentencing of America’s Juvenile Lifers: When SCOTUS outlawed mandatory juvenile life without parole, advocates celebrated — but the outcome has been anything but fair" by Jessica Pishko

"Lisa, Laquanda, Machelle, and Kenya Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison: Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom" by Danielle Wolffe

The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.

The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.

I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.

The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 19, 2017

SCOTUS declares unconstitutional North Carolina criminal law restricting sex offender access to social media

Today was a big day for the First Amendment in the US Supreme Court.  In addition to a notable First Amendment trademark ruling, the Court handed down a widely anticipated ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina, No. 15–1194 (S. Ct. June 19. 2017) (available here), dealing with a state law restricting internet access for sex offenders.  Here is how the Court's majority opinion in Packingham, authored by Justice Kennedy, gets started and a key closing paragraph:

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.  The question presented is whether that law is permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment....

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences.  Even convicted criminals — and in some instances especially convicted criminals — might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

The majority opinion in Packingham is quite short, but that does not mean it does not pack a punch.  In fact, Justice Alito authored an extended concurrence which was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas in order to lament some of the "undisciplined dicta" in Justice Kennedy's short majority opinion.  Here is how the concurrence begins:

The North Carolina statute at issue in this case was enacted to serve an interest of “surpassing importance.” New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 757 (1982) — but it has a staggering reach.  It makes it a felony for a registered sex offender simply to visit a vast array of websites, including many that appear to provide no realistic opportunity for communications that could facilitate the abuse of children.  Because of the law’s extraordinary breadth, I agree with the Court that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

I cannot join the opinion of the Court, however, because of its undisciplined dicta.  The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks.  Ante, at 4–5.  And this language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers.  I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric.

(Though the issues in Packingham are no laughing matter, I am getting a giggle thinking about whether the phrase "undisciplined dicta" would better serve as my stage name if I was part of a nerdy rap band or just ought to be made into a rubber-stamp to help all my students add that commentary to course evaluations.)

June 19, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

By a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS decides failure of Alabama courts to provide expert mental health assistance to capital defendant was unreasonable

The Supreme Court handed down a notable split decision in a capital case this morning in McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017)(available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court for the usual coalition of Justices most skeptical of application of the death penalty, and that opinion starts this way:

Thirty-one years ago, petitioner James Edmond McWilliams, Jr., was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury and sentenced to death.  McWilliams challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the State had failed to provide him with the expert mental health assistance the Constitution requires, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief. We now consider, in this habeas corpus case, whether the Alabama courts’ refusal was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was.  Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Id., at 83.  Petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.

A sharp dissent in McWilliams, which runs longer than the majority opinion, is authored by Justice Alito (and joined by the newest Justice), and it starts this way:

We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the defense.

The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.  Indeed, “Ake appears to have been written so as to be deliberately ambiguous on this point, thus leaving the issue open for future consideration.” W. LaFave, Criminal Law § 8.2(d), p. 449 (5th ed. 2010) (LaFave).  Accordingly, the proper disposition of this case is to affirm the judgment below.

The Court avoids that outcome by means of a most unseemly maneuver.  The Court declines to decide the question on which we granted review and thus leaves in place conflicting lower court decisions regarding the meaning of a 32-year-old precedent.  That is bad enough.  But to make matters worse, the Court achieves this unfortunate result by deciding a separate question on which we expressly declined review.  And the Court decides that factbound question without giving Alabama a fair opportunity to brief the issue.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

SCOTUS summarily reverses Sixth Circuit reversal of Ohio death sentence

The US Supreme Court this morning issued this order list that did not include any grants of certiorari, but did include a summary reversal in the Ohio capital habeas case of Jenkins v. Hutton, No. 16-1116 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017) (available here).  Here are some key passages from this brief per curiam opinion: 

According to Hutton, the court gave the jurors insufficient guidance [when deciding on whether to recommend a death sentence] because it failed to tell them that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase.  Hutton, however, had not objected to the trial court’s instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal, and the District Court on federal habeas concluded that his due process claim was procedurally defaulted....

Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit held that the [miscarriage of justice] exception justified reviewing his claim. The court gave two reasons: First, Hutton was not eligible to receive a death sentence because “the jury had not made the necessary finding of the existence of aggravating circumstances.” 839 F.3d, at 498–499.  And second, since the trial court “gave the jury no guidance as to what to consider as aggravating circumstances” when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the record did not show that the jury’s death recommendation “was actually based on a review of any valid aggravating circumstances.” Id., at 500....

The Sixth Circuit was wrong to reach the merits of Hutton’s claim.... Hutton has not argued that the trial court improperly instructed the jury about aggravating circumstances at the guilt phase.  Nor did the Sixth Circuit identify any such error. Instead, the instruction that Hutton contends is incorrect, and that the Sixth Circuit analyzed, was given at the penalty phase of trial.  That penalty phase instruction plainly had no effect on the jury’s decision — delivered after the guilt phase and pursuant to an unchallenged instruction — that aggravating circumstances were present when Hutton murdered Mitchell.

The Sixth Circuit’s second reason for reaching the merits rests on a legal error.  Under Sawyer, a court may review a procedurally defaulted claim if, “but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found the petitioner eligible for the death penalty.”  505 U.S., at 336 (emphasis added).  Here, the alleged error was the trial court’s failure to specify that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury could consider only the aggravating circumstances it found at the guilt phase.   Assuming such an error can provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered the following: Whether, given proper instructions about the two aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that those aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Might judicial estoppel continue to preclude Ohio from moving forward with a three-drug lethal injection protocol?

As previously noted here, today is the day for the Sixth Circuit oral argument in its rehearing en banc of the State of Ohio's appeal of a lower court stay blocking Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  One basis for stay, as reported here, was the plan for Ohio to use midazolam as the first drug in its three-drug execution protocol.  But some recent uneventful executions by other states using midazolam may serve to make this foundation for the stay weaker than it was earlier this year.  So another issue sure to come up in this argument is the capital defendants' claim, also adopted in the initial stay order, that Ohio is judicially estopped from using a three-drug execution protocol after having years ago forsworn such a plan in favor of one-drug execution plans.

In this recent post at the ACS blog, titled "Ohio’s Lethal Flip Flop: Court Should Hold State To Consistent Legal Position on How To Execute," Virginia Sloan makes the case for the judicial estoppel arguments to block Ohio's execution plans.  Here are excerpts:

Outside of the legal profession, judicial estoppel, or the doctrine that prevents a party to a lawsuit from taking inconsistent positions about the same issue at different phases of the legal proceeding, is not particularly well-known. However, it speaks to the core value of integrity in the judicial system, preventing misuse of the courts and promoting equity among litigants. Non-attorneys unfamiliar with the legal doctrine of judicial estoppel need look no further than pending lethal injection litigation in Ohio to understand its crucial importance in our system.

In a remarkable series of losses and appeals, Ohio state officials are currently attempting to convince yet another federal court to allow them to use a lethal injection protocol which is in direct violation of representations state officials made eight years ago in order to prevail at an earlier phase of the ongoing litigation....

After [a] failed execution, and facing an imminent trial in July 2010 on the prisoners’ challenges to Ohio’s three-drug lethal injection method, Ohio announced in November 2009 that it would never again use the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in executions. State officials represented they would use a one-drug, barbiturate-only method instead. The same day Ohio announced this change, it filed a motion for summary judgment in the pending litigation, asking the federal court to dismiss all challenges to the three-drug protocol because, as the State argued, the change in execution drugs meant the claims about the two painful drugs were “moot.” The State’s filing unequivocally declared “there is no possibility here that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct will reoccur.” The federal courts accepted Ohio’s argument, and its representations, with the Sixth Circuit explicitly holding that “any challenge to Ohio’s three-drug execution protocol is now moot.” With the prisoners’ constitutional claims thus mooted in this way, the State proceeded to carry out 20 executions over the next eight years, including that of Mr. Biros in December 2009.

Fast forward to October 2016: Ohio reneged on its promises. State officials announced that their “new,” three-drug protocol will again include a paralytic and potassium chloride. Unsurprisingly, the courts did not look favorably upon Ohio’s flip-flopping. In his order, following a five-day evidentiary hearing in 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael R. Merz wrote that “the position the State of Ohio now takes — that it will execute [prisoners] using a paralytic agent and potassium chloride — is completely inconsistent with the position it took on appeal in Cooey (Biros) and on remand from that decision before Judge Frost. Ohio prevailed on its contrary position and is now judicially estopped from re-adopting a paralytic agent and potassium chloride as part of the Execution Protocol.”  On April 5, 2017, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed, upholding the preliminary injunction.

The State petitioned for the full court to hear the case, and in coming weeks, Ohio will try for the third time to explain why it is acceptable to render litigation moot by making one representation, and then later in that same litigation to propagate actions in contravention of that representation.

Judicial estoppel prevents parties from manipulating legal proceedings, requiring parties to maintain consistency within the course of litigation. The changing of positions based on convenience or “exigencies of the moment” is not authorized by law, and is particularly reprehensible when the issue at hand is one of life or death. Ohio apparently needs a third ruling to remind officials that what they promised the federal courts in 2009 still binds them in 2017. The law demands that the State devise an execution protocol consistent with its word.

Even without hearing the outcome of today's oral argument, I am predicting that this judicial estoppel claim does not end up carrying the day with the full en banc Sixth Circuit.  Ohio officials are claiming that they have returned to a three-drug execution protocol because of a state legal obligation to carry out lawful death sentences AND a constitutional obligation to carry out executions in the least painful way possible. If Ohio officials reasonably and accurately assert they had to return to a three-drug protocol to comply with these obligations, I doubt the full Sixth Circuit will conclude a prior litigation position must now thwart these efforts.  

June 14, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 12, 2017

In summary reversal, SCOTUS holds AEDPA precluded federal court from finding Virginia's geriatric release system was insufficient to comply with Graham

One may need to be a hard-core law-geek to fully appreciate all the nuance that it is in the title of this post, which aspires to be an accurate accounting of the Supreme Court's decision six-page per curiam decision this morning in Virginia v. LeBlanc, No. 16–1177 (S. Ct. June 12, 2017) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the heart of the opinion:

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred by failing to accord the state court’s decision the deference owed under AEDPA. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. The geriatric release program instructs Virginia’s Parole Board to consider factors like the “individual’s history . . . and the individual’s conduct . . . during incarceration,” as well as the prisoner’s “inter-personal relationships with staff and inmates” and “[c]hanges in attitude toward self and others.” See 841 F. 3d, at 280–281 (Niemeyer, J., dissenting) (citing Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual 2–4 (Oct. 2006)).  Consideration of these factors could allow the Parole Board to order a former juvenile offender’s conditional release in light of his or her “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Graham, 560 U.S., at 75. The state court thus did not diverge so far from Graham’s dictates as to make it “so obvious that . . . there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’” about whether the state court’s ruling conflicts with this Court’s case law. White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 11).

“Perhaps the logical next step from” Graham would be to hold that a geriatric release program does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but “perhaps not.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). “[T]here are reasonable arguments on both sides.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 11–12).  With respect to petitioners, these include the arguments discussed above. Supra, at 4. With regards to respondent, these include the contentions that the Parole Board’s substantial discretion to deny geriatric release deprives juvenile nonhomicide offenders a meaningful opportunity to seek parole and that juveniles cannot seek geriatric release until they have spent at least four decades in prison.

These arguments cannot be resolved on federal habeas review.  Because this case arises “only in th[at] narrow context,” the Court “express[es] no view on the merits of the underlying” Eighth Amendment claim. Woods, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Nor does the Court “suggest or imply that the underlying issue, if presented on direct review, would be insubstantial.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op., at 7); accord, Woodall, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5). The Court today holds only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law.

A proper respect for AEDPA’s high bar for habeas relief avoids unnecessarily “disturb[ing] the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation, den[ying] society the right to punish some admitted offenders, and intrud[ing] on state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial authority.” Harrington, supra, at 103 (internal quotation marks omitted).  The federalism interest implicated in AEDPA cases is of central relevance in this case, for the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s holding created the potential for significant discord in the Virginia sentencing process. Before today, Virginia courts were permitted to impose — and required to affirm — a sentence like respondent’s, while federal courts presented with the same fact pattern were required to grant habeas relief.  Reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision in this case — rather than waiting until a more substantial split of authority develops — spares Virginia courts from having to confront this legal quagmire.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate concurrence in LeBlanc to make this point:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), as today’s per curiam recognizes, established that a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense must have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release [from prison] based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., at 75. See ante, at 2.  I join the Court’s judgment on the understanding that the Virginia Supreme Court, in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248, 704 S.E.2d 386 (2011), interpreted Virginia law to require the parole board to provide such a meaningful opportunity under the geriatric release program.  See id., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402 (“the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute”).  In other words, contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Virginia law, the parole board may not deny a juvenile offender geriatric release “for any reason whatsoever,”  841 F.3d 256, 269 (2016) (emphasis in original); instead, the board, when evaluating a juvenile offender for geriatric release, must consider the normal parole factors, including rehabilitation and maturity.  See ante, at 4.

