Tuesday, April 01, 2014

"Alleyne on the Ground: Factfinding that Limits Eligibility for Probation or Parole Release"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Nancy King and Brynn Applebaum now available via SSRN. The piece contends that the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne v. United States last Term renders a number of state sentencing systems constitutionally suspect, and here is the abstract:

This article addresses the impact of Alleyne v. United States on statutes that restrict an offender’s eligibility for release on parole or probation. Alleyne is the latest of several Supreme Court decisions applying the rule announced in the Court’s 2000 ruling, Apprendi v. New Jersey. To apply Alleyne, courts must for the first time determine what constitutes a minimum sentence and when that minimum is mandatory. These questions have proven particularly challenging in states that authorize indeterminate sentences, when statutes that delay the timing of eligibility for release are keyed to judicial findings at sentencing. The same questions also arise, in both determinate and indeterminate sentencing jurisdictions, under statutes that limit the option of imposing either probation or a suspended sentence upon judicial fact finding.

In this Article, we argue that Alleyne invalidates such statutes. We provide analyses that litigants and judges might find useful as these Alleyne challenges make their way through the courts, and offer a menu of options for state lawmakers who would prefer to amend their sentencing law proactively in order to minimize disruption of their criminal justice systems.

April 1, 2014 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, March 28, 2014

Could Oklahoma ruling declaring drug secrecy unconstitutional impact execution plans nationwide?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Reuters article, headlined "U.S. executions set for possible delay after Oklahoma court decision."  Here are excerpts:

An Oklahoma judge ruled on Wednesday the state's secrecy on its lethal injections protocols was unconstitutional, a decision that could delay executions in other states where death row inmates are planning to launch similar challenges.

County district court judge Patricia Parrish ruled the state violated due process protections in the U.S. Constitution by not providing the name of the drug supplier, the combination of chemicals and the dosages used in executions. Oklahoma's attorney general said the office will appeal.

Oklahoma and other U.S. states have been struggling to obtain drugs for executions. Many pharmaceutical firms, mostly in Europe, have imposed sales bans because they object to having medications made for other purposes used in lethal injections. The states have looked to alter the chemicals used for lethal injection and keep the suppliers' identities secret. They have also turned to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies that can mix chemicals.

But lawyers for death row inmates argue drugs from compounding pharmacies can lack purity and potency and cause undue suffering, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. "Judge Parrish's decision is a major outcome that should have a reverberating impact on other states that are facing similar kinds of transparency issues," said Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno, who specializes in the legalities of lethal injections....

Legal experts expect more states to face challenges that will delay executions, but if they settle transparency issues, many will resume putting inmates to death. "Almost every state is hiding part of the process, or is attempting to," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center....

For now, several of the 32 states with the death penalty are keeping mum about business transactions for execution drugs. Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, has obtained a fresh batch of the drug it uses for its executions. But Texas will not identify the supplier, citing "previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process," the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement.

Alabama said this week it has run out of one of the main drugs it uses, putting on hold executions for 16 inmates who have exhausted appeals and face capital punishment. It is also looking at ways to keep the name of drug providers secret. Inmates in Missouri, which carried out an execution this week, have sued the state over execution protocols that include layers of secrecy.

Arizona said on Wednesday it had to change its lethal injection cocktail because it could not obtain the drugs it once used. "Being lost in the conversation and political maneuvering is the fact that family of murdered loved ones are paying the ultimate price as they wait for justice to be carried out," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in a statement.

Some related prior posts:

March 28, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, March 24, 2014

What procedural rights should juve killers have at parole proceedings?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing article in the Boston Herald headlined "Killers convicted as teens could make bids for parole concessions." The piece highlights some of the intriguing and potentially controversial procedural issues that necessarily arise if and whenever a state has to figure out just what it means to give serious juvenile offenders a meaningful chance to secure parole release from a life sentence.  Here are the details:

A killer whose court victory cleared the way for dozens of lifers convicted as teens to seek freedom is expected to make new demands before a judge today, including giving cons the opportunity to cross-examine anyone who argues against their release. But Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said Gregory Diatchenko — who was 17 in 1981 when he plunged a knife through the face and heart of 55-year-old Thomas Wharf in Kenmore Square while screaming, “Give me your money, you (expletive),” — is asking too much.

