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 (3)

"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)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Three Reasons Why Virginia May Execute an Innocent Man"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by LawProf Cara Drinan.  Here are excerpts:

In 2006, a jury convicted Ivan Teleguz of hiring someone to kill Stephanie Sipe, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. Now, more than a decade later, Virginia is scheduled to execute Teleguz on April 25, 2017, and there is substantial evidence suggesting that Teleguz is innocent.

How is that possible in the United States – the land of the free, where a poor person is entitled to legal counsel and a criminal defendant has numerous chances to be heard in court? Actually, it happens with some ease, and in part, it happens because of conscious choices we have made about our legal system. There are at least three reasons for this counter-intuitive reality.

1. Prosecutors, Not Judges or Juries, Resolve Most Criminal Cases in America ...

Teleguz’s case demonstrates this phenomenon well. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder of Ms. Sipe; the prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of three witnesses. Since his trial, two of those witnesses have recanted their testimony and have admitted that they lied when they implicated Teleguz in exchange for favorable treatment from the government. The Commonwealth repeatedly told the third witness, Ms. Sipe’s actual killer, that he would face the death penalty unless he “cooperated” with them by agreeing to testify against Teleguz in Ms. Sipe’s murder and sticking to that story. Not surprisingly, he did just that and he is serving out a life sentence while Teleguz faces imminent death.

2. The Myth of the Right to Counsel ...

Teleguz suffered at the hands of a broken system. Counsel in death penalty cases are held to a heightened standard of performance, and as part of that standard, they are expected to conduct extensive, careful investigation to prepare for the sentencing phase of the trial. Teleguz’s trial counsel was far from diligent, and as a result, the jury heard evidence that Teleguz was involved in another arranged murder. This evidence persuaded the jury to vote for the death penalty. Here’s the wrinkle: not only was Teleguz not involved in such a crime, the crime never happened. Years after his trial, that fact came to light, and the government has now acknowledged that the alleged prior murder did not happen. But the jury verdict stands.

3. Not So Appealing Appeals Process ...

Surely, the multi-layered appellate process would ferret out an error of this magnitude and provide a remedy? Not necessarily. In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) and in the process “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” Today, the American appellate process is an intricate web of procedural rules, and, in fact, "we have purposefully designed our system of appellate review to examine almost everything but factual guilt or innocence."

That might be defensible if we could be confident in the accuracy of our criminal justice system, but we can’t be. Since 1989, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations in the United States.  In 2015 alone, 58 people were exonerated of homicide convictions. Like many of those individuals, Teleguz has consistently maintained his innocence. Today there is new evidence to support that claim that no court has fully examined.

In the next few days, Governor Terry McAuliffe can’t do much about prosecutorial overreach, problems with indigent defense, and the complex appellate process.  But he can recognize that, because of these systemic failures, there is substantial doubt about Teleguz’s guilt. Governor McAuliffe should grant clemency and stop Teleguz’s execution.

This recent AP article, headlined "Conservatives urge Virginia governor to spare inmate's life," highlights that it is not only a law professor urging Gov McAuliffe to act in this capital case.

UPDATE: A commentor has usefully noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion in this case, which is available here, provides a different perspective on this case and Teleguz's claims of innocence.

April 13, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Saturday, April 08, 2017

"Cruel Techniques, Unusual Secrets"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by William Berry and Meghan Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In the recent case of Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court denied a death row petitioner’s challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol.  An important part of Justice Alito’s majority opinion highlighted the existence of a relationship between the constitutionality of a punishment and the requirement of a constitutional technique available to administer the punishment.

Far from foreclosing future challenges, this principle ironically highlights the failure of the Court to describe the relationship under the Eighth Amendment between three distinct categories of punishment: (1) the type of punishment imposed by the court — i.e., death penalty, life without parole, life with parole, (2) the method of punishment — the tool by which the state administers the punishment, and (3) the technique of punishment — the manner in which the state administers the punishment.  Because, as Justice Alito insists, a constitutional method and technique must exist for a constitutionally approved punishment, there is a constitutional relationship between these categories.

As such, this Article articulates a holistic model for applying the Eighth Amendment on three levels — the punishment type, method, and technique.  This Article develops this taxonomy, making explicit the concepts implicit in a number of Eighth Amendment cases.  To be sure, the Court has assessed types of punishments, punishment methods, and punishment techniques individually, but it has never offered a holistic framework by which to understand these related constitutional inquiries.  This Article develops such an approach.

In light of the applicable framework, the Article then explores the Court’s application of the Eighth Amendment with respect to the three categories, demonstrating how the Court deviates from its doctrine when considering punishment techniques.  It next describes use of secrecy in the context of lethal injection, uncovering the manner in which this secrecy frustrates the application of the Eighth Amendment framework.  Further, the Article argues that the state-instigated secrecy does more than create a doctrinal smokescreen — it raises serious constitutional and legitimacy questions concerning lethal injection protocols.  Finally, the Article concludes by exploring what transparency in execution methods might mean both in terms of restoring dignity to death row prisoners and for the future of capital punishment in America.

April 8, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, April 07, 2017

"Who are the Punishers?"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Raff Donelson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment is a list of deeds not to be done, but it does not say who is not to do them.  This Article specifically examines whom the Eighth Amendment bars from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.  The Supreme Court has thus far applied the Eighth Amendment to a narrow class of parties, consisting of just legislatures, criminal courts, and those who execute punishment such as prison officials.  Under the framework presented in this Article, the class of potential punishers should be much wider.  Those who work in jails and other detention centers, public and private school officials, and even parents of juveniles should be considered potential punishers for Eighth Amendment purposes.

April 7, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Arizona law requiring defendant to prove lack of sexual intent for contact with child

A helpful reader alerted me to this new Slate article, headlined "Federal Judge Rules Arizona’s Diaper Changing Child Molestation Law Is Unconstitutional," reporting on a notable new federal district court ruling concerning a remarkable Arizona criminal law. The start of the Slate article provides the background and links to relevant rulings:

Last September, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a stunning decision interpreting the state’s child molestation law to criminalize any contact between an adult and a child’s genitals. In a 3–2 decision, the court found that the law encompassed entirely innocent conduct, such as changing or bathing a baby.  Arizona, the court held, could convict an adult for touching an infant’s genitals — which carries a prison sentence of five years — without proving sexual intent.  Instead, under the law, the accused had the burden of proving that he had no sexual intent to a jury and by a preponderance of the evidence.  As the dissenters noted, the ruling turned “parents and other caregivers” in the state into “child molesters or sex abusers under Arizona law.”

Reason, however, has now prevailed. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Arizona statute, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, is unconstitutional. In a lengthy decision, U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake cogently explained why the law violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, vindicating the two justices who dissented on those grounds in September.  He also reminded Arizona that parents have a constitutional right to care for their children — a right the state may not interfere with by criminalizing hygienic care.

The basic flaw in the Arizona law is pretty conspicuous. According to the statute, an individual is guilty of child molestation if he “intentionally or knowingly … touch[es] … any part of the genitals, anus or female breast” of a child “under fifteen years of age.”  Notice something strange there?  Despite calling itself a child molestation statute, the law does not require the “touching” to be sexual. Thus, a caregiver who “intentionally or knowingly” touches an infant’s genitals while changing his diaper is clearly guilty of violating the law. No other state save Hawaii does not require sexual intent for a child molestation offense.

Arizona defended its statute by noting that the defendant could still assert “lack of sexual motivation” as an “affirmative defense” at trial — requiring him to prove his benign intent “by a preponderance of the evidence.”  The Arizona Supreme Court was satisfied with this loophole, holding that it rendered the law constitutional.  Wake was not so easily fooled. Under the Due Process Clause, Wake noted, the government carries the burden of proving each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yet the Arizona law shifts the burden onto the defendant, forcing him to disprove “the very thing that makes child molestation child molestation.”

That requirement, Wake explained, “violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Due process does not permit Arizona “to remove the essential wrongfulness in child molestation and place the burden of disproving it upon people engaged in a wide range of acts, the vast majority of which no one could believe the state meant to punish.”  Indeed, Arizona cannot lawfully punish “the vast majority” of conduct swept up by the statute.  The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the Due Process Clause “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.”  Therefore, Wake concluded, Arizona may not criminalize “constitutionally protected … innocent conduct” such as “diapering and bathing infants.”

April 6, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Split Sixth Circuit panel uphold injunction blocking Ohio lethal injection protocol

A split Sixth Circuit panel today In re: Ohio Execution Protocol, No. 17-3076 (6th Cir. April 6, 2017) (available here), upheld a preliminary injunction blocking Ohio from moving forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here is how the majority opinion authored by Judge Moore gets started:

Ohio’s current execution protocol allows for execution by lethal injection using a three-drug combination of (1) midazolam; (2) either vecuronium bromide, pancuronium bromide, or rocuronium bromide, which are paralytics; and (3) potassium chloride, which stops the heart.  R. 667-1 (Ohio DRC Execution Protocol, 01- COM-11 at 2) (Page ID #19813).  The purpose of the first drug is to ensure that the person being executed is insensate to the pain that the second two drugs cause. It is undisputed that if the first drug does not “render the prisoner unconscious,” then “there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation . . . and pain” from the second two drugs. Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 53 (2008) (plurality op.).  The ultimate question in this case is whether use of midazolam as the first drug in this three-drug protocol “entails a substantial risk of severe pain” as compared to “a known and available alternative.”  Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2731 (2015). The question before us at this preliminary stage, however, is much narrower.  We ask only whether the district court abused its discretion by granting a preliminary injunction to allow for further litigation regarding midazolam’s efficacy before Ohio executes Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, and Gary Otte.  For the reasons discussed below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court granting the preliminary injunction.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge Kethledge gets started:

Roughly two decades have passed since the plaintiffs in this case murdered their victims. Ronald Phillips raped a three-year-old girl and beat her so badly that her internal organs ruptured. For two days she suffered intense abdominal pain and vomiting, until her heart collapsed.  See State v. Phillips, 656 N.E.2d 643, 650-52 (Ohio 1995). Gary Otte entered the home of an Ohio man, robbed him, and then shot him in the head. Two nights later, Otte pushed his way into a woman’s home and did the same things to her.  After each murder Otte went out partying.  See State v. Otte, 660 N.E.2d 711, 715-16 (Ohio 1996).  Raymond Tibbetts killed an elderly man and his caretaker. Police found the man slumped in his chair with butcher knives protruding from his chest and back.  His caretaker lay on the floor in a pool of blood with her skull cracked open and its contents scattered nearby.  See State v. Tibbetts, 749 N.E.2d 226, 237–39 (Ohio 2001).

Phillips, Tibbetts, and Otte now claim that Ohio’s Execution Protocol would cause them to suffer severe pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  In a sense the claim is unprecedented: the Supreme Court “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2732 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The State’s chosen procedure here is the same procedure (so far as the combination of drugs is concerned) that the Supreme Court refused to invalidate in Glossip.  Yet the district court thought we should likely invalidate that procedure, and today the majority agrees.  I respectfully disagree and would reverse the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction.

A lengthy faculty meeting and a coming class mean I will not have a chance to read this extended opinion until late tonight, but I can already confidently predict that the State of Ohio will seek en banc review of this ruling and perhaps even Supreme Court review, if necessary.