June 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Notable report of Missouri parole board playing a version of "turkey bingo" during hearings with inmates

I just noticed an interesting report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about an intriguing controversy swirling around Missouri's parole board.  Here are links to two lengthy stories about the controversies and their first few paragraphs:

"Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates"

The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole allegedly toyed with prisoners during hearings by trying to get them to say a chosen word or song title of the day, such as “platypus” and “Hound Dog.”

Don Ruzicka, a member of the seven-member board, along with an unnamed government employee were accused of keeping score during the hearings, according to a Department of Corrections inspector general report completed on Nov. 1, 2016. Each time one of them used a predetermined keyword while interviewing an offender they earned a point. Two points were granted if the offender repeated the word. Occasionally, the duo spiced the game up by wearing matching clothing, like the time they dressed in black shirts, ties, pants and shoes.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis recently obtained the state report and released it Thursday after a news conference, asserting that public servants “played games with people’s lives and liberty.”

"Officials insist Missouri parole board takes job seriously despite games played during hearings"

The day after a human rights law firm called on Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to remove former state Rep. Don Ruzicka from the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole for toying with inmates during hearings, two top prison officials stood by the panel on Friday.

A previously undisclosed state investigation found that Ruzicka and an unidentified Department of Corrections employee entertained themselves at some parole hearings by trying to get inmates to say words and song titles such as “platypus” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” They even kept score.

“We have very credible members who take their job seriously,” insisted Parole Board Chairman Kenneth C. Jones, who is also a former Republican state representative as well as a former sheriff. “There is no joking around. It’s a very serious job.”

June 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Spotlighting the continued challenges for juve lifers like Henry Montgomery even after SCOTUS victories in Miller and Montgomery

Mother Jones has this notable new article about Henry Montgomery and other juveniles who are still fighting to get relief after seemingly helpful recent Supreme Court Eighth Amendment rulings. The full headline of this piece is "The Supreme Court Said His Prison Sentence Was Unconstitutional. He’s Still Behind Bars. Despite a ruling in their favor, Henry Montgomery and other juvenile lifers are no closer to getting out."  Here are excerpts:

But although the Supreme Court often appears all-powerful, its clout is more limited than it seems. Nearly 18 months after his victory, Montgomery is still sitting in Angola, and there’s no guarantee that he — or many of the roughly 1,000 others serving similar sentences across the country — will ever get out....

Montgomery’s saga began in November 1963 in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during a turbulent time of racial tensions, Ku Klux Klan activity, and cross-burnings. Montgomery, who is African American, was in 10th grade and playing hooky when he encountered the local sheriff, Charles Hurt, who was white. In a panic at being caught out of school, Montgomery allegedly shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun, which he had stolen....

[If sentenced today], Montgomery would be allowed to present evidence of mitigating circumstances, and his lawyers could argue that his youth and mental disability — he had an IQ of around 70 — should be grounds for a reduced sentence. Instead, a state appellate court upheld his mandatory life sentence, and that was the end of his contact with a lawyer for decades to come....

In 2012, the US Supreme Court offered juvenile lifers such as Montgomery a glimmer of hope. In Miller v. Alabama, a case of two men who’d been sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes they committed at the age of 14, the court ruled 5-4 that such sentences were unconstitutional. Mandatory life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, because such sentences failed to recognize that adults differ from children, who have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” The court held that life-without-parole sentences should be used only for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

The decision set off a flurry of litigation by inmates incarcerated as children who argued that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively. Montgomery filed a petition to have his sentence overturned without the help of a lawyer, but the Baton Rouge public defender’s office eventually took up his case. The local district attorney fought him every step of the way, and he lost in all the state appeals courts. But in 2015, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

In January 2016, the court ruled in Montgomery’s favor, with Kennedy writing that the decision, which gave juvenile lifers a shot at parole, “would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

But the decision was only the beginning of Montgomery’s fight.  The Supreme Court decision gave states a lot of leeway in how they handle cases like Montgomery’s and punted the details to lower-court judges and state legislators.  In Louisiana, a judge could reduce Montgomery’s sentence to life with parole, but that would leave his fate to Louisiana’s notoriously stringent parole board, which could deny him release.  The Supreme Court also left room for judges to simply resentence eligible inmates to life without parole by declaring them irreparably corrupt. And that’s exactly what the Baton Rouge district attorney pushed for in Montgomery’s case....

Montgomery’s case has languished in part because the state didn’t know quite how to handle Louisiana’s 300 juvenile lifers who’d won the right to resentencing.  Should an inmate have a full-blown sentencing hearing that would resemble those used in capital cases?  And who should decide the outcome, a jury or a judge?  The courts put Montgomery’s case on hold while the state Legislature considered a bill that would automatically grant juvenile lifers a shot at parole after they’d served 30 years in prison.  But the bill died last summer, and although it’s been taken up again this year, the courts have decided to move forward without any new legislation.  Some juvenile lifers have been able to win plea bargains that freed them, but they aren’t the majority.

Working against Montgomery is the fact that the adult children and grandchildren of his victim have been involved in the process and are opposed to his release....

Montgomery is one of many juvenile lifers whose sentences remain in limbo after the Supreme Court decision. Michigan, for example, has about 350 juvenile lifers behind bars. Since the Supreme Court decision in Montgomery, the state has begun resentencing them.  [Juvenile Law Center's Marsha] Levick says that in about 85 percent of those cases, prosecutors are again seeking life without parole.  In one jurisdiction, the local prosecutor is the same former judge who sentenced many of the inmates to life in the first place. She has requested new life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates serving life without parole for murders they committed before the age of 18....

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, visited Montgomery in Angola earlier this year and says that because of the resistance of states like Louisiana and Michigan to implementing the Montgomery decision, the high court really “needs to take another step to bar life without parole [for juveniles] outright.”  She notes that local district attorneys are usually elected, and so the Montgomery decision “still leaves room for racially charged decisions, politically motivated decisions, as opposed to what is fair.  It keeps me up at night.”

A state court judge heard Montgomery’s case last month and promised a decision by late June.

June 7, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 05, 2017

Gearing up for big state court argument on the state and fate of California's death penalty

The San Francisco Chronicle has this new article about the new issues the California Supreme Court is facing concerning the state's old death penalty problems. The piece is headlined "State high court ruling on death penalty could restart executions<" and here are excerpts:

The California Supreme Court hears many high-stakes cases on issues such as individual rights, taxes, and the lawmaking powers of the state and its voters. But it has seldom confronted a case with such potentially dramatic consequences as Tuesday’s hearing on the Proposition 66 death-penalty initiative.

If the court — traditionally deferential to the will of the voters — upholds the central provisions of Prop. 66, it will open the door to the resumption of executions in a state that last put a prisoner to death in January 2006. Nearly 750 condemned inmates inhabit the nation’s largest Death Row, and about 20 have run out of appeals to their conviction and sentence.

Prop. 66 also seeks to speed up future executions, in part by requiring the state’s high court to decide all death-penalty appeals within five years of sentencing — more than twice its current pace. If the court upholds that requirement, one of the most hotly contested in the case, it may have to reconfigure itself as a tribunal that gives priority to capital cases over all other types of criminal and civil law disputes in the nation’s most populous state.

California has long been what one expert calls a "symbolic death penalty state," one of 12 that has capital punishment on the books but has not executed anyone in more than a decade. Prodded by voters and lawsuits, the nation's most populous state may now roll back toward allowing executions, though observers are split on how quickly they will resume, if at all.

The justices could reject the deadlines while upholding other Prop. 66 provisions aimed at shortening the death-penalty process, such as limiting prisoners’ appeals and requiring more lawyers to accept capital cases. But opponents say the proposed timetables for court action are the heart of an initiative that seeks to hamstring judicial authority over state law.

Neither lawmakers nor voters can “force the courts to prioritize a certain type of case at the expense of all other types of cases,” said Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, a lawyer in the suit to overturn Prop. 66. The requirement to move death cases to the front of the line, she said, would “impair the court’s inherent function of giving fair and equal treatment to (all) litigants.”

Not so, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and an author of Prop. 66. He said the measure would actually relieve the state Supreme Court of some of its current death-penalty workload by transferring some hearings to trial courts. It sets a five-year deadline that he says the court could meet if it eliminated needless delays. “If our side wins, we can get back to having a death penalty that actually works and really see some executions being carried out,” probably before the end of this year, said Scheidegger, who will argue in defense of the measure along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office at the hearing in Los Angeles.

Rayburn said an unrelated federal court case would probably delay any executions in California by at least six months, even if Prop. 66 were upheld. If the court overturns most or all of the initiative, executions will remain on hold for a year or longer as challenges to proposed new lethal-injection procedures work their way through state and federal courts....

Prop. 66 passed with 51 percent of the vote on the same November ballot in which a rival measure to repeal the death penalty in California was rejected by about seven percentage points, nearly twice the margin of defeat for a similar measure in 2012. While the votes were close, the message seemed clear: Californians want the death-penalty law enforced.  But the far-reaching provisions of Prop. 66, which received little attention during the campaign, have evidently raised concerns among the justices, who put the measure on hold while they consider a lawsuit seeking to overturn it....

Another provision of the measure seeks to expand the pool of defense lawyers by requiring attorneys to take capital cases if they already accept court appointments to represent defendants in other criminal cases.  Supporters say the change would ease the shortage of available lawyers, one of the chief reasons appeals take so long.  Opponents say it would put condemned inmates’ fates in the hands of unqualified lawyers and prompt many lawyers to refuse future assignments.

Prop. 66 would also speed up the state’s switch from three-drug executions, in use from 1996 to 2006, to lethal injections of a single barbiturate. Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration proposed procedures for one-drug executions last year in settlement of a lawsuit by relatives of murder victims.  Prison officials are still reviewing those procedures under a long-standing law that requires them to consider public comments.  The commenters have included organizations that say the proposed drugs are untested in executions and the procedures are unreliable....

Two of the court’s seven justices, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin, have removed themselves from the case because they are members of the state’s Judicial Council....  Their replacements are two randomly selected appeals court justices, Andrea Hoch of the Sacramento court, an appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Raymond Ikola, appointed to the court in Santa Ana by Gov. Gray Davis.

June 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Supreme Court unanimously limits reach of federal drug-offense forfeiture statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down a unanimous opinion in Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 (S. Ct. June 5, 2017) (available here), a case concerning the reach of the federal criminal forfeiture statute. The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Sotomayor, and it starts and ends this way:

A federal statute — 21 U.S.C. § 853 — mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes.  This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute’s text and structure....

Forfeiture pursuant to § 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.  In this case, the Government has conceded that Terry Honeycutt had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the Polar Pure sales.  App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.  The District Court agreed. Id., at 40a.  Because Honeycutt never obtained tainted property as a result of the crime, § 853 does not require any forfeiture.

The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.

June 5, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 02, 2017

"From Grace to Grids: Rethinking Due Process Protection for Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Kimberly Thomas and Paul Reingold. Here is the abstract:

Current due process law gives little protection to prisoners at the point of parole, even though the parole decision, like sentencing, determines whether or not a person will serve more time or will go free.  The doctrine regarding parole, which developed mostly in the late 1970s, was based on a judicial understanding of parole as an experimental, subjective, and largely standardless art — rooted in assessing the individual “character” of the potential parolee.

In this Article we examine the foundations of the doctrine, and conclude that the due process inquiry at the point of parole should take into account the stark changes in sentencing and parole practice over the years.  Since the development of the parole due process doctrine in the 1970s, two seismic shifts have occurred.  First, the constitutional protections provided at the initial sentencing have vastly increased.  Second, the parole process itself has been transformed by the move to evidence-based parole guidelines and the use of actuarial risk-assessment instruments as the norm in parole decision-making.

In this Article we document the changes in this under-scrutinized area and assert that the liberty interest in parole should more closely match the present-day legal account of the liberty interest that courts afford defendants at sentencing. 

June 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Second Circuit affirms convictions and LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

The Second Circuit today released a 139-page panel opinion in US v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815 (2d Cir. May 31, 2017) (available here), which starts this way:

Defendant Ross William Ulbricht appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence to life imprisonment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Katherine B. Forrest, J.).  A jury convicted Ulbricht of drug trafficking and other crimes associated with his creation and operation of Silk Road, an online marketplace whose users primarily purchased and sold illegal goods and services.  He challenges several aspects of his conviction and sentence, arguing that (1) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence assertedly obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) the district court committed numerous errors that deprived him of his right to a fair trial, and incorrectly denied his motion for a new trial; and (3) his life sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  Because we identify no reversible error, we AFFIRM Ulbricht’s conviction and sentence in all respects.