“What he’s asking for would essentially give him a new trial on a first-degree murder charge for which he was already found guilty. This is a case of a convicted killer being given an inch and now demanding a mile,” Conley said.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a controversial bombshell decision dropped on Christmas Eve that mirrored a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled that keeping teen killers behind bars without a chance of parole was cruel and unusual punishment because children under age 18 lack the ability to appreciate their crimes. The court, ruling on an appeal by Diatchenko, found teen killers should be given a “meaningful opportunity to be considered for parole suitability” after 15 years of incarceration.

A single SJC justice, Margot Botsford, will hear Diatchenko’s arguments today for new Parole Board rules for those convicted of murder as teens. Lawyers for Diatchenko and the Parole Board did not respond to requests for comment. Conley’s office said Diatchenko’s requests include having an appointed hearing attorney, expert defense witnesses, and the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against him.

Conley contends, “The SJC has determined that this defendant is entitled to a parole hearing.  He shouldn’t also be afforded an unprecedented array of tactics to use at that hearing.”

Steve Brodie of Groveland, whose daughter Beth was bludgeoned to death in 1992 at age 15, told the Herald he is alarmed to learn hearings could include cross-
examination. “We don’t know where it ends,” Brodie said. Richard Baldwin, 37, who was 16 when he killed Beth Brodie, is among 61 lifers whose hearings for parole are expected to begin soon.

Personally, I do not view a defendant's request for an attorney and an opportunity to present and cross-examine witnesses at a significant sentencing proceeding to amount to a demand to "be afforded an unprecedented array of tactics."  But then again, it is easy for a lawyer and law professor like me to say that the traditional trial procedures secured for defendants by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments ought to be given very broad application in parole proceedings. 

The US Supreme Court has never thoroughly considered or carefully articulated exactly which traditional trial rights defendants retain or lack throughout traditional parole decision-making, though SCOTUS jurisprudence suggests that all defendants retain at least some minimal due process rights in parole proceedings.  Critically, though, these important procedural issues have not (yet) been seriously explored in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent substantive and procedural Eighth Amendment decisions in Graham and Miller concerning limits on juve LWOP sentencing. 

March 24, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert to explore how many procedural angels can dance on a habeas pin

The snarky title of this post is my reaction to the one cert grant today by the Supreme Court in a capital case from Texas, Jennings v. Stephens [Order List available here].  Upon first seeing news of a grant in a capital case from Texas, I was hoping that the Justices might be taking up some meaty substantive death penalty issue.  

But, as the Order List explains, "petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to Question 4 presented by the petition." And here, as summarized via this case page at SCOTUSblog, is that question:

Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that a federal habeas petitioner who prevailed in the district court on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim must file a separate notice of appeal and motion for a certificate of appealability to raise an allegation of deficient performance that the district court rejected even though the Fifth Circuit acquired jurisdiction over the entire claim as a result of the respondent’s appeal.

Though I could be wrong on the fact here, I would guess that this specific federal habeas procedural issue arises maybe a couple of times each year at most. It is pretty rare that federal habeas petitioners prevail in the district court, and surely rarer still that a circuit court would on appeal thereafter ding that petitioner on a procedural issue. When there are thousands of cert petitions from defendants raising issues that could impact tens of thousands of criminal cases, I am both intrigued and annoyed that SCOTUS decides to take up a case likely to impact at most a handful of capital cases.

Of course, this issue of habeas procedure is obviously a very big deal to death row petitioner Jennings, and a number of Justices are likely troubled by how the Fifth Circuit handed this case. But would not a summary reversal be a more efficient and effective way to deal with this issue if a majority of Justices are troubled by the procedural maneuver pulled by the Fifth Circuit?

March 24, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Illinois Supreme Court deems Miller ruling substantive and thus retroactive

As reported in this Chicago Tribune piece, headlined "Ruling allows new hearings for 100 convicted killers," earlier today the Illinois Supreme Court "ruled that state prison inmates serving life without parole for murders they committed years ago as juveniles will receive new sentencing hearings." Here is more about the ruling:

The ruling means that the inmates, some of whom were as young as 14 when they committed murder, will be allowed to present evidence to mitigate their responsibility and obtain a shorter sentence that would allow them to be set free at some point. Prosecutors will be able to offer to try to persuade judges to re-impose the life sentences....