April 6, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Arkansas Parole Board recommends clemency for one of eight condemned scheduled for execution later this month

As reported in this AP piece, the "Arkansas Parole Board on Wednesday recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson alter the state's unprecedented execution schedule and grant mercy to a death row inmate who directed the torture and murder of a teenager more than two decades ago." Here is more:

Jason McGehee, 40, is one of eight inmates scheduled to die in four double executions this month. Hutchinson, who is not bound by the board's finding that McGehee should have his sentence cut to life without parole, can intervene at any time before the execution begins on April 27. The Republican governor not said when he will make a decision.

Until Wednesday, the state Parole Board had rejected every death row clemency request presented to it since 1990.

With a key lethal injection drug expiring at the end of the month, the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes to execute eight men in a 10-day period beginning April 17. Only Texas has executed that many inmates in a month, doing it twice in 1997. Seven executions in a month would still be a record for Arkansas.

Prosecutors say McGehee, who had just turned 20, directed the fatal assault of Johnny Melbourne Jr., a 15-year-old who had told police about a northern Arkansas theft ring. In voting 6-1 in favor of McGehee's clemency request, the Parole Board considered letters and testimony from the judge from McGehee's trial, a former Correction Department chief, members of McGehee's family and the victim's father.

"The death of John Melbourne, Jr. was the tragic result of a group-dynamic gone wrong," retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale wrote, according to documents released by the state Parole Board. McGehee was one of several people who participated in the attack, but was the only defendant sentenced to death, and the retired judge called it "an excessive punishment."

Former Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs told the panel at a 40-minute hearing Friday that McGehee had become a model prisoner. "He still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared," Hobbs said.

Linda Christensen, the inmate's aunt, said in an affidavit filed with the board that McGehee suffered psychological abuse as a teenager, such as when his stepfather killed the boy's dog after the dog fought with another dog for food. The stepfather "got up and kicked Dusty in the side with his cowboy boots as hard as he could," Christensen wrote. "He lay and suffered and the kids had to watch him die slowly. ... Jason was never the same after that."

Melbourne's father had asked the board to reject McGehee's clemency request. "John didn't have this. Even though he was begging for his life and was hurting. He didn't have this and he begged for his life too. He didn't have y'all," the elder Melbourne said.

Board Chairman John Felts voted against clemency. He said McGehee's death sentence wasn't excessive considering the inmate had orchestrated the Aug. 19, 1996, attack. The boy was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison, then bound and driven to an abandoned farmhouse outside Omaha, a town in northern Arkansas. He was later strangled while his hands were tied with an electrical cord.

April 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

How many prior sentenced federal prisoners might now have "Dean claims" (assuming Dean is retroactive)?

As reported in this post from yesterday, and as explained a bit more via this write-up I provided to the fine folks at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court yesterday in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here) ruled that the Eighth Circuit had been wrong to hold that, "in calculating the sentence for [a] predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)."  According to the government's briefing in Dean, most of the circuits had also ruled like the Eighth Circuit (incorrectly) on this statutory sentencing issue — though I suspect that, in practice, a number of district courts did not consistently ignore 924(c) mandates when sentencing predicate offenses.

Given this background, I was surprised I did not think of the question in the title of this post until former AUSA Steven Sanders sent me an email with this query: "Any thoughts on whether Dean applies retroactively on 2255, on the (Montgomery) theory that the decision opens up the range of punishment and thus is substantive for Teague purposes?"   Regular readers familiar with my views about finality rules and sentencing errors (basics here, law review article here) should expect me to have plenty of thoughts about Dean retroactivity, most of which center around the view that Dean qualifies as retroactive.  Put simply, Dean seems to me to be a substantive ruling that applies retroactively.

Assuming Dean is retroactive, this recent "Quick Facts" publication from the US Sentencing Commission suggests there could be thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands) of federal prisoners with plausible Dean claims.  Specifically, that publication indicates that, in Fiscal Year 2015, over 1100 federal defendants were convicted under both section 924(c) and another predicate offense not carrying a mandatory minimum, and that the average sentence for this group was over 11 years in prison. Assuming 2015 was a fairly representative year — and the USSC publication actually suggests a larger number of defendants getting longer sentences in prior years — it is possible that well over 10,000 defendants (and maybe many more) could be in federal prison serving sentences that were imposed based on an understanding of applicable sentencing principles that Dean has now disrupted.

For various procedural and practical reasons, I doubt we will see thousands of "Dean resentencings" in the federal courts in the coming months even if thousands of prisoners got sentenced based on the wrong understanding of the applicable laws here.  But I do expect that there will be many more than just a handful or "Dean resentencing" efforts.

April 4, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Could Proposition 66 turn the California Supreme Court into a specialty death penalty appeals court?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined "Trying to speed up executions could deal 'mortal blow' to California Supreme Court." Here are excerpts:

If a November ballot measure to speed up executions goes into effect, the California Supreme Court will have to decide hundreds of death penalty appeals in rapid succession. That mandate would turn the state’s highest court into what analysts say would be “a death penalty court,” forced for years to devote about 90% of its time to capital appeals.

Proposition 66, sponsored by prosecutors and passed by 51% of voters, gave judicial leaders 1½ years to make new legal rules and then five years to decide a crushing backlog of appeals. “Prop. 66 would require the California Supreme Court to decide virtually nothing but death penalty appeals for at least the next five years — almost no civil cases at all and no criminal cases other than capital murder,” said Jon Eisenberg, president of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers.

Legal analysts and four bar associations say the measure would inundate all the courts with extra work but hit the top court’s seven justices hardest.  In a friend-of-the-court brief, 11 law professors and a nonprofit legal center contended Proposition 66 would “grind the wheels of justice to a halt” in California.

Death penalty advocates acknowledge the measure would mean extra work for the courts, but say that it is necessary to fix a system that has produced the largest death row in the country and no executions in more than a decade.  They contend the workload will be tolerable, and that the courts will have some flexibility in meeting the deadlines.

The California Supreme Court is considering whether the measure can go into effect. Two opponents of the measure sued in November, contending it illegally usurped the powers of the judicial branch and violated a constitutional rule that says ballot measures must deal with one subject only. The California Supreme Court put the measure on hold until the justices resolve the case, probably within the next few months.

The appellate lawyers’ academy takes no position on the death penalty but opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would disrupt the courts and prevent litigants in civil matters from having their cases decided in a timely manner. It joined the bar associations of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and San Francisco in a January letter written to the state Supreme Court saying that Proposition 66 “threatens to deal a mortal blow” to California’s courts....

Given a backlog of more than 300 death penalty appeals already at the court, the justices would have to decide at least 66 of them each year for the next several years just to catch up, Eisenberg said. Calculations based on the court’s typical annual production indicate the justices would be spending 90% of their time on capital cases, Eisenberg said. Civil case rulings would decline from about 50 a year to just a handful, he said. “That leaves virtually no time for anything other than death penalty cases,” Eisenberg said....

UC Berkeley's David A. Carrillo, director of a center that studies the California Constitution, described the initiative as a new unfunded mandate. "There is no way the courts can get through the existing backlog in five years with their current resources," Carrillo said.

Law enforcement groups have filed several friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the initiative, arguing that voters have made their will clear. “California voters have elected to retain the death penalty every time the issue has been placed before them,” the leaders of several county prosecutor groups reminded the court in one brief.... “Despite the abiding and long-standing will of the voters, death penalty opponents have used the legal process as a mechanism to frustrate imposition of the death penalty,” the prosecutors argued in their brief.

Kent Scheidegger, who helped write Proposition 66, said the portrait of court chaos predicted by the bar associations and some analysts was overblown. Although the measure would require the California Supreme Court to move quickly to dispatch the backlog of capital appeals, the initiative would also shift initial responsibility for habeas challenges from the high court to trial judges, he noted. That provision, Scheidegger argued, would save the court time.

Rulings by Superior Court judges on those cases would likely be appealed to intermediate appellate courts and up to the state Supreme Court, but Scheidegger said the trial judges would do the heavy lifting. “I know that all judges hate time limits, but I do think that moving the habeas cases is a reform that most of the justices probably would agree with,” said Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the death penalty.

Even if the Supreme Court were to strike down the measure’s deadlines, other requirements of the initiative would still speed up executions, he said. He cited a provision that would limit public review of the state’s lethal injection method. Legal challenges involving the method have kept the execution chamber empty since 2006. Eighteen inmates who have exhausted their appeals could be executed immediately once that part of the initiative took effect, he said.

Former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs and the late former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who filed the lawsuit, argued that the entire measure should be tossed because it violated the rule limiting initiatives to a single subject. In addition to setting new deadlines and easing approval of an execution protocol, Proposition 66 would require death-row inmates to work to pay compensation to victims’ families and bar medical associations from disciplining doctors who participate in executions. It also would place a state agency assigned to represent death row inmates under California Supreme Court control and permit the corrections department to distribute condemned inmates among the general prison population.

I find so many interesting elements to this story, ranging from the telling reality that it has already taken five months to move along litigation about the status of an initiative designed to move along litigation to the interesting conflict created by state Supreme Court judges having to decide a case that will determine whether and how they have to decide a lot more cases a lot more quickly.  In the end, though, this story confirms my long-standing belief that unless and until a lot of elected officials in California start having a very strong interest in moving forward with a large number of executions, the death penalty will exist in the state more as a sentence on paper than as a sentence that actually gets carried out for any significant number of condemned murderers.

April 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Latest SCOTUS order list includes one complicated capital case grant

The Supreme Court via this order list granted cert in two cases, including a capital case out of Texas, Ayestas v. Davis. SCOTUSblog has this case page for Ayestas, where one can find this cert petition, where one can find the complicated question on which cert was granted:

2. Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to investigate and develop an IAC claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the § 3599(f) motion is made.

April 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 02, 2017

"Briefing the Supreme Court: Promoting Science or Myth?"

The title of this post is the title of this new timely essay authored by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court is considering Packingham v. North Carolina, a case testing the constitutionality of a ban on the use of social networking sites by registered sex offenders.  An issue that has arisen in the case is the state’s justification for the ban.  North Carolina and thirteen other states represented in a friend of the court brief make three claims concerning the risk of registered sex offenders: (1) sex offenders have a notoriously high rate of sexual recidivism; (2) sex offenders are typically crossover offenders in having both adult and child victims; and (3) sexual predators commonly use social networking sites to lure children for sexual exploitation purposes.  The collective states contend that these three claims are supported by scientific evidence and common sense.  This Essay explores the reliability of the scientific studies cited in the briefings considering the heteregenous group of registered sex offenders to whom the social networking ban is targeted.

April 2, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Science, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Arkansas trial judge finds it "more than shameful" that state Supreme Court ruling required dismissal of condemned inmates suit over lethal injection

As reported in this local article, headlined "Suit over Arkansas execution drug gets dismissal; Griffen: Justices stole men’s rights," a trial judge in Arkansas is none-too-pleased he felt compelled to dismiss a challenge to lethal injection brought by state prisoners in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling on the matter. Here are the basics of a notable ruling in a state seemingly poised now to conduct eight executions in the coming weeks:

The Arkansas Supreme Court's decision to lift a ban on the death penalty stole the rights of the nine convicted killers who filed suit to challenge the state's execution procedures, and it forces all state courts to continue that theft, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen said in a ruling Tuesday.