The sentencing discussion covers roughly the last 25 pages of this lengthy unanimous panel opinion, and it includes a number of notable passages while covering a lot of notable ground. Here are just a few highlights of an opinion that sentencing fans and drug policy folks should read in full:

Ulbricht’s only claim of procedural error is that it was improper for the district court to consider six drug-related deaths as relevant to his sentence because there was insufficient information connecting them with drugs purchased on Silk Road.  In terms of our sentencing jurisprudence, Ulbricht claims that the district court relied on clearly erroneous facts in imposing sentence.  We are not persuaded....

[I]t was certainly appropriate for the district court to consider the risk of death from use of drugs in assessing the seriousness of the offense conduct, one of the factors that a judge must consider in imposing sentence.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A).  That appears to be the only way the judge in this case used the evidence of the drug-related deaths. Emotionally wrenching as the statements of the decedents’ parents were, we cannot and do not assume that federal judges are unable to put their sympathies for particular victims to one side and assess the evidence for its rational relationship to the sentencing decision. And here, the record makes clear that the district court did not use the evidence of the drug-related deaths to enhance Ulbricht’s sentence, either as a formal matter under the Guidelines or otherwise....

[W]hile a life sentence for selling drugs alone would give pause, we would be hard put to find such a sentence beyond the bounds of reason for drug crimes of this magnitude. But the facts of this case involve much more than simply facilitating the sale of narcotics. The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Ulbricht commissioned at least five murders in the course of protecting Silk Road’s anonymity, a finding that Ulbricht does not challenge in this appeal.  Ulbricht discussed those anticipated murders callously and casually in his journal and in his communications with the purported assassin Redandwhite....

Ulbricht and amici point out that life sentences are rare in the federal system, typically reserved for egregious violent crimes, thus rendering Ulbricht’s sentence substantively unreasonable.  Moreover, according to amici, life sentences are normally imposed in cases where that is the district judge’s only sentencing option.  Thus, they claim that Ulbricht’s life sentence is substantively unreasonable in the context of the federal system, where life sentences are particularly rare for those with no criminal history who are convicted of drug crimes.

We agree with Ulbricht that life sentences are extraordinary and infrequent, which is as it should be.  But the rarity of life sentences does not mean that the imposition of such a sentence in this case is substantively unreasonable under our law.  Each case must be considered on its own facts and in light of all of the circumstances of a particular offense as well as other relevant conduct, which, in this case, includes five attempted murders for hire.  As we have described, the district court carefully considered Ulbricht’s offense, his personal characteristics, and the context for his crimes, recognizing that only exceptional cases justify such a severe sentence. Although we might not have imposed the same sentence ourselves in the first instance, on the facts of this case a life sentence was “within the range of permissible decisions” that the district court could have reached. 

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Consensus reigning (for now) as SCOTUS continues working through its criminal docket

Because the Supreme Court has already resolved all of its major sentencing cases, there is not all that much for sentencing fans to anticipate as the Justices wind down with final opinions over the final weeks of its Term.  But there are still plenty of criminal justice cases pending that may still lead to notable opinions, and two such rulings were handed down this morning.  As the title of this post highlights, what strikes me as notable about these new opinions is how the Justices were content to speak in one voice despite the potential contentiousness of the issues.  

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, No. 16-54 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, provides that “[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony after admission” to the United States may be removed from the country by the Attorney General. 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). One of the many crimes that constitutes an aggravated felony under the INA is “sexual abuse of a minor.” §1101(a)(43)(A). A conviction for sexual abuse of a minor is an aggravated felony regardless of whether it is for a “violation of Federal or State law.” §1101(a)(43). The INA does not expressly define sexual abuse of a minor.

We must decide whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA.  We hold that it does not.

In County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, No. 16-369 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

If law enforcement officers make a “seizure” of a person using force that is judged to be reasonable based on a consideration of the circumstances relevant to that determination, may the officers nevertheless be held liable for injuries caused by the seizure on the ground that they committed a separate Fourth Amendment violation that contributed to their need to use force?  The Ninth Circuit has adopted a “provocation rule” that imposes liability in such a situation.

We hold that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis for such a rule. A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.

May 30, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"No Indeterminate Sentencing Without Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Kevin Morrow and Katherine Puzauskas. Here is the abstract:

This article looks critically at Arizona’s indeterminate sentencing system that survived after the elimination of parole in Arizona in 1993.  It begins by exploring the purpose and history of indeterminate sentencing and parole as well as its earliest constitutional challenges and eventual decline.  Next it compares two commonly confused forms of “release”: parole and executive clemency.  The article then examines the three types of defendants and the potential consequences if Arizona does not reestablish parole for its indeterminate sentences: death row defendants denied parole eligibility instructions at trial, defendants whose plea agreement includes parole and defendants sentenced to parole at trial.  Finally, the article argues that without parole, Arizona’s indeterminate sentences should be ruled unconstitutional.

May 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

DC sniper Lee Malvo to get resentencing thanks to Miller Eighth Amendment rule

As reported in this AP piece, a "federal judge on Friday tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings."  Here is why:

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk said Malvo is entitled to new sentencing hearings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three over a three-week span in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region. His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was executed in 2009.

Malvo also was sentenced to life in prison in Maryland for the murders that occurred there. But his lawyers have made an appeal on similar grounds in that state.  A hearing is scheduled in June.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh, who helped prosecute Malvo in 2003, said the Virginia attorney general can appeal Jackson's ruling.  If not, Morrogh said he would pursue another life sentence, saying he believes Malvo meets the criteria for a harsh sentence....

Michael Kelly, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said Friday evening that the office is "reviewing the decision and will do everything possible, including a possible appeal, to make sure this convicted mass murderer serves the life sentences that were originally imposed."  He also noted that the convictions themselves stand and emphasized that, even if Malvo gets a new sentencing hearing, he could still be resentenced to a life term....

Jackson, in his ruling, wrote that Malvo was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the Supreme Court's ruling grants new rights to juveniles that Malvo didn't know he had when he agreed to the plea bargain.

The full 25-page opinion resolving Malvo's habeas petition is available at this link.

May 28, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Alabama finally carries out death sentence for Thomas Arthur

As reported here by CNN, "Alabama executed death row inmate Tommy Arthur early Friday after a lengthy court battle that included multiple lethal injection delays." Here is more:

Arthur, 75, was convicted in the 1982 murder-for-hire of romantic rival Troy Wicker. The inmate, who was nicknamed the "Houdini" of death row because he'd had seven prior execution dates postponed, died by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility at Atmore.

The Supreme Court issued a temporary stay Thursday, then lifted it later that night, leading to his execution.

"No governor covets the responsibility of weighing the merits of life or death; but it is a burden I accept as part of my pledge to uphold the laws of this state," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. "Three times Tommy Arthur was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Each time his case was reviewed thoroughly at every level of both our state and federal courts, and the appellate process has ensured that the rights of the accused were protected."

Arthur's lawyers had filed motions arguing that Alabama's method of execution was cruel and unusual, and that the attorneys should have access to a cellphone while witnessing the execution. Before the Supreme Court decision, stay requests had been rejected by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the governor....

Arthur was convicted of killing Wicker of Muscle Shoals by shooting him in the right eye on February 1, 1982, according to court documents. He was a work release prisoner at that time. He had been convicted of killing his sister-in-law in 1977, also by shooting her in the right eye.

May 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Capital Punishment and the Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this commentary/book review authored by Jonathan Mitchell and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Courting Death, Professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker present a thoughtful and trenchant critique of the Supreme Court’s capital-punishment jurisprudence.  They present data and anecdotes showing that capital punishment today is no less “arbitrary” than it was before the Supreme Court started regulating capital punishment in 1972 — leaving us with a regime that imposes costly, arcane, and highly technical rules on capital-punishment jurisdictions without any payoff in reducing arbitrary decisionmaking.  The Steikers also observe that many of these court-created doctrines suffer from vagueness and indeterminacy.  And they even suggest that the Supreme Court’s efforts to restrict the death penalty have had the paradoxical effect of strengthening and entrenching the institution of capital punishment.

Yet the pathologies with the Court’s capital-punishment doctrines go even beyond what the Steikers have identified.  The Court’s “proportionality” doctrine, for example, rests on a non sequitur: That capital punishment is rarely applied to juveniles or people with mental disabilities does not indicate that a national consensus exists against any use of capital punishment in those situations.  It is also wrong for the Court to infer “evolving standards of decency” from a state’s decision to establish minimum age or IQ thresholds for the death penalty.  Governments often choose to legislate by rule for reasons that have nothing to do with standards of decency.  Finally, the Court’s “proportionality” doctrine creates perverse incentives for prosecutors and elected officials, because it threatens to eliminate capital punishment across the board — or at least as applied to specified categories of offenders — unless the government produces enough executions to defeat a claim that a death sentence is no longer consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”  The Steikers are right to criticize the Court’s efforts to regulate capital punishment, but the problems go beyond what they identify in their thorough and comprehensive book.

May 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

After nearly 35 years, is Alabama finally going to carry out death sentence in case showcasing capital punishment's myriad difficulties?

As detailed in this New York Times piece, headlined "Alabama Inmate Hopes to Dodge Death for an Eighth Time," an execution scheduled for tomorrow in Alabama is notable for many reasons. Here is the Times accounting of some of these reasons:

Tommy Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983, has long imagined what could be his end: time in a so-called death cell, a choice of a last meal, the final telephone calls and then a lethal injection.  That end could come Thursday, his eighth execution date in a case that has spanned the tenures of eight Alabama governors, starting with George Wallace.  If it does, it will conclude a legal odyssey that quietly became, for death penalty supporters and critics alike, a symbol of the troubles of the capital punishment system in the United States.

“It’s one of those cases in which nobody is happy,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that has voiced concerns about the application of capital punishment.  “People who simply want the execution are unhappy because of the passage of time,” he said.  “People who oppose the death penalty are unhappy because they don’t want Tommy Arthur executed. People who want fairness are unhappy because, despite the length of time this case has been in the courts, the process has never been fair.”

In Alabama, where 58 people have been put to death since Mr. Arthur was sentenced for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, the most pressing issue these days seems to be how long it takes to carry out capital sentences.  If Mr. Arthur, 75, is executed on Thursday, his death will come one week after the Legislature gave final approval to a plan to reduce the length of appeals in capital cases....

Mr. Arthur confessed to one murder but was given a death sentence for a second that he insists he did not commit.  In regards to the latter, the state authorities contend that Mr. Wicker’s wife, Judy, hired Mr. Arthur, her lover, to carry out the killing so she could collect an insurance payout.  Ms. Wicker, who was found guilty and spent about a decade in prison before being released on parole, ultimately testified against Mr. Arthur, who was on work release from a life sentence for another killing when Mr. Wicker was murdered. (A woman who answered the phone at a number connected to Ms. Wicker hung up on a reporter.)

Near the end of a trial in the early 1990s, Mr. Arthur proclaimed his innocence but asked for a death sentence that he said would allow him greater opportunities for appeal. “I will not be executed,” Mr. Arthur said, according to a transcript of the proceedings.  “I’m totally positive of that. I wouldn’t dare ask you for it if I thought for a minute that I would be executed.”

He had already won two new trials by then. In the years that followed, Mr. Arthur’s case began to stand out to some scholars and lawyers because he so frequently staved off scheduled executions.  Mr. Arthur, whose lawyers have not raised intellectual disability or mental health claims, maintained his innocence and sought new forensic testing of evidence.  He argued his sentence was unconstitutional and that his claims of ineffective counsel were never fully considered.  He raised questions about Alabama’s execution methods, including a challenge to a lethal injection drug, midazolam.

Another prisoner once admitted to Mr. Wicker’s murder, but a judge found that Mr. Arthur and the inmate had “engaged in an attempt to defraud” the court with a false confession.  A defense lawyer for Mr. Arthur, Suhana S. Han, said that litigation had still not led to a full airing of the facts and rulings on the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims of innocence.  Instead, Mr. Arthur’s supporters see a government increasingly desperate to put a man to death....

State officials regard Mr. Arthur as someone who will do anything to avoid his death sentence.  “I think there’s just an attitude by the other side to basically file anything that they can whether it has any merit or not,” said Clay Crenshaw, chief deputy attorney general and a former leader of his office’s capital litigation division. “I think he and his lawyers have successfully manipulated the system.”...