With the ruling, Illinois joins states such as Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas in deciding a 2012 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court applies to prisoners whose crimes were committed before the ruling.  Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are among the states that have refused....

“A minor may still be sentenced to natural life imprisonment without parole so long as the sentence is at the trial court’s discretion rather than mandatory,” the Illinois Supreme Court wrote in today’s unanimous opinion written by Justice Charles Freeman.

The ruling in Illinois v. Davis, No. 115595 (Ill. March 20, 2014) (available here), provides this account of its retroactivity assessment:

As the Iowa Supreme Court recognized:  “From a broad perspective, Miller does mandate a new procedure.  Yet, the procedural rule for a hearing is the result of a substantive change in the law that prohibits mandatory life-without-parole sentencing.” State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107, 115 (Iowa 2013).  In other words, Miller places a particular class of persons covered by the statute — juveniles — constitutionally beyond the State’s power to punish with a particular category of punishment — mandatory sentences of natural life without parole.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at ___, ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2464, 2468; Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, 1 N.E.3d 270, 277 (Mass. 2013).  Since Miller declares a new substantive rule, it applies retroactively without resort to TeagueSee Schriro, 542 U.S. at 351-52 & n.4.

Also, we find it instructive that the Miller companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs, arose on state collateral review.  Notwithstanding its finality, the Court retroactively applied Miller and vacated Jackson’s sentence.  While our analysis is independent as a matter of Illinois law, the relief granted to Jackson under Miller tends to indicate that Miller should apply retroactively on collateral review.  See People v. Williams, 2012 IL App (1st) 111145, ¶ 54; People v. Morfin, 2012 IL App (1st) 103568, ¶ 57.

We observe that defendant and several amici assert that this court should depart from Teague and adopt a different rule of retroactivity.  However, we do not rely on Teague in our analysis because we view Miller as a new substantive rule, which is outside of Teague rather than an exception thereto. Accordingly, we need not and do not address this argument.  See People v. Campa, 217 Ill. 2d 243, 269-70 (2005) (reviewing court will not decide nonessential issues or render advisory opinions).

March 20, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Idaho officials struggle to calculate capital case costs

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Idaho death penalty cost report finds limited data," officials in The Gem State has been finding it hard to do a complete accounting of capital case costs. Here are the details:

A new report from Idaho's state auditors shows that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty.  But the Office of Performance Evaluations also found that the state's criminal justice agencies don't collect enough data to determine the total cost of the death penalty.  The report was presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Wednesday by Hannah Crumrine and Tony Grange.

Idaho is one of 32 states with the death penalty, but two of those states — Oregon and Washington — have moratoriums on executions.  Idaho has executed 29 people since 1864, but only three since 1977.  Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1994, Paul Ezra Rhoades was executed in 2011 and Richard Leavitt was executed in 2012.

It's difficult to determine just how much imposing the death penalty costs,  Crumrine told the committee, in part because most of the needed data is unavailable.  Law enforcement agencies typically don't differentiate between the costs of investigating death penalty murder cases and non-death penalty murder cases, and jail and prison staffers don't track the transport costs to bring a condemned prisoner to court cases versus a regular prisoner.

The researchers were able to determine some costs, however: Eleven counties have been reimbursed more than $4.1 million for capital defense costs since 1998, and the state appellate public defender's office has spent nearly half a million dollars on death penalty cases between 2004 and 2013.  The Idaho Department of Correction spent more than $102,000 on executing Leavitt and Rhoades.

In any case, it's clear that death penalty cases cost more than sentencing an offender to life without parole, according to the report, in part because it takes longer for the appeal process to come to an end in death penalty cases.  And the ultimate penalty is seldom imposed: The report found that of the 251 first-degree murder cases filed from 1998 to 2013, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 42 and it was imposed in just seven cases.

Of the 40 people sentenced to death in Idaho since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, 21 have had their sentences overturned on appeal or are no longer sentenced to death for other reasons, 12 are still appealing their cases and four died in prison.  Just three were executed during that time span.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote a letter responding to the report, stating that he believes state agencies have been diligent in accounting for and containing costs. Otter wrote that though the report raises the question of whether tax dollars are spent wisely on capital punishment, he continues to support the death penalty laws.