"It amounts to theft of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of this state and the Constitution of the United States to a trial," the judge wrote.

The ruling issued Tuesday by Griffen, a former Court of Appeals judge known for his outspokenness, formally ends 21 months of state-court litigation over the legality of the state's execution protocols. Griffen's dismissal of the inmates' Circuit Court lawsuit comes as eight of those inmates face lethal injection next month in four two-per-day execution sessions.

The prisoners have filed two federal lawsuits this week attempting to halt the process. On Tuesday, they sued to stop the ongoing clemency hearings, arguing that the state is moving forward with their executions so quickly that their clemency petitions are not getting the consideration required by law. A federal lawsuit that they filed Monday disputes that the anesthetic midazolam will give them the painless death they are entitled to under constitutional protections that bar the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.

The inmates had disputed the effectiveness of midazolam at preventing suffering as part of their 2015 state-court lawsuit before Griffen. But they were not allowed to present their evidence in court because the Supreme Court ignored "decades" of case law to dismiss their entire lawsuit even before all of the issues the inmates had raised had been decided, Griffen wrote in Tuesday's order and memorandum.

"To think that the highest court in Arkansas would compel every other court in Arkansas to steal the last right condemned persons have to challenge the constitutionality of their execution illustrates the travesty of justice, and the damnable unfairness, this court is powerless to prevent," Griffen wrote.

State lawyers asked Griffen on March 16 to dismiss the killers' lawsuit based on the Supreme Court's June 2016 findings, a 4-3 decision written by Justice Courtney Goodson that reinstated the death penalty after a 10-year hiatus. Arkansas has not carried out an execution since 2005 because of litigation by inmates who have disputed the legality of changes the Legislature has made to the state's execution procedures over the past several years.

On March 17, the inmates' attorneys asked Griffen to rule in their favor on issues in the lawsuit that they stated the Supreme Court holding did not address. But the judge wrote that the Supreme Court decision required him to dismiss the lawsuit.

His 10-page ruling also states that the high court ignored decades of case law to deliberately deny the inmates their rights, and it suggests that the justices violated the oath all attorneys take to uphold the law to reach their conclusions. "It is an affront to, and dereliction of, the very oath every lawyer and judge swore before being admitted by the Supreme Court of this state. As such, it is more than troubling and more than shameful," Griffen wrote.

March 30, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ruling 5-3, SCOTUS rejects Texas effort to limit definition of intellectual disability for death penalty application

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797 (S. Ct. March 28, 2017) (available here), in favor of a capital defendant.  Because I am on the road, I will not be able to provide context for this ruling until later today.  Short story seems to be that the more liberal Justices were not impressed by the more conservative standard Texas courts have used to apply the Atkins and Hall precedents concerning Eighth Amendment limits on executing the intellectually disabled.

UPDATE:  Now with a few minutes at a desktop, I can quote Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court:

Bobby James Moore fatally shot a store clerk during a botched robbery.  He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Moore challenged his death sentence on the ground that he was intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution.  A state habeas court made detailed factfindings and determined that, under this Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), Moore qualified as intellectually disabled. For that reason, the court concluded, Moore’s death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.”  The habeas court therefore recommended that Moore be granted relief.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) declined to adopt the judgment recommended by the state habeas court. In the CCA’s view, the habeas court erroneously employed intellectual-disability guides currently used in the medical community rather than the 1992 guides adopted by the CCA in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1 (2004).  See Ex parte Moore, 470 S.W.3d 481, 486–487 (2015).  The appeals court further determined that the evidentiary factors announced in Briseno “weigh[ed] heavily” against upsetting Moore’s death sentence. 470 S.W.3d at 526.

We vacate the CCA’s judgment.  As we instructed in Hall, adjudications of intellectual disability should be “informed by the views of medical experts.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 19); see id., at ___ (slip op., at 7).  That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus.  Moreover, the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source.  Not aligned with the medical community’s information, and drawing no strength from our precedent, the Briseno factors “creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed,” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 1).  Accordingly, they may not be used, as the CCA used them, to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled.

March 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thanks to voter approval of Prop 57, "California prisons to free 9,500 inmates in 4 years" based on new early-release credit rules

The middle title of this post quotes the title of this new AP article and provides a bit of context.  For more explanation, here is more from the AP article:

Corrections officials adopted new criminal sentencing rules on Friday that aim to trim California’s prison population by 9,500 inmates after four years.

They include steps like reducing inmates’ sentences up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs such as alcohol and substance abuse support groups and counseling, anger management, life skills, victim awareness, restorative justice, and parenting classes. Virtually any inmate except those on death row or those serving life-without-parole sentences is eligible to earn the credits and lower the sentence.

It’s the latest step in a years-long drive to dramatically lower the state’s prison population in response to federal court orders stemming from lawsuits by prison advocates and pressure to turn away from mass incarceration.

The changes follow voters’ approval of Proposition 57 in November. The initiative lets certain felons seek parole more quickly and gave corrections officials broad discretion to grant early release credits. “I think that it’s a monumental change for the organization and I think across the state, across the nation, I don’t think that anybody has altered how they are incarcerating offenders as much as what Prop 57 does,” Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan told The Associated Press.  The goal, he said, is to encourage inmates to start “doing something with their incarceration and not just sitting on their bunks.”

The changes in parole eligibility will take effect April 12 if they win initial approval from state regulators, with final approval by October after a public comment period. The earlier release credits and earlier parole consideration will be phased in starting May 1 while the public review is underway.

Police and particularly prosecutors fought the ballot initiative, arguing that it will release dangerous offenders sometimes years earlier than called for in their sentences. It also will put convicts more quickly into county probation systems that already are stretched. Kernan said he took some of their objections into account, for instance by barring sex offenders and third-strike career criminals from seeking earlier parole.

The changes are projected to eventually lower California’s prison population by about 7 percent and keep the state below the federal court-ordered population of about 116,000 inmates in the 34 adult prisons. The changes also will let the state phase out a long-running program that currently keeps nearly 4,300 inmates in private prisons in other states.

[T]he bulk of the reductions would come from steps like doubling the credits inmates receive for completing education and training programs, to a maximum of three months in any 12-month period, and expanding them to include violent offenders. Inmates would also start getting expanded credits for not violating prison rules starting May 1. That would typically reduce a violent offender’s sentence by 19 days each year, Kernan said, calling the reduction “relatively modest.”

March 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court rejects "categorical Internet blackout" for sex offender

As reported in this local article, headlined "N.J. Supreme Court tosses 'total' internet ban for sex offender," the top court in the Garden State issued a significant ruling yesterday concerning on-line restrictions on sex offenders. Here are the very basics from the press report:

New Jersey's highest court on Tuesday threw out a state-sanctioned ban on internet use for a convicted sex offender, finding it was an arbitrary infringement on the man's rights.

In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court found the state Parole Board had improperly issued a "near-total" internet ban for the man, identified only by the initials J.I., who was subject to lifetime supervision after pleading guilty to charges he sexually abused his three daughters.

Calling internet access a "basic need" of modern life, the justices ruled that state authorities could only revoke it after holding a formal hearing to determine if there was a legitimate public safety reason to do so.

The lengthy ruling in J.I. v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-29-15 (N.J. March 21, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Today, the Internet plays an essential role in the daily lives of most people -- in how they communicate, access news, purchase goods, seek employment, perform their jobs, enjoy entertainment, and function in countless other ways.

Sex offenders on community supervision for life (CSL) may be subject to restrictive Internet conditions at the discretion of the New Jersey State Parole Board (the Parole Board), provided the conditions promote public safety and/or the rehabilitation of the offender.  In this case, the first issue is whether a total Internet ban imposed on a CSL offender was unnecessarily overbroad and oppressive and whether it served any rational penological purpose.  The second issue is whether the Parole Board improperly denied J.I. a hearing to challenge the Internet restrictions that he claims were arbitrarily imposed.

J.I. is a sex offender subject to community supervision for life. After his release from confinement, J.I. was allowed full access to the Internet, with one exception: he could not visit an Internet social networking site without the approval of his District Parole Supervisor.

After J.I. had served thirteen months on community supervision for life without incident, his District Parole Supervisor totally banned his access to the Internet except for employment purposes.  The District Parole Supervisor justified the ban based not on J.I.’s conduct while on community supervision for life, but rather on his conduct years earlier -- the accessing of pornography sites and the possession of pornography -- that led to a violation of his parole.  A Parole Board panel affirmed, apparently with no input from J.I.

Following imposition of that near-total Internet ban, J.I. accessed several benign websites, such as those of his church and therapist, after repeated warnings not to do so. As a result, the parole authorities completely banned J.I. from possessing any Internet-capable device.  The Parole Board upheld that determination and denied J.I. a hearing.  The Appellate Division affirmed.

We now reverse and remand to the Parole Board. Conditions imposed on CSL offenders -- like those imposed on regular parolees -- are intended to promote public safety, reduce recidivism, and foster the offender’s reintegration into society.  Arbitrarily imposed Internet restrictions that are not tethered to those objectives are inconsistent with the administrative regime governing CSL offenders.  We agree with the position taken by federal courts that Internet conditions attached to the supervised release of sex offenders should not be more restrictive than necessary.

The sheer breadth of the initial near-total Internet ban, after J.I.’s thirteen months of good behavior, cannot be easily justified, particularly given the availability of less restrictive options, including software monitoring devices and unannounced inspections of J.I.’s computer.  After the imposition of the total ban for J.I.’s Internet violations, J.I. should have been granted a hearing before the Parole Board to allow him to challenge the categorical Internet blackout.  The complete denial of access to the Internet implicates a liberty interest, which in turn triggers due process concerns.

Accordingly, we remand to the full Parole Board for a hearing consistent with this opinion.  The Board must determine whether the current total computer and Internet ban imposed on J.I. serves any public-safety, rehabilitative, or other penological goal.

March 22, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tenth Circuit clarifies and emphasizes import and reach of Graham's limit on extreme juve sentences

Yesterday in Budder v. Addison, No. 16-6088 (10th Cir. March 21, 2017) (available here), a Tenth Circuit panel granted habeas relief to a juvenile non-homicide offender sentenced in Oklahoma to serve over 131 years in prison before being eligible for parole. The Budden opinion discusses the Supreme Court's Graham ruling at great length in the course of rejecting Oklahoma's effort to defend a sentence that was not technically "life without parole."  Here are some excerpts from the opinion:  

Despite Oklahoma’s arguments to the contrary, we cannot read the Court’s categorical rule as excluding juvenile offenders who will be imprisoned for life with no hope of release for nonhomicide crimes merely because the state does not label this punishment as “life without parole.”  The Constitution’s protections do not depend upon a legislature’s semantic classifications.  Limiting the Court’s holding by this linguistic distinction would allow states to subvert the requirements of the Constitution by merely sentencing their offenders to terms of 100 years instead of “life.” The Constitution’s protections are not so malleable.