Alabama has moved to limit the risk of protracted cases in the future, and on Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey is scheduled to sign a measure requiring capital defendants to pursue their direct and post-conviction appeals simultaneously in the state’s courts. Under existing law, defendants have been allowed to bring a new appeal after an earlier effort failed.

The Alabama attorney general, Steven T. Marshall, said the proposed changes, similar to provisions already in force in at least four other states, would benefit people affected by capital crimes without trampling on constitutional rights.  “This is victim-driven for us,” Mr. Marshall said.  “We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen the anguish. Victims do not sense, in a capital setting, that their voices are heard fully.  This is an opportunity for us as a state to be able to say that we’re going to allow defendants to have their fair opportunity to be heard in court for their claims to be evaluated, but we’re going to do it in a timely way.”

But Mr. Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, who noted that 60 percent of death row exonerations since 2012 involved cases at least 20 years old, suggested that quickening the pace to the death chamber would very likely lead to more executions of innocent people.  In 2015, Alabama released an innocent man, Anthony Ray Hinton, after he spent almost 30 years on death row; the state had spent years resisting demands that investigators conduct new tests on an alleged murder weapon.  “This is not about having more efficient judicial review,” Mr. Dunham said. “This is about expediting executions at the expense of fairness and accuracy.”

The Arthur case only lurked in the background of the legislative debate, but Mr. Marshall, a local prosecutor until February, acknowledged that Mr. Arthur’s history had long attracted attention.  “It’s the example of how the system has failed victims, and how he’s manipulated, through various filings, the court system to delay what should have occurred long ago,” Mr. Marshall said.

May 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court rules Graham and Miller do not limit aggregate term-of-years sentence

Yesterday I noted in this post a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling from last week that resisted extending the Supreme Court's recent limits on LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders to aggregate lengthy sentences for multiple crimes.  Perhaps exactly as I was writing that post, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down a similar ruling in Lucero v. Colorado, No. 13SC624 (Colo. May 22, 2017) (available here). Here is a key passage from the start of the majority opinion in Lucero:

[W]e hold that neither Graham nor Miller applies to an aggregate term-of-years sentence, which is the sentence Lucero challenges. In Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court held unconstitutional a life without parole sentence imposed on a juvenile for a single nonhomicide offense. 560 U.S. at 57, 82. In Miller, the Court held that a sentence of “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes” violates the Eighth Amendment. 132 S. Ct. at 2460. Life without parole is a specific sentence, distinct from sentences to terms of years. Lucero was not sentenced to life without parole.  Rather, he received multiple term-of-years sentences for multiple convictions.  Therefore, Graham and Miller are inapplicable to, and thus do not invalidate, Lucero’s aggregate sentence.

The concurring opinion in Lucero notes that a significant number of state supreme courts and other courts have held that the Eighth Amendment rule articulated in Graham "extends to cases in which a juvenile offender receives the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence." At some point (though I have no idea when), the U.S Supreme Court will have to clarify whether and how Graham nor Miller limit the imposition of sentences other than LWOP.

May 23, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tales of marijuana reform as sentencing reform from California after Prop 64

This recent AP article, headlined "California’s legal pot law helps reduce, erase convictions," serves as a reminder and reinforcement of my tendency to look at marijuana reform as often a kind of sentencing reform. The AP article reports on some interesting case-processing realities in the wake of new provisions in California law created by the state's 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, Prop 64. Here are some details:

Jay Schlauch’s conviction for peddling pot haunted him for nearly a quarter century. The felony prevented him from landing jobs, gave his wife doubts about tying the knot and cast a shadow over his typically sunny outlook on life.

So when an opportunity arose to reduce his record to a misdemeanor under the voter-approved law that legalized recreational marijuana last year, Schlauch wasted little time getting to court. “Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he asked.

This lesser-known provision of Proposition 64 allows some convicts to wipe their rap sheets clean and offers hope for people with past convictions who are seeking work or loans. Past crimes can also pose a deportation threat for some convicts.

It’s hard to say how many people have benefited, but more than 2,500 requests were filed to reduce convictions or sentences, according to partial state figures reported through March. The figures do not yet include data from more than half of counties from the first quarter of the year. While the state does not tally the outcomes of those requests, prosecutors said they have not fought most petitions.

Marijuana legalization advocates, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, have held free legal clinics to help convicts get their records changed. Lawyers who specialize in pot defense have noted a steady flow of interest from new and former clients.

Attorney Bruce Margolin said he got two to three cases a week, many of them decades old.... Since the passage of Proposition 64, he’s gotten convicts out of prison, spared others time behind bars and successfully knocked felonies down to misdemeanors.

But he’s also encountered a lot of confusion about the law that went into effect immediately in November. “They were totally unprepared,” he said of judges and prosecutors in courts he’s appeared in throughout the state. “It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”

That has not been the case in San Diego, where prosecutors watched polls trending in favor of marijuana legalization and moved proactively to prevent chaos, said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division of the district attorney’s office. They learned lessons from the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced several nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

Prosecutors in the county researched which convicts serving time or probation were eligible for sentence reductions and notified the public defender’s office so they could quickly get into court. Many were freed immediately, Solov said. “Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” Solov said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”

San Diego County led the state with the most number of petitions reported in the first two months after the law was passed. It has reduced sentences or convictions in nearly 400 cases, Solov said.

In Mendocino County, where pot farming is big business and violent crimes are often tied to the crop, District Attorney C. David Eyster said he fights any case not eligible for a reduction, such as applicants with a major felony in their past, a sex offense or two previous convictions for the same crime.

May 23, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minnesota Supreme Court upholds consecutive sentences adding up to 90 years before parole eligibility for juve killer of three

Via this new commentary criticizing the opinion, I just learned of this notable ruling handed down last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Miller and Montgomery. The commentary provides a helpful summary of the ruling and the concerns it might engender for those eager for Miller to have a broad reach:

In 2010, at the age of 16, Mahdi Hassan Ali committed a terrible crime in Minneapolis.  During the course of a store robbery, Ali shot and killed three people.  He was tried as an adult, and a jury found him guilty of two counts of felony murder and one count of first-degree murder.  On the felony murder convictions, the Hennepin County District Court sentenced Ali to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of release on each after 30 years; on the first-degree murder conviction, Ali was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of release....

In light of Miller [decided in 2012], the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Ali’s sentence of mandatory life imprisonment and remanded the case back to the Hennepin County District Court for a new sentence.  On Jan. 6, 2016, Ali was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release on each after 30 years. The sentences render Ali ineligible for release until he is 106 years old.

Shortly after the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion in Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which offered fresh insight into the Miller ruling. Montgomery explained that the court intended Miller to bar all sentences of life without parole, not just mandatory ones, for any but the rarest of juvenile offenders who were permanently incorrigible and unable ever to be reformed....

Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms.  In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.

Rather than requiring a special hearing to determine Ali’s prospects for reform, as Montgomery requires for sentences of life imprisonment without parole, the court decided that consecutive life sentences require no such hearing, even when they will likely result in a juvenile offender’s being imprisoned until death.

Last week’s opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court will offer state prosecutors a new tool when seeking to imprison children for the duration of their natural lives.  For juvenile offenders convicted of serious offenses, prosecutors will seek lengthy consecutive sentences rather than seeking sentences of life imprisonment without parole.  Under the opinion, this tack will obviate the need for a hearing to determine whether the juvenile is amenable to reform, regardless of the length of the child’s sentence.

Like the author of this commentary, I am troubled whenever it seems courts are embracing formal rather than functional considerations to limit the reach of the Eighth Amendment juvenile sentencing proportionality rules set forth in Graham and Miller and Montgomery.  Still, for reasons the majority opinion in this Ali case stresses, I can understand why many courts have in various settings given constitutional significance in Eighth Amendment analysis to the fact that a defendant has been sentenced to an extreme term for multiple serious crimes rather than just one. Notably, the US Supreme Court has never formally addressed just how multiple-offense, consecutive sentencing should be analyzed under the Eighth Amendment, and this Minnesota case serves to highlight how this is one of a number of Graham and Miller and Montgomery application issues challenging lower courts nationwide.

May 22, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20)

California struggles over whether all sex offenders can be excluded from Prop 57 parole reforms aimed at non-violent offenders

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Debate over sex offenders moves to court as California undertakes prison parole overhaul," provides an updated on the legal and policy issues surrounding sex offenders in the wake of a California ballot initiative intended to help non-violent offenders get an earlier chance for parole. Here are excerpts:

Los Angeles-based nonprofit is claiming California prison officials have undermined last fall’s ballot measure to overhaul the state’s parole process by excluding sex offenders from consideration for early release. The Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, which advocates for the rights of those convicted of sex crimes and their families, says the exemption — written into newly released guidelines to implement Proposition 57 — “impermissibly restricts and impairs the scope” of the initiative.

Those regulations were released in March and won initial approval from state regulators a month later. But the original ballot measure did not exclude inmates convicted of sex crimes from the chance of getting an earlier hearing before the state parole board.

The group filed the lawsuit in late April against the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and its director, Scott Kernan. It argues the new rules are unconstitutional and it asks a judge to order corrections officials to withdraw and repeal them, according to the complaint filed in Sacramento County.

“We want the benefits of Proposition 57 to be provided to people who have been convicted of ‘non-violent’ sex offenses,” said attorney Janice Bellucci, who is representing the alliance and an inmate who brought the case forward. “It is a basic rule of law that regulations cannot be broader than the law that they are implementing.”...

Debate over the treatment of sex offenders under Proposition 57 has simmered since last fall’s campaign season. But at that point, the outcry came from law enforcement officials and prosecutors who argued they did not want to see the ballot measure’s benefits extended to rapists and child molesters.

The sweeping initiative, approved by 65% of voters, gave new power to the State Board of Parole Hearings to grant early release to prisoners whose primary sentences are for crimes not designated as “violent” under California law. It also provided new ways for all inmates to earn time credits toward their sentences for good behavior and for enrolling in certain career, rehabilitation and education programs.

Opponents of Proposition 57 warned that the list of crimes under the violent felony penal code was short and porous, inspiring efforts in the Legislature this session to expand the definition of what constitutes a violent crime under state law. In his January budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to address those concerns, directing the state corrections department to exclude all sex offenders from early parole consideration. The department’s new parole guidelines are expected to receive final approval in the fall after a public comment period. Changes to how inmates can earn credits, which can help reduce their sentences, are already underway, while the new parole eligibility requirements won’t take effect until July.

But the advocacy group that filed the lawsuit wants the state agency to revise its rules. It contends that there was plenty of public debate over sex offenders during the Proposition 57 campaign — and that even then, voters passed the measure.... The lawsuit alleges the new exclusion applies to a whole class of nonviolent offenders, including people charged with crimes where there was no sexual contact with a victim.

As of Dec. 31, the number of inmates in California prisons who would have to register as sex offenders upon release stood at 22,455, less than 20% of the population housed at state prisons. Nearly 18,000 were designated as “violent” offenders, while more than 4,521 were considered “nonviolent,” according to state corrections officials.

Bellucci said those cases could include a diverse group of offenders. In theory, she said, the new regulations could unfairly penalize an 18-year-old convicted of public indecency for streaking in high school, or a 16-year-old sentenced for child pornography after distributing nude photos of herself. “Anybody who has been convicted of a violent offense, like rape, Prop. 57 doesn’t apply to them,” Bellucci said. “We are talking about nonviolent offenses, which includes these non-contact offenses.”

I would be shocked to learn that California has any teenage streakers or sexters imprisoned for lengthy periods now hoping to get early parole. I suspect the more realistic example of the sex offender who might claim to be non-violent and seek early parole are California variations on offenders like Jared Fogle or Anthony Weiner, i.e., older men involved with child pornography or perhaps other kinds of sexual activity with underage persons.  It will be interesting to see if the California courts allow of prohibit these kinds of offenders from being excluded from the reforms of Prop 57.

May 22, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ninth Circuit dodges federal marijuana offender's claim his imprisonment contravenes appropriations rider

As everyone involved in or following marijuana reform knows, Congress in recent years has included in its omnibus appropriations bills a rider that prevents the US Department of Justice (DOJ) from using any funds to prevent states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Yesterday, a Ninth Circuit panel considered in Davies v. Benov, No. 15-17256 (9th Cir. May 17, 2017) (available here), a notable contention concerning this rider from a federal prisoner.  Here are the basics from the opinion:

Davies owned and operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Stockton and Sacramento, California, which he contends complied with state and local medical marijuana laws. Davies, however, was charged with violating federal drug laws ... [and] entered into a plea agreement, agreeing to a five-year prison term and pleading guilty to the ten counts filed against him....

Davies filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Eastern District of California, contending that the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate individuals, such as himself, who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider.