March 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims

Very long time readers with very good memories may recall the array of notable post-Booker issues that surround the sentencing of Antwuan Ball following his conviction for crack distribution in Washington DC. As first noted in this prior post (from June 2008!), Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of a massive drug conspiracy and murders; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.

Fast forward to 2011 and, as reported here, the feds are urging the district judge to rely heavily on all sorts of alleged/claimed wrongdoing by Ball to impose a max statutory sentence of 40 years on the crack charge. (Significant side note: in light of the passage of the FSA and Supreme Court's subsequent Dorsey ruling, I am not sure 40 years was in fact the proper stat-max for Ball, but more on that point later.)

Relying on the prosecution's allegations that Ball was the leader of a huge crack consipracy (claims which the jury rejected), the district judge apparently calculated Ball's guideline sentence range to be 292 to 365 months (though again, due to the FSA, I am not sure that was the right guideline range circa March 2011).   This NACDL amicus brief filed in January 2013 indicates that Ball's guideline range would have been only 51 to 71 months absent consideration of acquitted conduct.

As reported here, District Judge Richard Roberts at sentencing declared that he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy [and imposed on Ball a 225-month prison sentence] for his conviction of the 2001 hand-to-hand drug transaction."  At the time of Ball's 2011 sentencing, I noted here that I was quite pleased the acquitted conduct issues preserved in this notable case, and I suggested "some circuit has to question at least the substantive reasonableness of a sentence that is greatly elevated on the basis of acquitted conduct."  

Now fast forward exactly three more years, and I find myself quite disturbed and troubled by how the acquitted conduct issues (and other issues) were given seemingly quite short shrift by a panel of the DC Circuit in its ruling late last week in US v. Jones, No. 08-3033 (DC Cir. Mar. 14, 2014) (available here).  

For starters, as I read the panel opinion in Jones, I find myself persistently wondering whether and how the district court at Ball's 2011 sentencing may have been influenced by the pre-FSA crack statutes and guidelines before the Supreme Court in Dorsey subsequently made clear that post-FSA rules should apply to all post-FSA sentencings.  This issue is not discussed in the Jones opinion (and perhaps it was not raised/preserved), but uncertainty about the application of the FSA at the time of sentencing might arguably alone be reason enough to require resentencing for Ball.

More fundamentally, to reject Ball's acquitted conduct claims, the DC Circuit opinion in Jones only cites to (now dated) post-Booker precedents from all the circuits via this discussion (my emphasis added):

Although we understand why appellants find sentencing based on acquitted conduct unfair, binding precedent of this court establishes that the practice does not violate the Sixth Amendment when the conduct is established by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence does not exceed the statutory maximum for the crime.  See United States v. Settles, 530 F.3d 920, 923-24 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156-57 (1997) (per curiam)); Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 371 [D.C. Cir. 2006] (“[A] sentencing court may base a sentence on acquitted conduct without offending the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.”).  This is true even when consideration of the acquitted conduct multiplies a defendant’s sentence severalfold.  See Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 370-71.  Appellants, in effect, ask us to reconsider Settles and Dorcely. But not only do those decisions bind us, no subsequent decision by the Supreme Court or another circuit calls their validity into question. Cf. FED. R. APP. P. 35(b)(1) (suggesting contrary decisions by the Supreme Court or by another court of appeals as grounds for en banc review).  Indeed, since the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and freed judges “to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range,” United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233, 243-44 (2005), every numbered circuit has addressed the constitutionality of sentencing based on acquitted conduct, and each one has reached the same conclusion reached by this court. See United States v. White, 551 F.3d 381, 384-86 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc); United States v. Mercado, 474 F.3d 654, 656-58 (9th Cir. 2007) (collecting cases from every numbered circuit but the Sixth).  

I have emphasized a phrase from the middle of this paragraph because I actually believe there are at least two SCOTUS rulings since the DC Circuit addressed this issue in Settles and Dorcely that arguably "calls their validity into question."  Specifically, just from 2013, the Supreme Court's Peugh decision (basics here) and especially its Alleyne decision (basics here and here) provide a reasonable basis to question the continued validity of severe acquitted conduct guideline enhancements.  A fair reading of Alleyne suggests that judicial fact-finding as to facts which "alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment" can be constitutional problematic even if these facts do not raise the applicable statutory maximum sentence.