More importantly, the Court did not just hold that it violated the Eighth Amendment to sentence a juvenile nonhomicide offender to life without parole; it held that, when a state imposes a sentence of life on a juvenile nonhomicide offender, it must provide that offender with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”  Id. at 75; see also id. (“[The Eighth Amendment] does prohibit States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”).  Further, the Court explained that its categorical holding was necessary because it would “give[] all juvenile nonhomicide offenders a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 79 (emphasis added).  If the rule announced in Graham is to provide all juvenile offenders such an opportunity, it must be read to apply to all sentences that are of such length that they would remove any possibility of eventual release.  Thus, we conclude, the sentencing practice that was the Court’s focus in Graham was any sentence that denies a juvenile nonhomicide offender a realistic opportunity to obtain release in his or her lifetime, whether or not that sentence bears the specific label “life without parole.” ...

Again, we must emphasize that states may not circumvent the strictures of the Constitution merely by altering the way they structure their charges or sentences.  Just as they may not sentence juvenile nonhomicide offenders to 100 years instead of “life,” they may not take a single offense and slice it into multiple sub offenses in order to avoid Graham’s rule that juvenile offenders who do not commit homicide may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  When the Court compared the severity of the crime with the severity of the punishment, in light of the characteristics of the offender, it did not look to the state’s definitions or the exact charges brought.  It looked to whether the offender was a juvenile, whether the offender killed or intended to kill the victim, and whether the sentence would deny the offender any realistic opportunity to obtain release.  The Court specifically concluded that, not only was a categorical rule appropriate, it was “necessary,” id. at 75, because a case specific approach “would allow courts to account for factual differences between cases and to impose life without parole sentences for particularly heinous crimes,” id. at 77.  The Court found this approach to pose too great a risk that some juveniles would receive life without parole sentences “despite insufficient culpability.” Id. at 78 (quoting Roper, 543 U.S. at 572–73).  The Court was not convinced “that courts taking a case-by-case proportionality approach could with sufficient accuracy distinguish the few incorrigible juvenile offenders from the many that have the capacity for change.” Id. at 77.  Not only did the Court draw the line at homicide, it structured a categorical rule specifically to prevent the possibility that a sentencing judge would ever impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile who did not commit homicide.  The Eight Amendment prohibits such a sentence, regardless of the severity of nonhomicide crimes a juvenile has committed.

March 22, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What crime and punishment questions might you like to see asked of SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch?

I am not really expecting any tough sentencing questions to be directed toward Judge Neil Gorsuch at his coming Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but that will not stop me from imagining what such questions might sound like or from encouraging readers to share their ideas on such questions.  And though I might readily spin out a long list of such questions here, I will be content for now to rattle off just two that come to mind on a Sunday afternoon during a brief break from bracket obsession:

A few prior related posts on Judge Gorsuch:

March 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Taking Medical Judgment Seriously: Professional Consensus As a Trojan Horse for Constitutional Evolution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Charlie Eastaugh and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In the 2015 case of Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) undertook a revolutionary approach to its ‘evolving standards’ jurisprudence in punishments clause adjudication.  Hall demonstrated for the first time an earnest embrace of ‘professional consensus’ as an indicia of evolving standards — decided by the liberal-leaning wing of the Court, with Justice Kennedy as the swing.

Through an analysis of Atkins v. Virginia, a case which finally protected intellectually disabled offenders from execution in 2002, this article introduces the professionally-accepted psychiatric definitions of intellectual disability (ID) and challenges the assumptions — still visible across the nation — that intelligence is as straightforward as numerical fact.  It will be shown that an accurate assessment of ID for Atkins claims has so far not been forthcoming in many cases, with Hall as a prime example.

In Moore v. Texas — for which an eight-Justice Court heard oral argument in November 2016 — SCOTUS is faced with the chance to provide further, essential clarity to this debate. The immediate ramifications of Moore are likely to see this inmate spared from execution.  This paper develops the claim that the case could mean far more: The Court’s novel acceptance of professional standards in Hall has created a precedential Trojan Horse — one loaded with medical professionals and armed with epistemic knowledge, and one which provides the strongest opportunity for further Eighth Amendment evolution.  Should the Court follow the Hall trajectory in Moore, such an attack is primed for undermining another fundamental portion of capital punishment deemed abhorrent by medical professionals and civil liberties organisations across the nation: long — often decade-long — stays on death row, invariably in extreme solitary confinement.

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

Remarkable accounting of hundreds of Arizona offenders believing they were getting life with parole after parole abolished in state

The Arizona Republic has fascinating reporting here and here on the significant number of offenders in the Grand Canyon State who were seemingly given life with parole sentences after such sentences had been legislatively abolished. This lengthy main article is headlined "Hundreds of people were sentenced to life with chance of parole. Just one problem: It doesn't exist." Here are excerpts: 

Murder is ugly, and murderers are not sympathetic characters. But justice is justice, and a deal is a deal.

We expect the men and women who administer the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially judges — to know the law and to apply it fairly. Yet, for more than 20 years they have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years....

Danny Valdez, for example, was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad in Glendale. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot. Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and following the terms of the agreement, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years.

The only problem: Parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. As of January 1994, it was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive.

Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.” “Parole” was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner's behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician.  But release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor. Parole hasn't existed in Arizona since 1994.  Even if a judge's sentence includes parole, it still won't happen.  Yet since then, hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to life with chance of parole.

No one — not Valdez’s attorney, not the prosecutor, not the judge — ever told Valdez that he was not legally entitled to parole or a parole hearing.  He found out when he received a letter last December from The Republic.  He didn’t want to believe it. "Why would they sentence me with parole if it was abolished?" he asked in a return letter. “I was sentenced in 1995 and will be eligible for parole in 2020,” he wrote. “If I would of (sic) known that I would have to go through the process of pardons and commutations, I would of (sic) went to trial.”...

Between January 1994 and January 2016, a study by The Republic found, half of Arizona murder defendants sentenced to less than natural life sentences — at least 248 current prisoners in the Arizona Department of Corrections — were given sentences of life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years.  The sentence has not existed since the law was changed in 1993.  But judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys continued to crank defendants through the system, seemingly unaware of the mistake.

Duane Belcher, a former head of the state clemency board, started gathering examples early in this decade, but he was fired by former Gov. Jan Brewer before he could do anything about it.  He took the issue to the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees all state courts.

Belcher, appointed to the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1992, remained in the office long after it became the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under the new law. He served many years as its chairman. “I started asking the question in 1994 when the law changed,” Belcher said. “What’s going to happen when 25 years comes? Nobody seemed to have the answer.”

Belcher was only talking about how the state was going to handle those prisoners sentenced to life with a chance of release. Then he noticed that some defendants were still being sentenced to life with chance of parole. He started to collect examples, concerned about the inaccurate sentences. Belcher, a former parole officer and former supervisor at the Department of Corrections, looked at it from both sides.  “People are going into an agreement with the understanding that they will be eligible for parole, and it’s not the case,” he said. But he also worried about whether it could be grounds for reversing a sentence.  “We don’t want to go back to the public and say we paved the way to letting go a murderer.”...

Several prisoners contacted by The Republic were unaware they were not really eligible for parole.  “When they sentenced me, they did not say that parole didn’t exist,” Juvenal Arellano said in a letter to The Republic.  Arellano killed a man while stealing his car in 2004, and he, too, pleaded to life with chance of parole. “The reason why I signed the contract was for the chance to get out after 25 years, and that was in the plea I signed. … I am prepared to pay for my error, but neither should they hide something so important from me.”...

Among the components of Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing bill to make life harsher for bad guys was language to abolish parole and disband the parole board. It established the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency in its place. The sentence of “life with chance of parole after 25 years,” the third-harshest sentence possible in Arizona, was eliminated. It was replaced by “life with chance of release after 25 years,” 35 years if the murder victim was a child. The other sentence options for first-degree murderers were death or natural life, which means no possibility of parole or release, ever.

Life with chance of release, in effect, is a mitigated sentence, meaning it is imposed when there are circumstances that render the crime less horrible than a murder that calls for natural life or death.  Life sentences also may be imposed for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a child, and in certain cases where a repeat offender is deemed incorrigible.

The two sentences sound very similar.  And this has become a problem, because judges and lawyers tend to conflate the two and use the shorthand phrase “25 to life” to describe either, without defining the end result.  But they are substantially different.  Those eligible for parole could get a guaranteed hearing before the parole board, a state-appointed panel that had the authority to release the prisoner.  It was not a guaranteed release, but instead depended on the prisoner’s behavior and rehabilitation while in prison.  And if denied, the prisoner could re-apply after six months to a year.

But under the new system, there is no automatic hearing. Instead, the prisoner has to petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which would likely require a lawyer. The board can then choose to hold hearings on the prisoner’s likelihood to stay out of trouble and make a recommendation to the governor. Rather than parole, the prisoner needs a pardon or a sentence commutation. Only the governor can provide those.   In essence, the process ceased to be a rehabilitation matter and became a political decision. The earliest “life with chance of release” cases will reach the 25-year mark in 2019.  But there is no mechanism set up to handle the cases yet, and most of the prisoners are indigent and unlikely to be able to hire attorneys to start the process.

March 19, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A Canadian perspective on constitutional proportionality review

Given the US Supreme Court's various struggles with proportionality review of sentences under the Eighth Amendment, I was intrigue to see this article recently posted on SSRN discussing how the Supreme Court of Canada has approached this same issue. The article authored by Lauren Witten is titled "Proportionality As a Moral Process: Reconceiving Judicial Discretion and Mandatory Minimum Penalties," and here is its abstract:

This article reconceives proportionality in sentencing as a constructive reasoning process rather than as an instrumental means of achieving a fair quantum of punishment.  It argues that the Supreme Court of Canada has wrongly adopted the latter view by determining the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences according to hypothetical outcomes. R v. Nur is a paradigmatic example of how this error presumes a false objectivity in proportionality assessments that leaves the Court vulnerable to critiques of judicial activism.

This paper claims that a process-based conception of proportionality offers a stronger defence of judicial discretion in sentencing than the current framework offers; it better respects institutional roles and provides a more principled basis for declaring the current structure of mandatory minimum penalties unconstitutional. The proportionality as a process theory contends that judges alone are capable of reconciling the values of three constituencies in sentencing — the offender, the judge, and the public — and that this tripartite justification is integral to moral punishment.  This paper shows how the process view of proportionality in sentencing is an implicit, but under-theorized, current in the law that should be explicitly developed as part of Canadian constitutional theory.

March 19, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Eleventh Circuit panel declares Alabama murderer incompetent to be executed

A panel of the Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday reached the rare conclusion that an Alabama death row prisoner was not competent to be executed.  The majority opinion authored by Judge Martin in Madison v. Commissioner, No. 16-12279 (11th Cir. March 15, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:  

Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who is incompetent.  Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409–10, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 2602 (1986).  The Court has since clarified that a person cannot be executed if he lacks a “rational understanding” of the reason for his execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 954–60, 127 S. Ct. 2842, 2859–62 (2007).  This standard requires the prisoner to be able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive.  See Ferguson v. Sec’y, Florida Dep’t of Corr., 716 F.3d 1315, 1336 (11th Cir. 2013).  The Supreme Court told us that if the prisoner does not understand this connection, “the punishment can serve no proper purpose” and cannot be carried out. Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862.