I recall talking to some lawyers back when Congress first enacted the medical marijuana appropriations rider that, if the text were interpreted very broadly, it could arguably preclude the federal Bureau of Prisons (which is part of DOJ) from spending any of its budget on those incarcerated for state-compliant medical marijuana activities. So I am not shocked that this argument made it to the Ninth Circuit. But, as this concluding passage from Davies highlights, this argument still has not yet been addressed on the merits:

The collateral-attack waiver provision in Davies’s plea agreement bars him from this particular challenge to the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate him for conduct he contends complied with California’s medical marijuana laws. Because of this waiver, we need not reach and save for another day the issue of whether the expenditure of federal funds to incarcerate individuals who fully complied with state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider. Cf. McIntosh, 833 F.3d at 1177–78 (holding that the appropriations rider prohibits the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to prosecute individuals for engaging in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws). “We will enforce a valid waiver even if the claims that could have been made [through a collateral attack] absent that waiver appear meritorious, because the whole point of a waiver is the relinquishment of claims regardless of their merit.” United States v. Medina-Carrasco, 815 F.3d 457, 462–63 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and emphasis omitted).

I would be shocked to see the Ninth Circuit or any other court ultimately interpret the DOJ appropriations rider to require the release of any federal prisoners, but the argument has enough technical textual legitimacy to surely justify its pursuit by persons federally imprisoned for state-legal medical marijuana activity. And, for various updates on state activities, I continue to try to keep up with major legal developments and other notable stories at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform as evidenced by some of these recent posts:

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In last-minute appeal, condemned Georgia inmate urges extension of bar on juve capital punishment to those under 21

As reported here, "a Georgia inmate scheduled to be executed Tuesday has filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that it is wrong to sentence an offender less than 21 years old to death."  Here is more on the effort to halt an execution scheduled to take place a quarter century after the crime:

J.W. "Boy" Ledford Jr., now 45, was 20 years old when he was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing a doctor who had given him a ride in Georgia in 1992. Ledford is scheduled to be the first Georgia inmate executed in that state this year. The Georgia Supreme Court earlier Tuesday declined to halt the execution.

"Intelligence testing shows Ledford to have, at best, borderline intellectual functioning," attorneys for Ledfrod wrote in their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. It argues that the execution violates would violate Eight Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment guarantees of due process.

The petition argues that other rulings barring the death penalty for juvenile offenders apply to those who commit crimes from the ages of 18 to 21 — "a period in life during which, new scientific investigation forcefully shows, individuals suffer from the same impairments in judgment and self-control that prompted this Court to ban the application of capital punishment to juvenile offenders."

Ledford killed Dr. Harry Johnston after the physician gave him a ride, leaving the victim nearly decapitated. He then went to the doctor's home and tied up and robbed his wife. She has since died.

Lawyers for the state said the argument that Ledford was too young to be sentenced to death had not been raised before. The state said arguments of "evolving standards of decency" about the age of sentenced offenders are vague, and laws about juveniles don't apply to Ledford's case.

Ledford had previously argued that a firing squad would be a more humane way to die than the lethal injection planned by the state. A federal appeals court on Monday denied a request for a stay of execution.

UPDATE: As reported here, "Georgia carried out its first execution of the year early on Wednesday, putting to death a man convicted of killing a 73-year-old neighbor in 1992. J.W. Ledford Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 1:17 a.m. at the state prison in Jackson, more than six hours after his initial execution time. The delay was waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied his request for a stay."

May 16, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Dismissals as Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Anna Roberts available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

More than a third of our states have given judges a little-known power to dismiss prosecutions, not because of legal or factual insufficiency, but for the sake of justice.  Whether phrased as dismissals “in furtherance of justice” or dismissals of “de minimis” prosecutions, these exercises of judicial power teach two important lessons.

First, judges exercising these dismissals are rebutting the common notion that in the face of over-criminalization and over-incarceration they are powerless to do more than rubberstamp prosecutorial decision-making.  In individual cases, they push back against some of the most problematic aspects of our criminal justice system: its size, harshness, and bias.

Second, these cases converge on shared principles of justice.  These principles conjure a vision of a very different criminal justice system: one in which an alleged criminal act is viewed not in isolation, but within a broader context that includes the apparent motivations for it, and the state’s role in and response to it.  There is no logical reason to confine these principles to this procedural context, and the Article urges their broader consideration.

May 14, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Courting Abolition"

The title of this post is the title of this new book review authored by Deborah Denno and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Forty-five years ago capital punishment was nearly eliminated in Furman v. Georgia, where the Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty in the cases before it violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Furman Court’s abrogation was short-lived, however.  The 1976 decision of Gregg v. Georgia ended the 1967–1976 moratorium that had existed on executions by ruling that the death penalty was not a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment and by upholding newly passed, guided-discretion statutes.  As Professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker contend in their book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, the Supreme Court’s subsequent efforts to entrench capital punishment have involved the Court’s “top-down” regulation of states’ application of the death penalty by enforcing federal constitutional law, thereby attempting to establish a middle ground between completely abolishing capital punishment and allowing it to run amok.  According to the Steikers, this “experiment” with the death penalty has failed due to the Court’s cumbersome and complex regulatory mechanisms.

Courting Death, which builds on the authors’ prior work from their 1995 article, Sober Second Thoughts, as well as their report to the American Law Institute, is a markedly compelling book that captures the complicated story of the death penalty and explores the factors that would both shape and stymie capital punishment’s future.  The book includes a detailed history of the death penalty in the United States, its deep connection with southern racial oppression and the factors that prompted national judicial regulation, as well as the shortcomings and issues created by that regulation.

This Review of Courting Death offers a different take on two of the Steikers’ major themes: (1) the tension between effecting meaningful reform and legitimatizing legal façades, and (2) the future of the American death penalty.  The Review argues several points, one being that the Model Penal Code may have had a larger pre-Furman impact than the Steikers acknowledge.  In addition, the Review expands on some key contributors to the death penalty’s decline that may have been obscured by the all-encompassing nature of the Steikers’ regulation argument — for example, the emergence of unforeseeable exogenous variables (similar to the introduction of DNA evidence into criminal trials in the 1980s), as well as pressure points that exist largely outside of the constitutional regulatory framework, such as lethal injection litigation.  Despite these influences, the Review finds the Steikers’ prediction — that, when abolition seems right, it will come by way of a “Furman II” Supreme Court decision — to readily comport with the death penalty’s trajectory over the last fifty years.

May 13, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"A Contextual Approach to Harmless Error Review"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Justin Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Harmless error review is profoundly important, but arguably broken, in the form that courts currently employ it in criminal cases. One significant reason for this brokenness lies in the dissonance between the reductionism of modern harmless error methodology and the diverse normative ambitions of criminal procedure. Nearly all harmless error rules used by courts today focus exclusively on whether the procedural error under review affected the result of a judicial proceeding. I refer to these rules as “result-based harmless error review.” The singular preoccupation of result-based harmless error review with the outputs of criminal processes stands in marked contrast with criminal procedure’s broader ethical vision, which also encompasses non-result-related interests such as providing defendants with space for autonomous decisionmaking, enforcing compliance with nondiscrimination norms, and making transparent the inner workings of criminal justice.

The vast scholarship relating to result-based harmless error review, though deeply critical of its current role in the administration of justice, has not put forward an alternative method of harmless error review that courts might realistically consider using. Commentators in this area have devoted much of their energy toward persuading courts to exempt large swaths of criminal procedure from harmless error review entirely and thus to require automatic reversal for errors involving exempted rules. Instead, courts have done just the opposite by subjecting an ever-expanding list of errors to harmless error review, and there is no reason to think this trend will abate in the foreseeable future.

I attempt in this Article to chart a different course. My proposal, called “contextual harmless error review,” has two essential features. First, it would assess harm in relation to the constellation of interests served by the particular procedural rule that was infringed and would not, as under existing law, automatically confine the harmless error inquiry to estimating the error’s effect on the outcome. Second, contextual harmless error review would examine whether the error harmed the interests identified in the first step of the analysis to a degree substantial enough to justify reversal.

May 11, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Eleventh Circuit rejects effort to attack Alabama's lethal injection by suggesting hanging or firing squad as alternative execution methods

As reported in this local article, "condemned inmate Anthony Boyd asked the state of Alabama to carry out his execution by either hanging him or putting him in front of a firing squad. But the federal appeals court in Atlanta on Tuesday rejected Boyd’s request and cleared the way for his execution by lethal injection."  The Eleventh Circuit's lengthy ruling in Boyd v. Warden, No. 15-14971 (11th Cir. May 9, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

It is by now clear in capital cases that a plaintiff seeking to challenge a state’s method of execution under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution must plausibly plead, and ultimately prove, that there is an alternative method of execution that is feasible, readily implemented, and in fact significantly reduces the substantial risk of pain posed by the state’s planned method of execution.  Appellant Anthony Boyd, an Alabama death row inmate, appeals the district court’s dismissal of his federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol.  Boyd filed this lawsuit pursuant to Section 1983, alleging, among other things, that Alabama’s new lethal injection protocol, which substituted midazolam hydrochloride for pentobarbital as the first of three drugs, violates his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.  Notably, however, he did not allege that execution by a lethal injection protocol generally is unconstitutional.  Currently, Alabama law provides inmates sentenced to death with a choice between two methods of execution: lethal injection or electrocution. Instead of identifying an alternative method of lethal injection that would be feasible, readily implemented, and substantially less risky than the midazolam protocol or opting for death by electrocution, however, Boyd alleged that Alabama should execute him by hanging or firing squad.

The district court determined that Boyd had failed to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment because Boyd’s proposed alternative methods of execution -- firing squad and hanging -- are not authorized methods of execution under Alabama law and, therefore, are neither feasible nor readily implementable by that state.  It further held that Boyd’s remaining claims challenging Alabama’s execution protocol, the execution facilities, and the state’s decision to keep certain information about the protocol secret were time-barred by the statute of limitations.  Finally, the district court ruled that amending these claims would be futile and dismissed Boyd’s complaint.

We agree with the district court that Boyd has not come close to pleading sufficient facts to render it plausible that hanging and firing squad are feasible, readily implemented methods of execution for Alabama that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.  The Alabama legislature is free to choose any method of execution that it deems appropriate, subject only to the constraints of the United States Constitution.  But Boyd has not alleged that either lethal injection in all forms or death by electrocution poses an unconstitutional risk of pain.  Having authorized two unchallenged methods of execution, Alabama is under no constitutional obligation to experiment with execution by hanging or firing squad.  We also agree that Boyd’s remaining claims were filed well beyond the two-year statute of limitations governing § 1983 claims in Alabama.  Accordingly, we affirm.

May 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 08, 2017

A lethal Ohio procedural question: are there any formal rules on when new circuit judges are to be involved in pending en banc matters?

The question in the title of this post came to mind this morning in the wake of the news that, as discussed here, two of President Trump's latest judicial nominees are slated to fill open slots on the Sixth Circuit: Justice Joan L. Larsen and John K. Bush.   As noted here a few months ago, Prez Trump's very first circuit court nomination was also to the Sixth Circuit via the naming of Judge Amul Thapar.  Assuming relatively swift and successful confirmations, the Sixth Circuit could have three new judges within the next few months.

Meanwhile, as regular readers may recall from this post, also scheduled to take place in the next few months in the Sixth Circuit is the rehearing en banc the State of Ohio's appeal of a lower court stay issued earlier this year which blocked Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  The Sixth Circuit has scheduled oral argument on these matters for June 14, and the full court will probably try to issue a ruling in the matter not too long thereafter given that Ohio has a long-postponed execution now scheduled for July 26.

I am inclined to guess that Judge Thapar — who has already coasted through his confirmation hearing — will be a member of the Sixth Circuit by the time of the en banc oral argument in June.  Given that Justice Gorsuch at SCOTUS has apparently been fully participating in cases in which oral argument took place after the time he joined the Court, I would further guess that everyone will think Judge Thapar can and should fully participate in the Sixth Circuit's en banc consideration of Ohio's lethal injection protocol if he is there in time for oral argument.

But what should happen if Justice Larsen and/or Mr. Bush are both confirmed in, say, late June.  Could they and should they be involved in the consideration of these lethal Ohio matters?   Adding to the potential intrigue and head-counting is the fact that I believe Judge David McKeague is technically now still an active judge, but will be only until his successor if confirmed. Arguably, Judge KcKeague should not be part of the en banc decision-making once and whenever Justice Larsen gets confirmed to the Sixth Circuit.

Perhaps the Sixth Circuit has some clear rules on these kinds of en banc transition issues, and I would welcome any and all input from knowing en banc mavens.  In addition, it is quite possible that there are sufficient votes currently on the Sixth Circuit one way or the other to make these transition issues relatively inconsequential to the outcome in this important en banc case.  Still, when it comes to review of lethal injection protocols or just about anything else dealing with the death penalty, it does not seem that anything ever really becomes inconsequential.  