Critically, I am not asserting that the 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne now require reversal of old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  But I do strongly believe that 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne raise significant new questions about old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  Consequently, I find this cursory treatment of what strikes me as a significant sentencing issue in a significant case to be disconcerting.

That all said, perhaps the "optimistic" way to read this opinion is as an invitation to Ball and others to see en banc review of old circuit precedent upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  At the very least, given that Ball still likely has a decade in federal prison left for his $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001, I hope he seriously considers pursuing further appeals of his sentence.

Some old posts on the Ball case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

March 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 16, 2014

NY Times sees "A Rare Opportunity on Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new New York Times editorial about federal sentencing reform.  Here are excerpts:

The current Congress is the place where virtually all legislation, however urgent or reasonable, goes to die.  Yet out of this stew of partisan mistrust and dysfunction there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.

Two bipartisan bills now under consideration aim to unwind our decades-long mass incarceration binge and to keep it from happening again. This fact is remarkable not only because of Congress’s stubborn standstill, but because crime and punishment has long been one of the most combustible issues in American politics....

The Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced in the Senate last year by Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, the Utah Republican — would halve mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes, which currently stand at five, 10 and 20 years. It would also give judges more discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum in some cases, and it would provide a chance at early release for thousands of inmates sentenced under an older law that disproportionately punished crack cocaine offenders.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, would allow low-risk prisoners to earn credit for early release by participating in education, job training and drug treatment programs.

Reforms like these were unthinkable even a few years ago, when the Republicans’ longtime tough-on-crime dogma — echoed by Democrats who fearfully fell into line — drove irrational sentencing laws. Why have things changed so quickly? In a word, money — or the lack of it. The bloated Bureau of Prisons eats up nearly $7 billion a year, a quarter of the Justice Department’s entire budget. Politicians like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Mr. Lee have become the public face of the conservative turnabout, and they deserve credit for their efforts, but it’s important to remember that almost none of this would be happening without the need to save money.

In fact, many of the reforms now under consideration at the federal level began in reliably conservative states, where budget crises long ago demanded sweeping and lasting change. In Texas, which incarcerates more people than any other state, lawmakers have adopted alternatives to prison, such as drug courts and improved community supervision programs, that help keep people from reoffending. The result has been a steady decline in the prison population and the closing of three state prisons, even as crime rates go down. As Mr. Cornyn told The Times, “From Texas’s perspective, the evidence is in.”

Since 2000, 29 states have moved to cut back on mandatory sentences, particularly for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Some prosecutors and politicians warn that all this reform comes at a serious risk to public safety, but the experience of multiple states shows otherwise.  Reserving prison for the most violent offenders saves money, and antirecidivism programs targeted at low-risk inmates protect public safety.

Whether the concern is too much government, too little money, or the inherent unfairness of locking people up for years for no good reason, the energy from both the right and the left is converging, and the moment for meaningful reform has arrived.

Though I share the general perspective that there is a “fierce urgency of now" for federal sentencing reforms, I disagree that money explains these recent developments at the federal level.  States, especially red states, have been at the forefront of modern sentencing reforms because of the need to balance budgets without raising taxes, but the feds have long shown a willingness to borrow money for any and all federal priorities. Rather, I think there is a new generation of politicians and voters who no longer view crime as much more salient concern than just and effective punishment.

Younger and more diverse politicians and voters appreciate that too much government and punishment can be as worrisome as a bit more crime, and that is what I think we are now finally getting a much more balanced federal political discourse about these issues than we did a generation ago. (Notably, the Baby Boomers were the first major generation who did not directly experience/witness the harms/problems of Prohobition and totalitarian regimes, so it makes some sense that generation would embrace a big criminal justice system eschewed by their parents and their children.)

March 16, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Top Texas criminal court, in split ruling, decides Miller is to be applied retroactively

As reported in this Austin American-Statesman article, headlined "Court tosses out sentence for Austin killer," the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this past week that the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling is to apply retroactively.  Here are the basics:

The state’s highest criminal court Wednesday ordered a new sentence for Terrell Maxwell, who is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for shooting an Austin man in the head during a 2007 robbery.  Maxwell was 17 at the time of the shooting, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that his automatic sentence of life without parole violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when applied to defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.