This habeas petitioner, Vernon Madison, is a 66-year-old man on death row for the murder of a police officer over three decades ago.  In recent years, Mr. Madison has suffered strokes resulting in significant cognitive and physical decline.  His lawyers argue here that he is mentally incompetent to be executed under Ford and Panetti.  Finding that Mr. Madison had made a substantial threshold showing of incompetency, an Alabama trial court held a competency hearing.  At the hearing, Mr. Madison presented unrebutted testimony from Dr. John Goff that his strokes caused major vascular disorder (also known as vascular dementia) and related memory impairments and that, as a result, he has no memory of committing the murder — the very act that is the reason for his execution.  To the contrary, Mr. Madison does not believe he ever killed anyone. Dr. Goff testified that due to his memory impairments, Mr. Madison does not have a rational understanding of why the state is seeking to execute him.  The State presented expert testimony from Dr. Karl Kirkland. Dr. Kirkland testified that Mr. Madison was able to accurately discuss his legal appeals and legal theories with his attorneys and — on pretty much this basis alone — concluded that Mr. Madison has “a rational understanding of [his] sentence.”  Accepting the testimony of Dr. Kirkland, the Alabama trial court decided that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed.  Mr. Madison argues that the trial court’s decision relied on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of the law. We agree.

In so holding, we are mindful of the great deference due to state court decisions on federal habeas review, particularly when the state court is applying a general standard like the one in Panetti.  See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (“The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” (quotation omitted)).  But “even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner.” Panetti, 551 U.S. at 953, 127 S. Ct. at 2858. Panetti may set out a general standard for competency, but the focus of the inquiry is clear. Panetti doesn’t ask whether the prisoner can talk about the history of his case or legal theories with his attorneys.  Instead, Panetti requires courts to look at whether the prisoner is able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862.  One of the experts testified that due to a mental disorder, Mr. Madison was not able to make this connection.  The other expert never addressed this question at all. This record is therefore wholly insufficient to support the trial court’s decision.  We conclude that the state court’s decision that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed rested on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of Panetti. We therefore reverse the District Court’s denial of habeas relief.

A dissent authored by Judge Jordan gets started this way:

After reviewing the record, I believe that Vernon Madison is currently incompetent.  I therefore do not think that Alabama can, consistent with the Constitution, execute him at this time for his murder of a police officer three decades ago. See generally Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 958 (2007) (explaining that a state cannot put to death a prisoner who “cannot reach a rational understanding of the reason for the execution”). But Congress has chosen to generally prohibit federal courts from adjudicating constitutional claims anew on habeas review, so Mr. Madison’s competency (or lack thereof) is not our initial call to make. Under the restrictive standards we are required to apply, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), and given the way we interpreted Panetti in Ferguson v. Secretary, 716 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2013), I do not think Mr. Madison can obtain habeas relief.

March 17, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Split en banc Eleventh Circuit writes at length restricting habeas authority in ACCA case

The Eleventh Circuit has a massive new en banc opinion about federal habeas law in McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, Inc., No. 12-14989 (11th Cir. March 14, 2017) (available here). The start of the majority opinion in McCarthan, which was authored by Judge Willaim Pryor, should provide enough context for interested readers to figure out why this McCarthan decision engendered a bunch of concurring and dissenting opinions. Here is the start of a whole set of opinions that together runs nearly 200 pages:

This appeal requires us to decide whether a change in caselaw entitles a federal prisoner to an additional round of collateral review of his sentence.  Congress gives a federal prisoner like Dan McCarthan one opportunity to move to vacate his sentence unless that remedy is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e).  When McCarthan pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), he understood that the district court would enhance his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, id. § 924(e).  He did not appeal that sentence.  When McCarthan later moved to vacate his sentence, he again said nothing about the enhancement. After foregoing those opportunities to complain about the enhancement of his sentence, McCarthan petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus.  McCarthan argues that his earlier motion to vacate was inadequate to test his objection to his sentence enhancement because our caselaw about the Armed Career Criminal Act has changed. But because the motion to vacate gave McCarthan an opportunity to challenge his sentence enhancement, his remedy was not inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his sentence, regardless of any later change in caselaw.

For eighteen years, our Court has maintained that a change in caselaw may trigger an additional round of collateral review, see Wofford v. Scott, 177 F.3d 1236 (11th Cir. 1999), but our precedents have ignored the text of the statute. As we struggled to apply our precedents, we employed a five-factor test and granted relief only twice.  See Mackey v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 739 F.3d 657 (11th Cir. 2014); Bryant v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 738 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2013).  Because our precedents have failed to adhere to the text of section 2255(e), have not incurred significant reliance interests, and have proved unworkable, today we overrule them.  We join the Tenth Circuit in applying the law as Congress wrote it, see Prost v. Anderson, 636 F.3d 578 (10th Cir. 2011) (Gorsuch, J.), and hold that a change in caselaw does not make a motion to vacate a prisoner’s sentence “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention,” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e).  We affirm the dismissal of McCarthan’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

March 14, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Texas executes paid hit-man ... after Justice Breyer dissents from SCOTUS refusing to consider extended solitary death row stay

As this AP article reports, a "paid hit man was executed Tuesday night in Texas for gunning down a San Antonio woman in a life insurance scheme nearly a quarter-century ago." Here are a few more details about this latest execution:

Rolando Ruiz was given a lethal injection for fatally shooting Theresa Rodriguez, 29, outside her home in 1992 as she was getting out of a car with her husband and brother-in-law, who both orchestrated her murder. Ruiz was paid $2,000 to carry out the killing. Ruiz, strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney, looked directly at two sisters of his victim and their husbands and apologized profusely....

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he took several deep breaths, then began snoring quietly. All movement stopped within about 30 seconds. Ruiz, 44, was pronounced dead 29 minutes later at 11:06 p.m. His execution was the third this year in Texas and the fifth nationally.

“It’s not going to bring her back, so it really doesn’t mean very much,” Susie Sanchez, whose daughter was killed in the contract murder, said Monday. Her daughters, who were among the witnesses Tuesday night, declined to comment afterward.

The execution was delayed for nearly five hours until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three appeals attorneys had filed for Ruiz to try to stop the punishment. His lawyers argued to the high court that lower courts improperly rejected an earlier appeal that focused on whether Ruiz earlier had deficient legal help. They also contended Ruiz’s execution would be unconstitutionally cruel because he’s been on death row since 1995, had multiple execution dates and two reprieves. Attorney Lee Kovarsky blamed the long time between a San Antonio jury’s verdict and the punishment on the state’s failure to provide Ruiz with competent lawyers earlier in his appeals.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have stopped the execution to further examine the question of prolonged death row confinement.

Notably, as revealed here, Justice Breyer's solo dissent from the denial of a stay by SCOTUS was fairly substantive. Here is how it starts and ends:

Petitioner Rolando Ruiz has been on death row for 22 years, most of which he has spent in permanent solitary confinement. Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution “violates the Eighth Amendment” because it “follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,” principally his “permanent solitary confinement.” Petition 25. I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it....

Here the “human toll" that accompanies extended solitary confinement is exacerbated by the fact that execution is in the offing.  Moreover, Mr. Ruiz has developed symptoms long associated with solitary confinement, namely severe anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, disorientation, memory loss, and sleep difficulty.  Further, the lower courts have recognized that Mr. Ruiz has been diligent in pursuing his claims, finding the 22-year delay attributable to the State or the lower courts.  Ruiz v. Quarterman, 504 F. 3d 523, 530 (CA5 2007) (quoting Ruiz v. Dretke, 2005 WL 2620193, *2 (WD Tex., Oct. 13, 2005)). Nor are Mr. Ruiz’s 20 years of solitary confinement attributable to any special penological problem or need. They arise simply from the fact that he is a prisoner awaiting execution. App. E to Petition 16.

If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity.  That is why I would grant a stay of execution, allowing the Court to examine the record more fully.

March 8, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Detailing how common a very long wait on death row has become

Slate has this notable short piece on the long wait many condemned have before execution.  The piece is headlined "40 Years Awaiting Execution: For many death row inmates, the long process leading to capital punishment is itself cruel — but not unusual."  Here are excerpts:

In 1979, Arthur Lee Giles, then 19 years old, was sentenced to death in Blount County, Alabama.  Nearly 40 years later, he is still waiting to be executed.  His glacial march to execution exposes a conundrum at the heart of America’s death penalty. Condemned prisoners often spend decades on death row before being executed — if the execution ever happens at all — a fact that undermines any retributive value capital punishment might provide.

Approximately 40 percent of the 2,739 people currently on death row have spent at least 20 years awaiting execution, and 1 in 3 of these prisoners are older than 50.  (This is according to data collected by the Fair Punishment Project and sourced from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state corrections departments.)

According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, roughly two dozen men on California’s death row require walkers and wheelchairs, and one is living out his days in bed wearing diapers.  In North Carolina, nine death row prisoners have died of natural causes since 2006 — the same year the state last executed someone.  These delays suggest that executions must be sped up significantly.... 

With public support for executions at historic lows, death row delays seem likely to increase. Just 20 of the nearly 3,000 prisoners on death row nationwide were executed last year.

California is a prime example.  In 2014, a federal judge wrote that the state’s capital punishment system is actually a sentence of “life without parole with the remote possibility of death.”  The judge calculated that “just to carry out the sentences of the 748 inmates currently on Death Row, the State would have to conduct more than one execution a week for the next 14 years.”  That’s an unfathomable outcome in any state, much less in one that has not performed a single execution in more than a decade....

In an effort to combat these delays, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 66 in 2016, which promised to speed up executions by imposing more severe limitations on the death penalty appeals process. Yet Prop 66 has already faced significant constitutional challenges, and the California Supreme Court has stayed the initiative pending the outcome of a case filed by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Ron Briggs, the two men who wrote the successful statewide proposition reinstating the death penalty in California 40 years ago.

March 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Divine. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade.  Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case.  The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity.  The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.

This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity.  Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually.  This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders.  Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.

March 7, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 06, 2017

SCOTUS rules in Pena-Rodriguez that Sixth Amendment creates exception to jury impeachment rule when racial animus revealed

A split Supreme Court weighed in on the intersection of racial bias and jury decision-making via a notable Sixth Amendment ruling in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15–606 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:

The jury is a central foundation of our justice system and our democracy. Whatever its imperfections in a particular case, the jury is a necessary check on governmental power. The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted, and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Over the long course its judgments find acceptance in the community, an acceptance essential to respect for the rule of law. The jury is a tangible implementation of the principle that the law comes from the people.

In the era of our Nation’s founding, the right to a jury trial already had existed and evolved for centuries, through and alongside the common law. The jury was considered a fundamental safeguard of individual liberty.  See The Federalist No. 83, p. 451 (B. Warner ed. 1818) (A. Hamilton).  The right to a jury trial in criminal cases was part of the Constitution as first drawn, and it was restated in the Sixth Amendment. Art. III, §2, cl. 3; Amdt. 6.  By operation of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is applicable to the States. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 149–150 (1968).

Like all human institutions, the jury system has its flaws, yet experience shows that fair and impartial verdicts can be reached if the jury follows the court’s instructions and undertakes deliberations that are honest, candid, robust, and based on common sense.  A general rule has evolved to give substantial protection to verdict finality and to assure jurors that, once their verdict has been entered, it will not later be called into question based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations.  This principle, itself centuries old, is often referred to as the no-impeachment rule. The instant case presents the question whether there is an exception to the no-impeachment rule when, after the jury is discharged, a juror comes forward with compelling evidence that another juror made clear and explicit statements indicating that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her vote to convict....