(In addition, and surely not to be overlooked as the buzz over another SCOTUS retirement grows, if and when Judge Thapar and Justice Larsen join the Sixth Circuit, this court will have three of the remaining 20 persons from Prez Trump's SCOTUS short lists.  This fact alone makes anything the Sixth Circuit does in the coming months even that much more interesting.)

Prior recent related posts:

May 8, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

South Carolina Supreme Court rejects constitutional challenge to juve sex offender's mandatory lifetime registration/monitoring

Yesterday the South Carolina Supreme Court handed down an opinion in In the Interest of Justin B., No. 27716 (S. Ct. May 3, 2017) (available here), unanimously rejecting the contention that "mandatory imposition of lifetime registration and electronic monitoring on juveniles is unconstitutional."  The relatively short opinion is a bit curious because, after reviewing a bunch of previous rulings in which it had "upheld the constitutionality of the mandatory lifetime sex offender registry requirement with electronic monitoring for adults and juveniles," the opinion does not discuss Graham or Miller but does confront and reject the juvenile's assertion that the constitutional analysis should "yield a different result under the reasoning of Roper v. Simmons."

Roper is, indisputably, a relevant precedent if and when a juvenile offender is arguing against mandatory imposition of lifetime registration and electronic monitoring.  But, in my view, the more recent precedents of Graham and Miller are even more critical and central to mounting an Eighth Amendment argument against any mandatory lifetime sanction for a juvenile offender. (As noted in this prior post, more than five years ago the Ohio Supreme Court relied heavily on Graham to find unconstitutional a mandatory lifetime registration requirement for juvenile sex offenders.)

In the end, I do not think engagement with Graham and Miller would have made any real difference to the South Carolina Supreme Court.  As this conclusion to the opinion highlights, that court has long deemed registration and monitoring to be civil non-punitive provisions that are not really subject to traditional constitutional limits on punishment:

The requirement that adults and juveniles who commit criminal sexual conduct must register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitor is not a punitive measure, and the requirement bears a rational relationship to the Legislature's purpose in the Sex Offender Registry Act to protect our citizens — including children — from repeat sex offenders.  The requirement, therefore, is not unconstitutional.  If the requirement that juvenile sex offenders must register and must wear an electronic monitor is in need of change, that decision is to be made by the Legislature — not the courts.  The decision of the family court to follow the mandatory, statutory requirement to impose lifetime sex offender registration and electronic monitoring on Justin B. is AFFIRMED

May 4, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

PBS Frontline covers the impact of Miller via "Second Chance Kids"

Pbs-frontline-merged-logoAs detailed via this posting, the PBS series Frontline premiered a new documentary last night titled Second Chance Kids. Here is a kind of preview from the posting:

What happens when prisoners convicted of murder as teenagers are given the chance to re-enter society? In the wake of Miller v. Alabama — the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles unconstitutional — some 2,000 offenders across the country are hoping to find out.

With unique access, the new FRONTLINE documentary, Second Chance Kids, follows the cases of two of the first juvenile lifers in the country to seek parole following the landmark ruling — including Anthony Rolon of Massachusetts.

At age 17, Rolon stabbed 20-year-old Bobby Botelho to death. He was given life without parole during the country’s crackdown on so-called juvenile “superpredators” — teenagers who were labeled violent, dangerous and incapable of change. The theory, which was popularized by academics and embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, resulted in disproportionately extreme sentencing of black and Latino youths.

As the documentary explores, the “superpredator” theory has now largely been discredited and disavowed. And a series of Supreme Court rulings, relying heavily on developmental science, has said that the personal circumstances of teenage offenders must be taken into account when they’re sentenced. The court has also ruled that many of them should have the chance to prove they’ve changed.

In the above excerpt from Second Chance Kids, go inside the parole hearing that will decide Rolon’s fate. Watch as Rolon and his legal team plead for his release after 18 years, and as Botelho’s family argues against it.

As juvenile offenders across the country await their potential re-sentencing, the documentary asks tough questions about crime and punishment in America, and what happens when some offenders are given a second chance.

The PSB website allows one to watch the documentary in full, and it also has these two companion articles:

"They Were Sentenced as “Superpredators.” Who Were They Really?"

"How Brain Science Is Changing How Long Teens Spend in Prison"

May 3, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

"The Eighth Amendment's Milieu: Penal Reform in the Late Eighteenth Century"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by Erin Braatz recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Conflicting interpretations of the history of the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause of the Eighth Amendment play a significant role in seemingly never-ending debates within the Supreme Court over the scope of that Amendment’s application.  These competing histories have at their cores some conception of the specific punishments deemed acceptable at the time of the Amendment’s adoption.  These narrow accounts fail, however, to seriously engage with the broader history of penal practice and reform in the eighteenth century.  This is a critical deficiency as the century leading up to the adoption of the Eighth Amendment was a period in which penal practices underwent numerous changes and reforms.

This Article closely examines the experiments in penal reform that occurred in the American colonies immediately following the Revolution to elucidate what the Founding Generation thought about penal form, how and why it might change, and its relationship to the creation of the American republic.  It argues that these penal reform movements, which have been ignored in discussions of the Eighth Amendment, were well known during the founding era. Furthermore, the salience of these reform movements at the time demonstrates a persistent concern among the Founders with adopting a more enlightened or civilized penal code in order to distinguish the American republic from monarchical practices in England and Europe.  Foregrounding the content of both the experiments themselves and the debates over penal practice, they reflect yields important and previously unrecognized insights for our understanding of the Eighth Amendment’s meaning and its import at the time it was drafted.

This Article helps illuminate current debates over the interpretation and application of the Eighth Amendment, including the use of international comparisons, the idea of evolution or progress, and the concept of proportionality. It also exposes significant gaps and limitations in the historical accounts relied upon by the Court to date.

May 3, 2017 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Justice Gorsuch refusing to jump into the cert pool

A decade or so ago after the Blakely and Booker rulings created extraordinary churn in lower courts, I used to think a lot about how the US Supreme Court set its docket. (More specifically, as posts here and here highlight, I used to complain a lot about SCOTUS taking up so many capital sentencing cases and so relatively few non-capital sentencing cases.)  In the context of thinking about these SCOTUS docket issues, and in writing up a little recent article on the topic, I came to the tentative conclusion that the modern development of the "cert pool," which has come to be used by nearly all the Justices to consider which cases to review on the merits, was not such a healthy development.

I provide all this background as a set up this interesting SCOTUS news from inside the Beltway via the New York Times: "Gorsuch, in Sign of Independence, Is Out of Supreme Court’s Clerical Pool." Here is how the article gets started:

In an early sign of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s independence and work ethic, he has decided not to join a labor pool at the Supreme Court in which justices share their law clerks in an effort to streamline decisions about which cases to hear.

Justice Gorsuch joined the court last month. His decision not to participate in the pool was confirmed by Kathleen L. Arberg, the court’s public information officer. The only other member of the court who is not part of the arrangement is Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justices in the pool receive a common “pool memo” on each petition seeking Supreme Court review — more formally, “petition for certiorari” — from a single law clerk. The memo analyzes the petition and makes a recommendation about whether it should be granted.

As a law clerk to Justices Byron R. White and Anthony M. Kennedy in 1993 and 1994, a young Mr. Gorsuch wrote quite a few such memos.

Justices who do not participate, by contrast, have their law clerks review all of the roughly 7,000 petitions filed each year, looking for the 75 or so worthy of the court’s attention.

The pool has been criticized for giving too much power to law clerks and for contributing to the court’s shrinking docket. For almost two decades until 2008, only Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, stayed out of the pool. He said it had caused “the lessening of the docket.”

“You stick your neck out as a clerk when you recommend to grant a case,” he told USA Today. “The risk-averse thing to do is to recommend not to take a case.”

Some scholars have traced the decline of the Supreme Court docket to the pool. In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court decided more than 150 cases a year. These days, it decides about half that many.

A few posts from nearly a decade ago on SCOTUS docket issues:

May 1, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Ohio Gov Kasich officially pushed back nine executions as lethal injection litigation comes before en banc Sixth Circuit

As noted in this post, last week the en banc Sixth Circuit took up the current stay in Ohio blocking executions, but set oral argument for a month after Ohio's scheduled execution.  Thus, unsurprisingly and as reported in this local piece, "execution dates for nine death row inmates have been delayed while the state continues its appeal of a court decision blocking use of its lethal injection protocol."  Here is more:

Nine executions were pushed back in a revised schedule released Monday by Gov. John Kasich. The next execution, of Akron child killer Ronald Phillips, was rescheduled for July 26.

On Jan. 26, a federal magistrate judge found the state's three-drug injection cocktail to be unconstitutional and stayed the next three executions. A three-judge panel for the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court and kept the stay in place. The full Cincinnati appeals court last week agreed to rehear the state's appeal. A hearing has been set for June 14.

The state had planed to execute Phillips and Gary Otte, who killed two people to death in back-to-back robberies in Parma, before that date. Otte's execution was moved to Sept. 13. The state has scheduled 33 executions through March 2021.

I think it reasonable for Gov. Kasich to expect the full Sixth Circuit to rule on the state's execution protocol within roughly a month after hearing oral argument.

Prior recent related posts:

May 1, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Does acceptance of a commutation moot a prisoner's collateral legal challenge to a prison sentence he is still serving?

The complicated question in the title of this post is the issue addressed in a complicated set of opinions issued by various members of the en banc Fourth Circuit as the full court dismissed as moot the long-running case of Raymond Surratt in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. April 21, 2017) (available here).  As the latest opinion in Surratt reveals, I was involved in this case as an amicus, but I had largely forgotten that fact given that the Surratt panel opinion, as noted here, was decided nearly two years ago and oral argument before the en banc Fourth Circuit took place more than a year ago. 

I surmise that the en banc Fourth Circuit was deeply divided on the procedural and substantive issues that the complicated Surratt case presented and that a mootness ruling served as a convenient way to dispose of a hard case thanks to the deus ex machina of Prez Obama's grant of clemency to Raymond Surratt.  I am surely biased in this view because I served as an amicus in the case, but also because I think these passages from Judge Wynn's dissent make a pretty solid case against mootness:

Here, there is no dispute that if we vacate Petitioner’s commuted sentence and remand for resentencing, Petitioner will likely face a sentence shorter than that imposed by the commutation. In particular, whereas the President commuted Petitioner’s life sentence to 200 months’ imprisonment, Petitioner’s applicable Guidelines range is 120 to 137 months, less than his time-served.  Accordingly, Petitioner has a continuing “concrete interest” — namely, his liberty — in having us vacate his current sentence and remand for resentencing under the applicable Guidelines.  We and other courts have found arguably substantially less significant interests adequate to preclude mootness. See, e.g., Townes v. Jarvis, 577 F.3d 543, 547 (4th Cir. 2009) (holding that the petitioner’s release from prison did not moot his collateral challenge to his sentence because a favorable appellate decision could “affect the length of his parole”); Richards v. United States, 212 F.2d 453, 454 (D.C. Cir. 1954) (holding that defendant’s collateral challenge to the lower end of his sentencing range was not moot, even though defendant had already served more than that lower end, because “there is some possibility” that having a longer minimum sentence “may in some indirect way affect him adversely in the future”).

I am not alone in my view that an injustice continues by declaring this matter now moot. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit, the only circuit that appears to have squarely addressed the issue, refused to find mootness in analogous circumstances, holding that a petitioner may collaterally challenge his original sentence, notwithstanding that the challenged sentence was commuted during the course of litigating that collateral challenge, when the commuted sentence exceeds the mandatory minimum the petitioner would face if he prevailed on his collateral challenge.  See Simpson v. Battaglia, 458 F.3d 585, 595 (7th Cir. 2006); Madej v. Briley, 371 F.3d 898, 899 (7th Cir. 2004).  In Simpson, for example, after the petitioner filed a habeas petition challenging his death sentence, the Governor of Illinois commuted the petitioner’s sentence from death to life imprisonment without parole. 458 F.3d at 595.  Like the government does here, the State argued that the commutation rendered the petitioner’s collateral challenge to his sentence nonjusticiable, and therefore moot, because of the petitioner’s decreased sentence and “the executive nature of his confinement.” Id.  The Seventh Circuit rejected both arguments, explaining that because the petitioner would face a mandatory minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment if he prevailed on his collateral attack, as opposed to the life sentence imposed by the Governor, “it [wa]s possible for [the petitioner] to obtain relief, and his sentencing claims [we]re not moot.” Id. Put differently, “[a] full remedy for the constitutional shortcoming at the original sentencing hearing entails allowing [the petitioner] to seek that lower sentence now.” Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting Madej, 371 F.3d at 899).