The 5-4 ruling left intact Maxwell’s conviction for capital murder in the death of Fernando Santander, who was shot while sitting in a van in the parking lot of his apartment complex near Rundberg Lane.  Two accomplices testified that Maxwell shot Santander when the 31-year-old, startled to find a gun pointing at his cheek, quickly raised his hands in surrender, court records show.

The Texas court split on whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Miller v. Alabama, which established that automatic no-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional — applied retroactively to defendants like Maxwell.

Writing for the Texas court’s majority [opinion available here], Judge Cathy Cochran said the Miller ruling required that Maxwell be given the opportunity to argue in court that life without parole was not an appropriate sentence.  The Miller ruling did not prevent life without parole for juvenile murderers, Cochran wrote.  But before such a sentence can be imposed, jurors must consider “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” she noted.

Two dissents — written by Judges Michael Keasler and Paul Womack, joined by Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Barbara Hervey [available here and here] — said the Miller ruling should not be applied retroactively....

Texas no longer allows the practice, but 17 Texans are serving life without parole for murders committed while they were juveniles between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, Texas juries were given the choice between execution and life without parole for those convicted of capital murder. Because capital punishment was unconstitutional for offenders younger than 18, a guilty verdict meant a mandatory life sentence without parole for teens tried as adults.

Four years later, the law was amended to ban no-parole sentences for juveniles. Several legislators said the move was intended to correct an oversight in the 2005 law, but the no-parole ban was not made retroactive.

March 15, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Previewing what AG Holder will say about drug sentencing to US Sentencing Commission

As noted in this prior post, Attorney General Eric Holder is, according to this official agenda, the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's important public hearing today on proposed amendments to reduce drug sentencing terms in the federal sentencing guidelines. The full text of what AG Holder says will likely be available on line later today, but this new Washington Post article, headlined "Holder will call for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders," provides a preview of what he plans to say (which my emphasis below on an especially notable development) and some context for his latest sentencing reform advocacy:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday will urge reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials. It would reduce sentences by an average of nearly a year.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder plans to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to excerpts of his testimony provided to The Washington Post. “Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Like Holder’s previous criminal justice reforms, the move is likely to be hailed by civil liberties groups and assailed by some lawmakers who think the administration is chipping away at federal policies designed to deter criminals and improve public safety.

The seven-member sentencing panel has proposed an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines and will vote on it as soon as April. Until then, federal judges must refer to current sentencing guidelines. Holder, however, will instruct his prosecutors in a memo Thursday not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences for their clients that would be permissible under the new policy.

Under current mandatory minimum guidelines, a drug offender convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would face a term of 63 to 78 months. Holder is proposing that the time in such a case be reduced to 51 to 63 months. “By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” Holder plans to say. The lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said.

Holder’s new sentencing proposal is the latest step in his agenda to revise the criminal justice system. In August, he announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would not automatically be charged with offenses that call for severe mandatory sentences. That measure, however, didn’t address the sentencing ranges defendants could face under federal guidelines.

Holder’s latest policy change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. At the same time it is seeking to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, the Justice Department is putting greater focus on violent traffickers who bring heroin and other drugs into the United States....

Holder’s efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers who say the administration is undermining policies that were set up to deter would-be criminals.

But many of Holder’s criminal justice policies have been praised by civil liberties groups and have bipartisan support in Congress. A bill that Holder and the Obama administration support to reform prison sentences includes both Republican and Democratic sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that prison reform is one issue on which he agrees with Holder. “There aren’t many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?” said Perry, who ran for president in 2012.

As noted in this post, I will be off-line most of today in order to travel to and participate in a Sixth Circuit oral argument. But I should be able to provide additional coverage and review of all the sentencing reform action taking place today at the USSC's public hearing before the end of the day.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 13, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit to hear oral argument on extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young

A number of months ago in this post, titled "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison," I reported on a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee involving an extreme application of the 15-year mandatory minimum federal sentencing term set out in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I am now excited that tomorrow morning, a Sixth Circuit panel is scheduled to hear oral argument in this matter, US v. Young.  I am excited in part because I authored a brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) setting out why this sentencing should be deemed unconstitutional under a proper application/interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.  And the Sixth Circuit has afforded me five minutes of argument time (taken from the Appellant's alloted time).