The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule. It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. The Court now seeks to strengthen the broader principle that society can and must move forward by achieving the thoughtful, rational dialogue at the foundation of both the jury system and the free society that sustains our Constitution.

The start of the dissenting opinion by Justice Thomas explains his concerns and the core concerns of the other dissenters (which are expressed via an opinion by Justice Alito joined by the Chief and Justice Thomas):

The Court today holds that the Sixth Amendment requires the States to provide a criminal defendant the opportunity to impeach a jury’s guilty verdict with juror testimony about a juror’s alleged racial bias, notwithstanding a state procedural rule forbidding such testimony. I agree with JUSTICE ALITO that the Court’s decision is incompatible with the text of the Amendment it purports to interpret and with our precedents. I write separately to explain that the Court’s holding also cannot be squared with the original understanding of the Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments.

March 6, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33)

SCOTUS rules in Beckles that federal advisory guidelines are not subject to Due Process vagueness challenges

The Supreme Court this morning issued a big opinion concerning the operation of and challenges to the federal sentencing guidelines in Beckles v. United States, No. No. 15–8544 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Thomas gets started: 

At the time of petitioner’s sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause defining a “crime of violence” as an offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.2(a)(2) (Nov. 2006) (USSG).   This Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends that the Guidelines’ residual clause is also void for vagueness.  Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner’s argument.

After the oral argument tone in this case, I am not surprised to see this result. But I expect I may have more to say about the particulars of this Beckles ruling in the coming hours and days.  To begin, I think the sentiments in the closing section of the opinion of the Court best accounts for the Beckles outcome:

In addition to directing sentencing courts to consider the Guidelines, see §3553(a)(4)(A), Congress has directed them to consider a number of other factors in exercising their sentencing discretion, see §§3553(a)(1)–(3), (5)–(7). The Government concedes that “American judges have long made th[e] sorts of judgments” called for by the §3553(a) factors “in indeterminate-sentencing schemes, and this Court has never understood such discretionary determinations to raise vagueness concerns.” Brief for United States 42. Because the §3553 factors — like the Guidelines — do not mandate any specific sentences, but rather guide the exercise of a district court’s discretion within the applicable statutory range, our holding today casts no doubt on their validity.

Holding that the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, however, would cast serious doubt on their validity. Many of these other factors appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. For example, courts must assess “the need for the sentence imposed” to achieve certain goals — such as to “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment for the offense,” “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” and “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training . . . in the most effective manner.” §3553(a)(2). If petitioner were correct that §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause were subject to a vagueness challenge, we would be hard pressed to find these factors sufficiently definite to provide adequate notice and prevent arbitrary enforcement.

The Government tries to have it both ways, arguing that the individualized sentencing required by the other §3553(a) factors is different in kind from that required by the Guidelines. “An inscrutably vague advisory guideline,” it contends, “injects arbitrariness into the sentencing process that is not found in the exercise of unguided discretion in a traditional sentencing system.” Reply Brief for United States 10–11. But it is far from obvious that the residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness any more than the statutory command that sentencing courts impose a sentence tailored, for example, “to promote respect for the law.” §3553(a)(2)(A). And neither the Guidelines nor the other §3553 factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional.

The Government also suggests that the Guidelines are not like the other §3553(a) factors “because they require a court to decide whether the facts of the case satisfy a legal standard in order to derive a specific numerical range.” Id., at 22. But that does not distinguish the other sentencing factors, which require courts to do the same thing. Section 3553(a) states that district courts “shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in [§3553(a)(2)].” In fact, the Guidelines generally offer more concrete advice in imposing a particular sentence and make it easier to review whether a court has abused its substantial discretion. There is no sound reason to conclude that the Guidelines — but not §3553(a)’s other sentencing factors — are amenable to vagueness review.

March 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

No grants, but latest SCOTUS order list still has lots of intrigue for criminal justice fans (especially those concerned with risk-assessment sentencing)

The Supreme Court this morning released this order list, and it is extended because there is a summary per curiam GVR in a Nevada capital case (available here) and a trio of extended statements concerning the denial of cert (two of which were authored by Justice Thomas and one of which comes from Justice Sotomayor).  I would comment at length about these matters, but SCOTUS has provided bigger sentencing fish to fry by also deciding the Beckles vagueness case today (discussed here).

For hard-core sentencing fans, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the order list is this item:

16-6387 LOOMIS, ERIC L. V. WISCONSIN

The Acting Solicitor General is invited to file a brief in this case expressing the views of the United States.  

As some may recall from some prior postings, Loomis concerns a due process challenge to the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what the Trump Administration decides to say in this case and to see if SCOTUS ultimately takes up this timley and consequential issue. 

Prior related posts on Loomis case:

March 6, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Five years after his SCOTUS victory, Evan Miller scheduled to be resentenced

This local article, headlined "Re-sentencing of Evan Miller ordered by US Supreme Court set for March 13," reports on the upcoming resentencing of a defendant's whose surname now represents a big part of modern "kids-are-different" Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Here are some of the particulars from the article, which prompts some questions for me:

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for March 13 in Lawrence County for Evan Miller, whose original sentence on a capital murder conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and led to sentencing laws being changed for juveniles nationwide.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ordered that Miller be re-sentenced because the state’s only sentencing option for a juvenile convicted of capital murder was life in prison without the chance of parole.  A state law adopted last year now gives a judge the option of sentencing a juvenile convicted of capital murder to life in prison with the chance of parole after serving at least 30 years in prison.

Miller, now 28, was convicted of capital murder in 2006 for the 2003 killing of Cole C. Cannon in Cannon’s home in a Five Points mobile home park. Miller, who was 14 when the beating death occurred, is an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.

Cannon’s daughter, Cindy Cheatham, said she thinks next month’s sentence hearing before a jury will be the the last court proceeding for the Cannon family in the case. “Even though there is anticipation, it makes me sort of edgy and emotional,” Cheatham said. “I’m ready for it to be over.  But it will never really be over.”...

When Miller was sentenced in 2006, Circuit Court Judge Philip Reich, who is now retired, sentenced Miller to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The only sentences allowed by state law at the time for capital murder were the death penalty or life in prison without parole.  Reich could not sentence Miller to death because the Supreme Court in 2005 declared the death penalty for defendants younger than age 18 to be unconstitutional.

The Equal Justice Initiative appealed Miller’s sentence to the Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 that the state must have another sentencing option available for juveniles in a capital case other than life without parole.  The court sent the case back to Lawrence County for re-sentencing.  The new state law that a juvenile can be eligible for parole after 30 years does not preclude a judge from sentencing a juvenile capital murder defendant to life in prison without parole.

My first question after reading this article concerned why it took nearly five years for Evan Miller to have a resentencing, but this local article from last year suggests that resentencing was delayed until the Alabama legislature created a "Miller fix" in its sentencing law.  That "fix" now gives an Alabama judge, as detailed above and more fully in this local article, in this kind of case the discretion to impose LWOP or life with a chance at parole after 30 years.

But when remains unclear to me is why Evan Miller is apparently scheduled to appear before a jury at resentencing.  I suspect this may be because technically he is being resentenced on a capital conviction, but some have suggested in this juve sentencing setting that the Supreme Court's work in  Miller and the follow-up case Montgomery, combined with the Apprendi line of cases, now requires a jury finding of "irreparable corruption" to permit  giving a juve an LWOP sentence.  I would be grateful to hear from anyone in the know about Alabama sentencing procedures about why this article talks about Miller's upcoming sentence hearing being "before a jury."

March 5, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Washington Supreme Court rules Eighth Amendment precludes applying mandatory minimum adult sentencing scheme to juvenile offenders

The Supreme Court of Washington issued a very significant new ruling expanding the reach of the Eighth Amendment as adumbrated by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller. The extended ruling in Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, No. 92605-1 (Wash. March 2, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

"[C]hildren are different." Miller v. Alabama,_ U.S. _, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2470, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012). That difference has constitutional ramifications: "An offender's age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and [so] criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants' youthfulness into account at all would be flawed." Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 76, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010); U.S. CONST. amend. VIII.  The defendants in this case -- Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts -- are children. On Halloween night in 2012, they were 17 and 16 years old, respectively.  They robbed mainly other groups of children, and they netted mainly candy.

But they faced very adult consequences.  They were charged with crimes that brought them automatically into adult (rather than juvenile) court, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of such transfers.  They had lengthy adult sentencing ranges calculated under adult Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), chapter 9.94A RCW, rules.  And they received lengthy adult firearm sentence enhancements, with their mandatory, consecutive, flat-time consequences, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of that sentence increase, either.

As a result, Houston-Sconiers faced a sentencing range of 501-543 months (41.75-45.25 years) in prison.  Clerk's Papers (Houston-Sconiers) (CPHS) at 227.  Of that, 3 72 months (31 years) was attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements and would be served as '"flat time,"' meaning "in total confinement" without possibility of early release. Id.; RCW 9.94A.533(3)(e).  Roberts faced a sentencing range of 441-483 months (36.75-40.25 years) in prison. Clerk's Papers (Roberts) (CPR) at 154.  Of that, 312 months (26 years) would be "'flat time"' attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements. Id.

To their credit, all participants in the system balked at this result. But they felt their hands were tied by our state statutes.

We now hold that the sentencing judge's hands are not tied.  Because "children are different" under the Eighth Amendment and hence "criminal procedure laws" must take the defendants' youthfulness into account, sentencing courts must have absolute discretion to depart as far as they want below otherwise applicable SRA ranges and/or sentencing enhancements when sentencing juveniles in adult court, regardless of how the juvenile got there.  We affirm all convictions but remand both cases for resentencing.

March 2, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (10)

"First, They Came for the Sex Offenders … "

The title of this post is the headline of this Slate commentary authored by Perry Grosssman that discusses Packingham v. North Carolina, the First Amendment case heard by the Supreme Court earlier this week (basics here).  The sub-headline summarizes the piece's themes: "We must speak up for the rights of those on the fringes of society. The Supreme Court’s ruling on sex offenders’ First Amendment rights will signal how much protection we can all expect."  Here are excerpts from the ends of an extended discussion of the case and its context: 

Looming in the background of the court’s consideration of this case are the Trump administration’s recent attacks on the First Amendment, minority rights, judicial independence, and the rule of law itself.  Though it’s a much different First Amendment context, President Trump’s executive order restricting travel by Muslims from seven countries is also a grossly overbroad restriction on a politically vulnerable minority that was enacted thanks to fearmongering, not evidence.  As lower federal courts enjoined the executive order, President Trump attacked the legitimacy of those judges — who then received threats to their safety — while members of his administration implied that the courts had no right to question the president’s judgment on matters of national security.  Factor in Trump’s claim that he was championing free speech when he threatened to withhold federal funds from UC–Berkeley after it canceled an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, and his promise to “open up our libel laws” to permit more lawsuits against the press, and it’s clear that the president’s guiding mode of constitutional interpretation is not originalism, but solipsism.  The president thinks the First Amendment protects speech and beliefs he likes, but not those he doesn’t.  This case thus provides an opportunity for the Supreme Court to brace the judiciary for its upcoming battles with the Trump administration and to provide a nervous country with some assurance that the protections of the First Amendment remain as robust as ever and available to all.