I presume Raymond Surratt could opt to seek Supreme Court review of the Fourth Circuit's decision that his collateral challenge to his old/new sentence is moot. But, ironically, the Fourth Circuit's mootness claim may arguably get stronger in the very process of cert review, at least functionally if not legally, because Surratt likely will have finished serving his 200 months in federal prison by the time the Supreme Court could get around to taking up and hearing Surratt's challenge to the Fourth Circuit's mootness conclusion.

April 27, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sixth Circuit to review en banc Ohio's execution protocol ... on a pace likely to preclude executions for at least a few more months

As indicated in this short order, yesterday the Sixth Circuit announced that it would be rehearing en banc the State of Ohio's appeal of the lower court stay issued earlier this year which blocked Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  A few weeks ago, a divided three-judge panel upheld the trial court's stay, but now the full Sixth Circuit (apparently absent one recused judge) will hear oral argument on these matters on June 14.

One key issue in the Ohio lethal injection litigation concerns that state's plan to use midazolam as the first drug in the execution process.  The apparent recent success that Arkansas has had with a similar protocol using midazolam now seems likely to be part of the discussion and debate before the full Sixth Circuit.

Because the lower court stay remains in place as the full Sixth Circuit take up this issue, Ohio's Gov Kasich is certainly going to have to reschedule at least two slated executions.  As detailed on this Execution Schedule page from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, Ronald Phillips is currently scheduled for execution on May 10, and another inmate has a June 13 execution date.  Though it seems likely the en banc Sixth Circuit will seek to rule not long after it hears oral argument (and it usually makes sense to assume that a vote for en banc review will lead to a different outcome than the prior panel decision), I am not sure it would be wise for Ohio to assume it will have an execution green light by its July 26 execution date.

As the Ohio DRC execution page details, Ohio has already scheduled executions for 33 Ohio inmates(!) running all the way through 2021(!).  So if the Sixth Circuit (and ultimately the Supreme Court) eventually upholds the state's latest execution protocol, Ohio could be on a path to having more executions in the next few years than perhaps any and every other state in the nation.

Prior recent related posts:

April 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oklahoma commission recommends continued moratorium on executions due to "volume and seriousness of the flaws" in state's capital punishment system

Report-of-the-OK-DP-Review-Commn_April-2015-1As reported in this local article, "two years after the state of Oklahoma last carried out an execution, a commission spearheaded by former Gov. Brad Henry has recommended extending a current moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma."  Here is more:

"Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma's capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished," Henry said in a news release.

Executions in Oklahoma have been on hold since Oct. 1, 2015, the day after Richard Glossip received his third stay of execution because the Oklahoma Department of Corrections did not have the right drugs as specified in the DOC’s lethal injection protocol. A multicounty grand jury issued a highly critical report nearly a year ago related to multiple agencies’ handling of Glossip’s case and the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner, and it doesn’t appear as though anyone involved is any closer to being able to resume the use of capital punishment.

The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission had 10 full-day meetings, held numerous conference calls, commissioned independent studies and conducted interviews with people from all sides of the issue, including with family members of people who were wrongfully convicted. "Many of the findings of the Commission's investigation were disturbing and led members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death," Henry said in the release.

The commission is making 40 recommendations to address systemic problems in forensics, innocence protection, the execution process, and the roles of the prosecution, defense, jury and judiciary, according to the news release.

The full report from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission runs nearly 300 pages and is available at this link.  Here is a passages from the report's executive summary:

In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the death penalty be extended.

The Commission did not come to this decision lightly. While some Commission members had disagreements with some of the recommendations contained in this report, there was consensus on each of the recommendations.  Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished.

Many of the findings of the Commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death. Commission members agreed that, at a minimum, those who are sentenced to death should receive this sentence only after a fair and impartial process that ensures they deserve the ultimate penalty of death.  To be sure, the United States Supreme Court has emphasized that the death penalty should be applied only to “the worst of the worst.”  Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions.  These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma.

April 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"An Indigent Criminal Defendant is Entitled to 'An Expert of His Own'"

The title of this post is the title of this short and timely new piece authored by Fredrick Vars now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court yesterday (April 24, 2017) heard the case of an Alabama death row inmate, James McWilliams. A thus far overlooked argument could save his life and help level the playing field in other capital cases. The Court in 1985 promised independent expertise. Now is its chance to make good on that promise.

For more on the issue presented and SCOTUS oral argument in McWilliams v. Dunn, folks can check out this recent SCOTUSblog posting by Amy Howe titled "Argument analysis: Nine justices, with five votes for death row inmate?" and/or this new Slate commentary by Dahlia Lithwick titled "Back at the Supreme Court, After Garland: It’s strange being back in this place, and stranger still to hear them debate lunacy."

April 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Capital procedure day at SCOTUS .... perhaps from early morning until late at night thanks to Arkansas

The Supreme Court this morning is hearing oral argument in two capital cases.  Here are the basics and previews via SCOTUSblog:

McWilliams v. Dunn

Issue: Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.

Argument preview: What kind of help does the Constitution require for defendants in capital cases?

Davila v. Davis:

Issue: Issue: Whether the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, that ineffective state habeas counsel can be seen as cause to overcome the procedural default of a substantial ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, also applies to procedurally defaulted, but substantial, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.

Argument preview: Another Texas capital case raising a nested ineffective assistance of counsel issue 

Meanwhile, as detailed in this AP report, two condemned inmates scheduled to be executed tonight in Arkansas have been pressing unsuccessfully a variety of claims in an effort to halt their executions.  Here are the basics on two cases now all but certain to be before the Justices of the Supreme Court in some posture before the night is over:

Two Arkansas inmates scheduled to be put to death Monday in what could be the nation's first double execution in more than 16 years asked an appeals court on Sunday to halt their lethal injections because of poor health that could cause complications. Lawyers for Jack Jones and Marcel Williams asked the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday to grant them stays of execution.

Jones' lawyers say he suffers from diabetes and is on insulin, has high blood pressure, neuropathy and had one leg amputated below the knee. He is on heavy doses of methadone and gabapentin. They say he may be resistant to the lethal injection drug midazolam because of the drugs he is taking for his maladies and could suffer a "tortuous death." Lawyers for Williams say he weighs 400 pounds and it will be difficult to find a vein for lethal injunction, so the drugs are unlikely to work as intended.

The state said the appeals are just delaying tactics and should be denied. It was not clear when the appeals court will rule....

Also on Sunday, two lower court federal judges ruled against inmates in separate cases. Judge Kristine Baker denied a request from several inmates, including Jones and Williams, that the rules for witnesses to view the executions be changed. Judge J. Leon Holmes denied a stay of execution for Williams saying that the matter should be dealt with by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, because the inmate had already been appealed to the higher court.

Jones and Marcel Williams are scheduled to die on Monday and another inmate, Kenneth Williams, is set for execution Thursday. Both Jones and Williams have admitted they are guilty. Williams was sent to death row in 1994 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson. Jones was given the death penalty for the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips.

April 24, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting final phrase in Justice Breyer's latest pitch for SCOTUS to consider whether whether capital punishment is now unconstitutional

Via a dissent in Glossip v. Gross back in 2015, Justice Breyer explained at great length why he thought "it is now time to reopen the question" of "whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."  Since that time, Justice Breyer has made a fairly regular habit of dissenting or commenting on the denial of certiorari in capital cases with administrative problems along the lines he stressed in his Glossip dissent.  Today's SCOTUS order list includes another such statement by Justice Breyer in Smith v. Ryan, a case that involves a prisoner who has been on death row in Arizona for more than 40 years.  Here is a paragraph from the heart of Justice Breyer's statement that captures the essence of many of his capital statements since Glossip:

What legitimate purpose does it serve to hold any human being in solitary confinement for 40 years awaiting execution?  What does this case tell us about a capital punishment system that, in my view, works in random, virtually arbitrary ways?  I have previously explored these matters more systematically, coming to the conclusion that this Court should hear argument as to whether capital punishment as currently practiced is consistent with the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  Amdt. 8. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting).  The facts and circumstances of Smith’s case reinforce that conclusion.

Because statements by Justice Breyer like this one have become fairly common, I would not have blogged about this latest effort save for one little phrase in Justice Breyer's final sentence that struck me as new and unusual.  Here is the final sentence with my emphasis added on the phrase that caught my attention:

Smith’s confinement reinforces the need for this Court, or other courts, to consider in an appropriate case the underlying constitutional question.

I took a quick look at some other capital case statements from this Term by Justice Breyer and did not see this "other courts" phrase anywhere in his prior calls for the Supreme Court to take up the constitutionality of capital punishment.  I suspect that Justice Breyer has now come fully to realize, perhaps due in part to the new addition of Justice Gorsuch, that he is not going to be able to cajole his colleagues into taking up the constitutionality of capital punishment on their own and now the issue will likely get before SCOTUS only if a lower court takes up the issue in a bold, high-profile way.

I suspect I am reading way too much into three words in a little single Justice statement concerning the denial of cert.  Still, especially with talk of a new SCOTUS vacancy this summer, I do not think I am wrong to view the next few months and years as a potential turning point in the history of capital punishment in the US.  Justice Breyer has demonstrated his interest in playing a central role in defining the future of the death penalty, and this latest little statement perhaps reflects a realization that his window of opportunity to do so may be closing.

April 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Virginia Gov commutes death sentence of defendant who has claimed innocence in murder-for-hire crime

As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, a 38-year-old man who was set to be executed Tuesday in the murder-for-hire of his former girlfriend." Here is more:

Teleguz has maintained his innocence in the 2001 slaying of 20-year-old Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in Harrisonburg.  His lawyers have argued that two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, calling his guilt into question.  Multiple courts have deemed those recantations unreliable, and the man who killed Sipe has never wavered in saying that Teleguz paid him to commit the murder.

McAuliffe said Thursday that while he believes Teleguz is guilty, the sentencing phase of his trial was “terribly flawed and unfair.”  Teleguz will now serve life in prison without a chance of parole.

In their clemency petition, attorneys for Teleguz stressed that jurors were falsely told that Teleguz also was involved in a Pennsylvania murder — but that purported killing never occurred. Prosecutors pointed to testimony of that supposed crime as evidence that Teleguz “solves problems” with murder.  “The jury acted on false information,” McAuliffe said.

In making his decision, McAuliffe said he reviewed over 6,000 pages of documents, including letters from Sipe’s family.  He called her relatives before his news conference Thursday afternoon.  “My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe,” he said, “but the Virginia Constitution and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act.”

McAuliffe personally opposes the death penalty, citing his Catholic faith. But this marks the first time he has commuted a death sentence.  As governor, he has presided over three executions, and at the behest of correctional officials he has pushed for more secrecy in the lethal injection process....

Teleguz’s plea for a commutation attracted high-profile support, including from billionaire Richard Branson and former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.

Investigators and Sipe’s family, however, are confident of Teleguz’s guilt.  “There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister,” Sipe's sister, Jennifer Tilley, told the Harrisonburg television station WHSV last week.  “And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life.”...

The last time a Virginia governor commuted a death sentence was in 2008, when then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) stopped the execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton. Kaine commuted Walton’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton was mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.

Prior related post:

April 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

After Monday stays, Arkansas officials seemingly on path to complete next pair of scheduled executions... OR NOT, as updated below....

As reported in this new AP piece, "two Arkansas inmates set to die this week in a double execution filed more legal challenges Wednesday, but so far the pair is hitting roadblocks as a judge weighs a new attempt to prevent the state from using one of its lethal injection drugs in what would be the state's first executions in nearly a dozen years."  Here is more about the continuing litigation as the next set of execution dates approach:

Unless a court steps in, Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night, and state prison officials have already moved them from death row to the nearby prison that houses the death chamber. It's the second time this week that Arkansas has moved forward with what originally had been a plan to execute eight men before April 30, when its supply of the drug midazolam expires.

On Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the executions of two men set to die that night. A third man has received a stay from a federal judge over issues with his clemency schedule. Five inmates still face execution over the next two weeks, and they've filed a series of court challenges in hopes of stopping that.

The latest request, filed Wednesday, asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take the inmates' case that challenges the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. It's one of three drugs Arkansas plans to use in its executions. In 2015, justices upheld Oklahoma's execution protocol that used the same drug. "As pharmaceutical companies become increasingly resistant to allowing their products to be used in executions, states are likely to continue experimenting with new drugs and drug combinations, and death-row prisoners may challenge these new protocols as violating their constitutional rights," the filing before the U.S. Supreme Court said.

The Arkansas attorney general's office countered in a court filing Wednesday that the inmates' request was a last-minute effort to "manipulate the judicial process."...