Notably, counsel for Mr. Young has on appeal has developed a Fifth Amendment challenge to the conviction as well as making Eighth Amendment arguments against the sentence.  And the feds, not surprisingly, contend there is no constitutional problem with the conviction and sentence in this case.  Readers interested in this case and the legal issues on appeal can review the briefs, which I am uploading here:

Download Brief of Appellant in US v. Young

Download Young Amicus FILED

Download Appellee's Briefin US v. Young

Download Reply Brief of Appellant in Young

Related prior posts:

March 12, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

New Hampshire House votes to repeal state's (dormant) death penalty

As reported in this local piece, the "New Hampshire House has approved a measure to repeal the state's death penalty after rejecting an amendment that would have spared the life of the only convict on death row in the state." Here is more:

The House voted 225-104 in favor of repeal....

The Legislature voted to repeal capital punishment in 2000, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she supports repeal as long as it is not applied retroactively to Addison's case.

The measure next goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.

I call New Hampshire's death penalty dormant largely because it has only one person on death row and has not executed anyone in three-quarters of a century.

March 12, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ohio prosecutor, upon learning of mental health issues, helps undo 5-year prison term for voter fraud

This local article from Cincinnati, which is headlined "Poll worker who voted illegally freed from prison," reports on a remarkable development in a remarkable voting fraud case thanks to the work of a new defense attorney and a thoughtful local prosecutor. Here are the details:

The former Hamilton County Board of Elections worker convicted last year of illegal voting and sent to prison for five years was released Tuesday because of mental health issues. Melowese Richardson, 58, was too ashamed to mention her bipolar disorder last year and forbid her attorney, Bill Gallagher, from including it as part of her attempt to elude prison. But after she was convicted last spring of four counts of illegal voting, her new attorney appealed the case and raised the issue.

When he sentenced Richardson last year, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman made stinging comments about Richardson, her criminal history, her violation of elections board rules and Ohio laws and her selfishness. "I was not aware of her mental health issues" at that time, the judge said Tuesday, because she refused to allow her attorney to mention it.

After her new attorney, David Singleton, took her case on appeal, he presented her mental health history to Prosecutor Joe Deters. He agreed her bipolar disorder was so severe that she shouldn't be imprisoned. "We went to Joe Deters with those records and Joe immediately recognized that it was inappropriate to have her locked up for five years when the (judge) didn't know she had mental health issues," Singleton said....

In the Tuesday hearing that lasted just minutes, Richardson said nothing except to briefly answer questions, saying she was aware of what was happening and approved. The judge dismissed her May 2013 conviction and five-year prison sentence and allowed her to plead no contest to four counts of illegal voting, the same charges on which she was convicted. That allowed the judge to re-sentence her, placing her on five years of probation and releasing her from the Hamilton County Justice Center after eight months in prison.

Richardson's case drew national headlines last year because of the allegations of illegal voting across the country – and because she was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest. She was convicted of voting twice in the 2012 election and voting three times – in 2008, 2011 and 2012 – for her sister, Montez Richardson, who has been in a coma since 2003.

Richardson was previously convicted of threatening to kill a witness in a criminal case against her brother, of stealing, of drunken driving and of beating someone in a bar fight.

Persons familiar with Ohio policy and politics know that Hamilton County is a fair conservative part of the state and that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is widely know for having put a significant number of murderers on the state's death row. But as this case usefully highlights, state and local prosecutors are often able and often willing to reconsider or resist the use of lengthy prison terms when defense lawyers are able to effectively highlight why such a sentence may be unjust and/or ineffective.

March 11, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Might SCOTUS soon (ever?) consider whether its Apprendi jurisprudence should apply to criminal forfeitures?

The question in the title of this post is my response to the brief discussion of a constitutional claim appearing in yesterday's Ninth Circuit decision in US v. Wilkes, No. 11-50152 (9th Cir. March 10, 2014) (available here).  Here is why:

Wilkes argues that determination of the amount of his criminal forfeiture by the district judge, as opposed to a jury, violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Wilkes argues that Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), require that the jury find facts justifying an increase in either end of the range of the prescribed penalty. Wilkes further argues that Southern Union Co. v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2344 (2012), applied Apprendi and, by extension, Alleyne, to monetary penalties — which he contends includes criminal forfeiture.