Go to any protest these days and you’re sure to see a sign invoking the words of Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who opposed the Nazis during the Second World War by famously stating, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.”  The message is simple but powerful: Speak up for the rights of those on the margins of society or you might yourself on the other side.

Court battles over the First Amendment have been frequently fought on behalf of unpopular groups as a means of preventing encroachment upon the rights of the rest.  Justice Stephen Breyer recalled this heritage during argument when he pointed to criminal laws directed at prohibiting communists from advocating for the overthrow of the United States government that had been struck down 60 years ago.  It is difficult to imagine a less popular group than registered sex offenders.  But speaking up for their rights now is critical at a time when the administration has shown its eagerness to brand people with whom it disagrees as “enemies” and to strip rights from politically vulnerable groups like transgender students.  And it has the fringe benefit of being a good strategy for making sure “they” don’t come for you too.

March 2, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Is anyone tracking comprehensively data on resentencings (and release and recidivism) of those aided by Graham and Miller?

The question in the title of the post was recently posed to me, and I did not have a good answer. But this seems like a timely question now that it has been nearly a full seven years since Graham v. Florida declared LWOP unconstitutional for juvenile non-homicide offenders and five years since Miller v. Alabama declared mandatory LWOP unconstitutional for juvenile homicide offenders. (Of course, it has only been a year since SCOTUS in Montgomery v. Louisiana declared Miller fully retroactive and thereby required a number of states to start dealing with Miller's impact on prior offenders.)

I know that the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth a few months ago produced this publication about legal reforms in the wake of Graham and Miller under the title "Righting Wrongs: The Five-Year Groundswell of State Bans on Life Without Parole for Children."   But that report has more stories than numbers.  Similarly, two 2015 reports from the public interest firm Phillip Black, titled "Juvenile Life Without Parole After Miller" and "No Hope: Re-examining Lifetime Sentences for Juvenile Offenders," look mainly at state litigation and legislative responses to Graham and Miller.  The Fair Punishment Project has also done some significant work on juve LWOP, including some notable locality-specific analysis of post-Miller litigation, but I do not see any comprehensive or detailed data runs on its site.  The Juvenile Law Center, which has played an integral role in a lot of post-Miller state-court litigation, helped produced this thoughtful and detailed report on the import and impact of Graham and Miller under the title "The Supreme Court and the Transformation of Juvenile Sentencing."  But that report, which is already nearly two years old, also lacks any detailed empirics.

I have seen estimates of the population of juve LWOPers with sentences impacted by Graham and Miller to be around 2500, and I am hopeful and somewhat confident that someone somewhere is at least trying to track comprehensively data on how this population is being resentenced.  But I have not yet seen such data published, and perhaps I am wrong to assume that it is being systematically collected.

March 1, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justices seem disinclined to limit federal judicial sentencing discretion in Dean

The US Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in Dean v. United States.  The case will resolve a circuit split over whether federal district judges, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the firearm mandates.  The oral argument transcript, available here, is a interesting read for a bunch of reasons.  And I have a little summary of the argument posted here at SCOTUSblog.  Here is how that posting starts: 

It has now been more than a year since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, but his jurisprudential spirit seemed to fill the courtroom yesterday as the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dean v. United States At issue in Dean is whether a trial judge, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the severity of the mandated consecutive sentences.  During the oral argument, several justices endorsed the government’s contention that allowing a judge to give a nominal sentence for the underlying predicate offenses in these circumstances would largely negate Congress’ purpose in enacting Section 924(c).  But, echoing statutory interpretation principles that Scalia often championed in federal criminal cases, the justices also stressed that the text of the applicable sentencing statutes did not clearly foreclose the trial judge’s exercise of judicial sentencing discretion.  This textualist point may carry the day for the defendant. 

March 1, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Unusual Deference"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper about the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence authored by William Berry III and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Three Eighth Amendment decisions — Harmelin v. Michigan, Pulley v. Harris, and McCleskey v. Kemp — have had enduring, and ultimately, cruel and unusual consequences on the administration of criminal justice in the United States.  What links these cases is the same fundamental analytical misstep — the decision to ignore core constitutional principles and instead defer to state punishment practices.  The confusion arises from the text of the Eighth Amendment where the Court has read the “cruel and unusual” punishment proscription to rest in part on majoritarian practices.  This is a classical analytical mistake — while the Amendment might prohibit rare punishments, it does not make the corollary true — that all commonly used punishments must be constitutional.

This “unusual deference” to state punishment practices in light of this misconstruction of the text has opened the door to a proliferation of punishments that are disproportionate, arbitrary, and discriminatory.  As such, this article argues for a restoration of the Eighth Amendment from its present impotence by reframing the concept of unusualness in terms of the Court’s stated Eighth Amendment values and unlinking it from its deferential subservience to state legislative schemes.

Part I of the article explains the genesis of the Court’s unusual deference.  Part II of the article explores the manifestations of unusual deference, examining the flaws in the evolving standards of decency, differentness deference, and three most far-reaching examples of unusual deference — Harmelin, Pulley, and McCleskey.  Finally, the article concludes in Part III by reimagining an Eighth Amendment free from the error of unusual deference and demonstrating how such an approach could begin to remedy the problem of mass incarceration.

February 28, 2017 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 27, 2017

SCOTUS grants cert on (yet another) AEDPA habeas procedure case

It has now been more than two decades since the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and that law has had lots and lots of impacts on federal habeas practice and procedure.  One big impact has been lots and lots of technical habeas procedure issues needing SCOTUS attention, and another such issue is now before the Court on the merits after a certiorari grant this morning in Wilson v. Sellers.  Here is the SCOTUSblog case page for Wilson v. Sellers, and here is its description of the issue now before the Justices:

Issue: Whether the court's decision in Harrington v. Richter silently abrogates the presumption set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker — that a federal court sitting in habeas proceedings should “look through” a summary state court ruling to review the last reasoned decision — as a slim majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held in this case, despite the agreement of both parties that the Ylst presumption should continue to apply.

February 27, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Will a Justice Gorsuch be a strong SCOTUS voice against over-criminalization?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent National Review commentary authored by C. Jarrett Dieterle and headlined "Gorsuch v. Over-Criminalization." Here are excerpts:

Much of the media attention to date surrounding President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has centered on the judge’s views of originalism, separation of powers, administrative law, and related topics. Largely overlooked has been an area where Judge Gorsuch’s track record shows a keen awareness of another issue critical to the federal courts: America’s criminal-justice system.
The importance of criminal law is underscored by the breathtaking size of the federal criminal code. Nearly 5,000 federal crimes are on the books, not including the sort of regulatory crimes that likely push the number above 300,000. Worse yet, many criminal laws are written in vague terms that fail to clearly identify what constitutes a crime, leaving Americans in the dark about whether their conduct in many cases is criminal.
In a 2013 lecture for the Federalist Society, Gorsuch confronted the problem of over-criminalization, whereby criminal laws target conduct that is not inherently wrong. Using examples of obscure crimes, such as ripping off a mattress tag, Gorsuch argued that no American can possibly comprehend all the activities prohibited by federal law. “Without written laws, we lack fair notice of the rules we must obey,” as he puts it, adding that fair notice is also lacking when we have “too many written laws.”...

Gorsuch’s expressions of concern about over-criminalization haven’t been confined to speeches.  In last year’s Caring Hearts Home Services v. Burwell decision, he had harsh words for a federal agency that forgot its own regulations and misapplied them to a home health-care provider....

Gorsuch has equally strong views on the issue of criminal intent. Under traditional common law, acting with mens rea (a guilty or criminal mind) is a core component of committing a crime. This understanding prevents individuals who inadvertently or accidently do something wrong from being branded criminals....

Gorsuch also has shown willingness to rely on another historical judicial doctrine, the “Rule of Lenity”: Courts that confront ambiguous and vague criminal statutes are urged to interpret those laws in favor of defendants. Gorsuch applied this rule — also a favorite of the late Justice Antonin Scalia — in United States v. Rentz (2015), a case involving a law that imposed heightened penalties on individuals who “use” a gun to commit a violent crime or drug offense.... “Our job is always in the first instance to follow Congress’s directions,” Gorsuch wrote. “But if those directions are unclear, the tie goes to the presumptively free citizen and not the prosecutor.”

Gorsuch’s principle that any “tie” should go to citizens over the government shows his wariness of the vast powers possessed by prosecutors in an over-criminalized society. His tendency to view criminal laws, especially vague ones, with a healthy measure of skepticism should give opponents of over-criminalization a much-needed ally on the nation’s highest court.

February 27, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Buck's notable dis of state finality interests in "flawed" capital sentence

Though there are a number of interesting procedural and substantive elements to the Supreme Court's ruling today in Buck v. Davis reversing a Texas death sentence (basics here), I am especially intrigued by the short shrift given by the Chief Justice's majority opinion to the state's claimed interest in finality.  (Regular readers know I can get fixated on finality and have written at length about why I think convictions and sentences ought to be treated differently for finality purposes.)  Here is all that Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court had to say about finality (with my emphasis added):

In opposition, the State reminds us of the importance of preserving the finality of judgments.  Brief for Respondent 34.  But the “whole purpose” of Rule 60(b) “is to make an exception to finality.” Gonzalez, 545 U.S., at 529.  And in this case, the State’s interest in finality deserves little weight.  When Texas recognized that the infusion of race into proceedings similar to Saldano’s warranted confession of error, it effectively acknowledged that the people of Texas lack an interest in enforcing a capital sentence obtained on so flawed a basis.  In concluding that the value of finality does not demand that we leave the District Court’s judgment in place, we do no more than acknowledge what Texas itself recognized 17 years ago.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas says the majority opinion "belittles Texas’ claimed interest in finality," and I think that is a fair characterization of the passage above.  I am also inclined to turn this belittling into a broader and enduring "Buck finality principle": a state has little or no valid interest in preserving the finality of a (capital) sentence that is obviously "flawed" in some significant way.  Though I do not expect this Buck dis of state finality interests to significantly impact finality jurisprudence, I do expect to cite this Buck the next time I need to respond to any claims that flawed sentences must be preserved in the name of finality.

February 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32)

Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence

The Supreme Court handed down three opinion this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:

A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.

Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....

Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....

Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....

[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:

Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.  But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here.  The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.

February 22, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) authors lengthy dissent to denial of cert in Alabama lethal injection protocol challenge

This morning, the US Supreme Court got back to work through the issuance of this lengthy order list.  The one cert grant was involves a federal criminal case, Class v. US, concerning whether a defendant who pleads guilty can still challenge the constitutionality his statute of conviction (SCOTUSblog case page here).  But the part of the order list likely to get the most attention is this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari  authored by Justice Sotomayor in a Alabama capital case concern lethal injection protocols.  Here is the start, heart and end of the extended opinion (which Justice Breyer joined in full):

Nearly two years ago in Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), the Court issued a macabre challenge. In order to successfully attack a State’s method of execution as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, a condemned prisoner must not only prove that the State’s chosen method risks severe pain, but must also propose a “known and available” alternative method for his own execution. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 13, 15).