Another case that could trip up Arkansas' plan was filed Tuesday by the medical supplier McKesson Corp., which says it sold the drug vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Correction for inmate medical care, not executions. The company sued to stop Arkansas from using the drug in the planned lethal injections, and a hearing over that issue was underway in Little Rock on Wednesday afternoon.

A state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug last year in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did. In text messages from Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.

Lee and Johnson both faced setbacks Tuesday in their quest to get more DNA tests on evidence in hopes of proving their innocence. Lee claims tests of blood and hair evidence that could prove he didn't beat 26-year-old Debra Reese to death during a 1993 robbery in Jacksonville. Johnson claims that advanced DNA techniques could show that he didn't kill Carol Heath, a 25-year-old mother of two, in 1993 at her southwest Arkansas apartment....

"It is understandable that the inmates are taking every step possible to avoid the sentence of the jury; however, it is the court's responsibility to administer justice and bring conclusion to litigation," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday in an emailed statement. "It is that process that we are seeing played out day by day, and we expect it to continue."

UPDATE: This new Washington Post article, headlined "Arkansas courts stay execution, block state from using lethal injection drug," reports on why I reported too soon on the latest execution plans in Arkansas. Here are the latest details:

Arkansas courts on Wednesday dealt another pair of blows to the state’s plans to resume executions Thursday night, the latest in a series of legal rulings imperiling the scheduled flurry of lethal injections.

In one case, a state court halted an execution scheduled for Thursday night, while a state judge separately barred the use of a lethal injection drug, potentially blocking all of the planned executions.

The rulings come as Arkansas, seeking to carry out its first executions since 2005, has become the epicenter of capital punishment in the United States because of its frantic schedule. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) originally scheduled eight executions in 11 days, an unprecedented pace, which drew national scrutiny and criticism....

After the first planned executions were halted, Arkansas officials pointed to legal victories they won the same day and vowed to press on with them, beginning with two scheduled for Thursday night. “There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners,” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) said in a statement after the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request to allow one execution to proceed Monday. “The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority.”

Challenges to the executions are not only being brought by the inmates. McKesson, the country’s largest drug distributor, said a court on Wednesday granted its request for a temporary restraining order keeping Arkansas from using a drug the company says was obtained under false pretenses. The judge issued a verbal order from the bench, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; no injunction was filed in court records by early Wednesday night. A spokesman for Rutledge did not immediately have a comment on this order, but it is expected that she would appeal to the state Supreme Court....

The Arkansas Supreme Court also stopped one specific execution set for Thursday, saying just over 24 hours before it was scheduled to occur that it was staying it without explanation. In its order, the state Supreme Court narrowly blocked the execution of Stacey E. Johnson, 47, who has been on death row since 1994. The court said Johnson should be allowed to press on with his motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a woman brutally killed in her home.

Three justices dissented from the decision, with all three joining in a dissent saying the stay in this case “gives uncertainty to any case ever truly being final in the Arkansas Supreme Court.”...

Johnson is one of two inmates facing execution Thursday night. The other, Ledell Lee, has appealed his execution, arguing that he has an intellectual disability and seeking to prove his innocence. Both men are also among a group of death-row inmates who have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the executions, one of several legal battles being waged between the state and the inmates.

April 19, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

SCOTUS rules against federal defendant on appeal procedures in Manrique

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion on federal appellate procedure this morning in Manrique v. US, No. 15-7250 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here).  Here is how the opinion for the Court by Justice Thomas gets started:

Sentencing courts are required to impose restitution as part of the sentence for specified crimes.  But the amount to be imposed is not always known at the time of sentencing.  When that is the case, the court may enter an initial judgment imposing certain aspects of a defendant’s sentence, such as a term of imprisonment, while deferring a determination of the amount of restitution until entry of a later, amended judgment.

We must decide whether a single notice of appeal, filed between the initial judgment and the amended judgment, is sufficient to invoke appellate review of the later determined restitution amount.  We hold that it is not, at least where, as here, the Government objects to the defendant’s failure to file a notice of appeal following the amended judgment.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissents in a brief opinion that is focused on the case facts and asserts that "even assuming, arguendo, that separate appeal notices are ordinarily required, I would hold that Manrique is not barred from appealing the restitution order in the circumstances of this case."

April 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS rules 7-1 that due process precludes requiring defendant to prove innocence by clear and convincing evidence to recover assessments after invalidated conviction

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable due process decision in Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15–1256 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:

When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction?  Our answer is yes.  Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence.  This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process....

Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.

Justice Alito concurs separately, because in his view "Medina’s historical inquiry, not Mathews [the modern due process balancing test applied by the majority], provides the proper framework for use in these cases." Justice Alito's extended opinion provides a distinct account of the problem with Colorado's procedures.

Justice Thomas dissents in an opinion that is founded on the view that "petitioners have not demonstrated that defendants whose convictions have been reversed possess a substantive entitlement, under either state law or the Constitution, to recover money they paid to the State pursuant to their convictions. "

April 19, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

US District Court finds multiple constitutional problems with local banishment of sex offenders

As reported in this local article from Wisconsin, a "federal judge Monday found unconstitutional Pleasant Prairie’s initial ordinance that largely banned registered child sex offenders from residing in the village."  Here is more about the context and the US District Court's ruling:

The village amended its ordinance three months after the offenders filed suit in June 2016, but U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller ruled that did not make moot the issues the offenders raised with the first ordinance.

In granting summary judgment to the nine plaintiffs, Stadtmueller found the village imposed restrictions on where the offenders could live without considering any studies or data regarding the safety risk that posed to other residents. “The village has admitted that the ordinance was based on its own conjecture about the dangers posed by sex offenders,” Stadtmueller wrote in the 19-page order.

Village Administrator Michael Pollocoff testified in a deposition that the ordinance’s goal was to reduce the number of child sex offenders living in the village. The ordinance may be counterproductive to citizen safety, as Pollocoff admitted that turning child sex offenders into outcasts had “more deleterious (or harmful) impacts.”...

Stadtmueller rejected the village’s claim that the new ordinance made a suit challenging the old one moot, stating the plaintiffs’ claims that they suffered stress as a result of the threat posed by the initial ordinance, the fear of homelessness and the difficulties in attempting to find a new residence. The plaintiffs can pursue damages on those claims at trial, which Stadtmueller set for May 15.

Mark Weinberg, a Chicago attorney who filed the suit, called the decision uncommon and important. “There are a lot of other communities in Kenosha County with similar ordinances. I hope this decision will encourage them to re-evaluate theirs,” he said.

Weinberg has a similar suit against the city of Kenosha ordinance pending in federal court, which he said “is more restrictive” than Pleasant Prairie’s initial ordinance. That suit is still in the discovery stage, he said....

Pollocoff acknowledged that the village amended its initial ordinance in response to the suit Weinberg brought and that no sex offenders had been cited under the ordinance.

The amended ordinance lowered the 3,000-foot prohibited zone to 1,500 feet, which still makes 60 percent of the village and 75 percent of the residences off limits to offenders.

The full ruling in this case can be downloaded here:  Download Stadtmueller SJ decison Pleasant Prairie

April 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Courts Are Using AI to Sentence Criminals. That Must Stop Now."

The title of this post is the headline of this new WIRED commentary authored by Jason Tashea. Here are excerpts:

Currently, courts and corrections departments around the US use algorithms to determine a defendant’s “risk”, which ranges from the probability that an individual will commit another crime to the likelihood a defendant will appear for his or her court date.  These algorithmic outputs inform decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole.  Each tool aspires to improve on the accuracy of human decision-making that allows for a better allocation of finite resources.

Typically, government agencies do not write their own algorithms; they buy them from private businesses.  This often means the algorithm is proprietary or “black boxed”, meaning only the owners, and to a limited degree the purchaser, can see how the software makes decisions.  Currently, there is no federal law that sets standards or requires the inspection of these tools, the way the FDA does with new drugs.

This lack of transparency has real consequences. In the case of Wisconsin v. Loomis, defendant Eric Loomis was found guilty for his role in a drive-by shooting.  During intake, Loomis answered a series of questions that were then entered into Compas, a risk-assessment tool developed by a privately held company and used by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.  The trial judge gave Loomis a long sentence partially because of the “high risk” score the defendant received from this black box risk-assessment tool.  Loomis challenged his sentence, because he was not allowed to assess the algorithm.  Last summer, the state supreme court ruled against Loomis, reasoning that knowledge of the algorithm’s output was a sufficient level of transparency.

By keeping the algorithm hidden, Loomis leaves these tools unchecked.  This is a worrisome precedent as risk assessments evolve from algorithms that are possible to assess, like Compas, to opaque neural networks. Neural networks, a deep learning algorithm meant to act like the human brain, cannot be transparent because of their very nature. Rather than being explicitly programmed, a neural network creates connections on its own. This process is hidden and always changing, which runs the risk of limiting a judge’s ability to render a fully informed decision and defense counsel’s ability to zealously defend their clients....

[H]ow does a judge weigh the validity of a risk-assessment tool if she cannot understand its decision-making process? How could an appeals court know if the tool decided that socioeconomic factors, a constitutionally dubious input, determined a defendant’s risk to society?  Following the reasoning in Loomis, the court would have no choice but to abdicate a part of its responsibility to a hidden decision-making process.

Already, basic machine-learning techniques are being used in the justice system.  The not-far-off role of AI in our courts creates two potential paths for the criminal justice and legal communities: Either blindly allow the march of technology to go forward, or create a moratorium on the use of opaque AI in criminal justice risk assessment until there are processes and procedures in place that allow for a meaningful examination of these tools.  The legal community has never fully discussed the implications of algorithmic risk assessments.  Now, attorneys and judges are grappling with the lack of oversight and impact of these tools after their proliferation.

To hit pause and create a preventative moratorium would allow courts time to create rules governing how AI risk assessments should be examined during trial.  It will give policy makers the window to create standards and a mechanism for oversight.  Finally, it will allow educational and advocacy organizations time to teach attorneys how to handle these novel tools in court.  These steps can reinforce the rule of law and protect individual rights.

As noted in this prior post, the Loomis case is right now pending before the US Supreme Court with a pending SCOTUS request for a brief from the Acting Solicitor General concerning a possible cert grant. And here are some prior related posts on Loomis case:

April 18, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Split Second Circuit panel declares within-guideline child porn possession sentence of 225 months "substantively unreasonable"

A dozen years after Booker, the reversal of any federal sentence as substantively unreasonable is still quite rare and notable. Today, a Second Circuit panel has issued such a rare and notable decision in US v. Jenkinss, No. 14-4295 (2d Cir. April 17, 2017) (available here). Here are excerpts from the start and heart of the majority opinion:

A jury found Joseph Vincent Jenkins guilty of one count of possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and one count of transportation of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(1), based on the government’s proof at trial that Jenkins owned a collection of child pornography and brought it across the U.S.-Canada border on the way to a family vacation for his personal viewing.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Glenn T. Suddaby, Chief Judge) imposed concurrent sentences of 120 months for the possession count, the statutory maximum, and 225 months for the transportation count, just below the statutory maximum of 240 months. The court also imposed a term of 25 years of supervised release. Jenkins challenges his conviction and the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence....

Here, § 2G2.2 yielded a sentence that derived substantially from “outdated” enhancements related to Jenkins’s collecting behavior.  Meanwhile, the government has not alleged that he was involved in the production or distribution of child pornography or that he was involved in any child pornography community.  In particular, the government did not claim he used peer-to-peer sharing software, distributed images, or participated in chat rooms devoted to child pornography.  Nor does the government allege that he contacted or attempted to contact a child or that he engaged in any “sexually dangerous behavior” separate from his crimes of conviction.  Thus, here, as in Dorvee, § 2G2.2 cannot “bear the weight assigned it” because the cumulation of repetitive, all-but-inherent, enhancements yielded, and the district court applied, a Guideline range that failed to distinguish between Jenkins’s conduct and other offenders whose conduct was far worse.  Cavera, 550 F.3d at 191. It was substantively unreasonable for the district court to have applied the § 2G2.2 enhancements in a way that placed Jenkins at the top of the range with the very worst offenders where he did not belong.

The full majority opinion in Jenkins has lots of substantive sentencing review discussion that defies easy summary and that merits review by anyone deeply engaged in post-Booker sentencing and appeals.  In addition, Judge Kearse has a small dissenting opinion which highlights the defendant's aggressive disagreement with his prosecution and concludes this way:

Given this record in which Jenkins, inter alia, disputed any justification or authority for prosecuting him, and argued that instead the children who were victims of the child pornography should have been prosecuted, the district court's concern for the likelihood that, without a lengthy prison term, Jenkins would re-offend was not unreasonable, and I cannot conclude that the imposition of the prison term that was no higher than midway between the top and bottom of the Guidelines range "cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions."

April 17, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)