Petitioner Thomas Arthur, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row, has met this challenge. He has amassed significant evidence that Alabama’s current lethal-injection protocol will result in intolerable and needless agony, and he has proposed an alternative — death by firing squad.  The Court of Appeals, without considering any of the evidence regarding the risk posed by the current protocol, denied Arthur’s claim because Alabama law does not expressly permit execution by firing squad, and so it cannot be a “known and available” alternative under Glossip.  Because this decision permits States to immunize their methods of execution — no matter how cruel or how unusual — from judicial review and thus permits state law to subvert the Federal Constitution, I would grant certiorari and reverse.  I dissent from my colleagues’ decision not to do so....

The decision below permits a State, by statute, to bar a death-row inmate from vindicating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment. Under this view, even if a prisoner can prove that the State plans to kill him in an intolerably cruel manner, and even if he can prove that there is a feasible alternative, all a State has to do to execute him through an unconstitutional method is to pass a statute declining to authorize any alternative method.  This cannot be right....

The decision below is all the more troubling because it would put an end to an ongoing national conversation — between the legislatures and the courts — around the methods of execution the Constitution tolerates.  The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments “is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791” but instead derives from “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).  Evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle: States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time.  Science then reveals that — unknown to the previous generation — the States’ chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering.  A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues.  The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation.  States should not be permitted to silence it by statute....

Twice in recent years, this Court has observed that it “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 48 (plurality opinion); Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (same).  In Glossip, the majority opinion remarked that the Court “did not retreat” from this nonintervention strategy even after Louisiana strapped a 17-year-old boy to its electric chair and, having failed to kill him the first time, argued for a second try — which this Court permitted. Id., at ___– ___ (slip op., at 3–4).  We should not be proud of this history.  Nor should we rely on it to excuse our current inaction.

February 21, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Front-line advocate's response to interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama clemency efforts

Regular readers know I am always eager to provide a forum for responses and respectful criticisms of sentencing-related activities and comments by public officials.  In that vein, I am pleased to provide here the sharp commentary sent my way by Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent an extended commentary my way under the heading "Responding to: The Man Who Ran Obama’s Clemency Machine"; she was inspired to write by the recent Marshall Project interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama's clemency efforts (noted here).   

Beth's full commentary is available for download below, and here is a snippet to highlight why the full piece is worthy of time and attention:

For the first five years of Obama’s presidency the federal prison population grew by 13,000 incarcerated people. In 2013, the population was 214,149, the highest incarceration rate in history.

Criminal justice organizations, prisoner advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, law school clinics, prisoner’s families and various other lobbying groups started the drum beat for sentencing reform and an initiative of Presidential Clemency. Finally in 2013 Eric Holder announced that there would be a clemency initiative that could mean 10,000 or more acts of mercy for incarcerated people who would not be a threat if they were released.

Those of us with incarcerated loved ones who had sentences that would assure that they would die behind bars now had a reason for hope. We felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the President and all who were involved in the decision and the process that would lead to our loved ones freedom. We could hope to have our family member in our daily lives again. The hope was an ache, but we knew this President had compassion. It was not to be.

The lack of commitment became apparent almost immediately. I have the web site Life for Pot and the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I advocate for waited patiently for their evaluation by cp-14. Surprisingly some were rejected, and others accepted to the project and were told they would be assigned an attorney. Those fortunate inmates who were assigned an attorney would sometimes just receive a notification that they were represented and hear nothing more. We urged them to submit their own and wait.

This is not just a passing interest for me. I have a 69 year old brother, John Knock, who has two life sentences for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and never had an infraction. His prison resume is impeccable. He is a first time offender. On January 18, his clemency petition was denied by President Obama.

These are the numbers that tell you about the mercy and compassion of the Clemency Initiative. The promise was 10,000 or more. 1,715 Commutations granted – we could only find 39 for nonviolent marijuana only offenders. The rest were denied or left pending.

Over 18,000 petitions for commutation were denied. Over 4,000 petitions for commutation we closed without action. Over 8,000 petitions for commutation were left pending in the Pardon Attorney’s office for the next administration.

I must reject Mr. Eggleston’s assertion that he had better information and insight than the attorneys, advocates, or families about who was a good candidate for release. He asserts that he and President Obama looked over all the applicants and rejected all but 1,715.

Apparently Mr. Eggleston and President Obama based their denials on secret information. That implies that all the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I know who were denied should remain in prison till they die because Mr. Eggleston and President Obama have special information unknown to anyone else? What are the secrets that gave them confidence to make this Sophie’s Choice? They missed the point of Clemency. It is not a legal process but a Constitutional Power given to the President to be compassionate and merciful. In this endeavor they failed miserably.

These assertions made by Mr. Eggleston have tainted the character and behavior of all they left behind. I can only believe this was done in order to in order to burnish the administrations legacy of compassion at the expense of those they left behind without hope.

There is one secret that most of us know that the White House and the Pardon Attorney did not address. That secret is that most nonviolent offenders who receive sentences of life without parole were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. A conspiracy charge does not require definitive evidence, but only the testimony of those testifying for a plea or for part of the forfeiture. If you exercise your sixth amendment right to trial you receive the trial penalty. This charge allows the Prosecutor to tell the story.

In the spring of 2016 at a White House Briefing, it was obvious to many of us that the promise of clemency was waning and The Administration was pivoting to reentry as the major emphasis for time and money.

The White House would not pay attention to any effort to expedite the clemency project by granting clemency to categories of inmates. Many individuals and groups implored them to take this approach so that they would not fail the thousands who placed their trust in their concept of mercy. The White House and Justice Department did not seem to even understand the concept as it had been used in the past. Heals were dug in, and fates were sealed.

Download FEBRUARY 2017 CLEMENCY FAILURE

UPDATE:  For those unable to get download to work (which may be my fault, as I am working from the road), here is a link to Beth's site with her full commentary.

Prior related post:

February 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Interesting Q&A about Prez Obama's clemency efforts with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston

DownloadThe Marshall Project has this notable new piece that reviews Prez Obama's clemency work via an interview with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The piece is headlined "The Man Who Ran Obama's Clemency Machine: 'He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.'" Here are excerpts:

From one angle, former President Barack Obama was the most merciful president in U.S. history, granting commutations to more than 1,700 federal prisoners.... But his final tally was also far below earlier expectations, given that former Attorney General Eric Holder once speculated that the final number of clemency grants could reach 10,000 — one of every 19 federal prisoners. Obama also received more petitions for clemency than any recent president.

Blame has been passed around, much of it centering on the bureaucracy that emerged to handle the deluge of potential cases, as well as the role federal prosecutors played in the process. In the end, attorneys who felt they had submitted strong cases to the president often wondered why they lost. “In granting so many fewer petitions than originally projected, the administration may have done more to exacerbate the arbitrariness of the sentencing regime writ large than to remedy it,” one of those attorneys, Sean Nuttall, wrote recently at The Marshall Project.

One key figure in the process was Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel from April 2014 through the end of Obama’s term. We asked him to discuss the process from the inside....

How closely did President Obama look at each of the applications for clemency he received? And what did you learn about him based on how he handled them?

I would give him memos on the cases, and he would spend a long time on each one. For a significant number, he was fine with my recommendation. For others, he would say: “Why are you recommending this person to me? Look at his conduct in prison, look at his prior convictions. I’m uncomfortable that this guy is going to take advantage of a second chance.”

Or the alternative: There were times when the deputy attorney general may have recommended in favor of a commutation, and I recommended against it, and [Obama] would call me in and ask: “Why don’t you agree with this one?” Or he’d say: “Look there’s this prior conviction, I’m troubled by it, can you get me more information?”

He was really into the details. There were two parts to the way he thought. The first was he just thought a lot of these sentences from the 90’s and 2000’s were excessive. But he also felt very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. It wasn’t enough that the person had just gotten too lengthy a sentence. He also wanted make sure these were people who would benefit from a second chance. So if someone didn’t do any programming, got into fights, had a lot of infractions, etc., I think the president was concerned they would be unlikely to do anything but go back to their life of crime when they got out. He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.

One common criticism of the process was that there were arbitrary outcomes, that two people with similar cases could be granted and denied clemency.

I think the thing the outside commentators didn’t really understand was that I had more information about these people than others did, including, frankly, their lawyers. I had records of how they performed in prison, and information about their prior crimes. And when people say there was arbitrariness it’s because they didn’t know factors that I knew. All 1,700 went through me and the small group of lawyers underneath me. And ultimately I didn’t want people in jail thinking to themselves, “How can this be?” So is there some arbitrariness? Humans making decisions will not always be perfect. But I reject the notion that there was arbitrariness....

Were you afraid that a single heinous crime by one of these released men or women would derail the whole program?

We never mentioned the words “Willie Horton.” But the answer is yes — very much so. The president wanted to make sure these were people who would take advantage of their second chances, but part of that was making sure they wouldn’t go back to jail. In the letter the president sent to released prisoners, he wrote to them that their choices “will also influence...the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” He was saying: “If you mess up, I may not be able to give clemency to other people.” It’s pretty explicit....

One criticism was that it was strange to have prosecutors — from the same department who got these sentences in the first place — weigh in on clemency decisions. Did you think about this?

I think that criticism was completely misguided and based on some sort of theoretical, potential problem. The fact is that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, a 27-year Department of Justice prosecutor out of Atlanta, was a very strong supporter of this initiative. Loretta Lynch, too. The people who criticized their involvement did so on a theoretical conflict — not an actual conflict. It’s just not true.

That suggests the Department of Justice under incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions could rapidly go in another direction and oppose the use of clemency.

I know Sessions publicly opposed our initiative. I hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that given his comments, this will not be pursued by the new administration. It’s going to require them to decide this is something they want to continue. I hope they do.

February 15, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ohio Gov forced to delay scheduled executions yet again due to lethal injection ltigation

As this local article reports, "Gov. John Kasich has delayed eight scheduled executions because of continuing litigation over lethal injection drugs." Here are the details:

The governor used his executive clemency authority to reschedule the executions, beginning with Ronald Phillips who was to be put to death on Wednesday for the 1993 rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans. Phillips will now be executed on May 10, under the revised schedule.

The delays follow the Jan. 26 decision by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Craig Merz barred the state's use of a three-drug protocol, declaring it unconstitutional, and blocked the pending execution of Phillips and two other inmates. The state has appealed the ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"While Ohio is confident its appeal will ultimately be successful ... the appellate court's scheduling will not allow the matter to be resolved in time to allow the state to move forward with its current execution dates," Kasich's office said in a statement this morning. "Accordingly, these delays are necessary to allow the judicial process to come to a full resolution, and ensure that the state can move forward with the executions."

Merz's lengthy order cited problems with executions in other states with the use of midazolam, one of the three drugs in Ohio's protocol, along with rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Ohio hasn't had an execution since Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire choked, gasped and struggled against his restraints for much of the 26 minutes it took for him to die. Midazolam was one of the drugs used to execute McGuire.

The revised schedule after Phillips [includes] Gary Otte, moved to June 13 from March 15 [and] Raymond Tibbetts, moved to July 26 from April 12.

Ever since Ohio announced it had acquired execution drugs and had a new execution protocol in early Fall 2016, I have been expecting and sort-of predicting that Ohio would finally find a way to get its machinery of death back up and running again in 2017. Given some prior Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court rulings, I continue to think Ohio will be able to complete some executions this year. But, of course, lethal injection litigation can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never quite know what you are gonna get.

February 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)