Wilkes’s argument is directly contradicted by binding Supreme Court precedent. In Libretti v. United States, 516 U.S. 29, 48–49 (1995), the Court expressly held that there is no Sixth Amendment right to a jury verdict in a criminal forfeiture proceeding. The Supreme Court has cautioned courts of appeals against concluding that “recent cases have, by implication, overruled an earlier precedent.” Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 237 (1997).  Thus, “[i]f a precedent of [the Supreme] Court has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to [the Supreme] Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.” Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/Am. Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484 (1989). In compliance with the Supreme Court’s instructions, we reject the argument that Southern Union implicitly overruled Libretti.

Notably, and I think sensibly, this Ninth Circuit panel does not try to explain why Libretti is still sound and good law in light of Apprendi, Southern Union and Alleyne. Instead, it says it is not its role/job to reverse a pre-Apprendi ruling based on Apprendi; that is what SCOTUS has to do. But since SCOTUS has reversed at least two significant pre-Apprendi rulings based on Apprendi, defendants might be wise to keep raising and preserving this claim until the Supreme Court gives it another modern review.

March 11, 2014 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, March 07, 2014

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application

As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  Here are the basics:

Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.

The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.

The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive.  But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....

Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon.  "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review.   "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."

Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing.  "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing.  She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."

Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings.  "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said.  "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...

[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases.  "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.

The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings....  The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time.  And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.

As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues.  This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.  

Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute.  In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.  

March 7, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act

Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.  This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:

The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs.  Among other things, the legislation passed today:

  • requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;

  • permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and

  • allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.

This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.

For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.

March 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Michigan enacts Miller fix for current and future cases, just as its Justices are to consider past cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'juvenile lifer' update as old cases head to Michigan Supreme Court," the Great Lakes State is busy this week working through all the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling.  Here are some of the details:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed legislation updating state sentencing guidelines in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for minors....

Senate Bill 319, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), changes Michigan law for all pending and future cases involving juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder or certain repeat sexual assault offenses. Instead of handing down mandatory life sentences in those cases, judges can also consider a term of between 25 and 60 years. Prosecutors may still file a request for a natural life sentence, but judges now have new authority to consider other options....

Michigan is home to some 360 juvenile lifers -- more than all but one other state -- but the new law will not have an immediate impact on most inmates already behind bars.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in banning mandatory life sentences for minors, did not indicate whether the ruling should apply retroactively.  The new law contains a "trigger" for resentencing hearings in case of a future court ruling.

The Michigan Supreme Court is set to consider the "retroactivity" question on Thursday, when justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases. Two of the offenders, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis, have exhausted the traditional appeals process but are seeking resentencing.

The third, Dakotah Eliason, is entitled to resentencing because his case is still on appeal, but his attorneys disputed the limited relief offered by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which told a sentencing judge to consider only two options: life with or without the possibility of parole. Michigan's new law, which also allows for a term of years less than life, makes that particular issue moot.  The Eliason case asks the Michigan Supreme Court to consider other issues as well, however, so it's unclear how oral arguments will proceed.

It may be just coincidence that the Michigan legislature got a Miller fix enacted into law just before the Michigan Supreme Court considers retroactive application of Miller to past cases. But I have to think the Michigan Supreme Court might feel (consciously or unconsciously) at least a bit more comfortable concluding that Miller applies retroactively now that the state has a new sentencing scheme for juve murderers on the books.

Michigan media has been covering the Miller application/litigation story quite effectively in the run up to the state's Supreme Court hearing, and here are the headline links to some of the coverage in the last few weeks:

March 5, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why the #@$%! are IQ tests, but not burdens of proof, the key issue in Hall?

The question in the title of this post is my basic reaction to what struck me as a very annoying SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Hall v. Florida concerning how states must deal with the Atkins categroical Eighth Amendment constitutional bar on executing defendants who are mentlly retarded.  The transcript of the argument is available at this link, and Lyle Denniston has this SCOTUSblog summary of what transpired.  Here is the start of Lyle's recap:

If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error.  That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.

A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.

Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior.  He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row.  And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades — an issue that is not directly involved in the new case of Hall v. Florida.

Justice Antonin Scalia expended considerable effort to buttress Florida’s basic argument that the scientific community cannot be trusted to make the rules for eligibility for capital punishment, but except for some supportive hints from Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., this seemed to be a largely forlorn endeavor.

Most of the other Justices joined in the pursuit of an Eighth Amendment rule that would assure that the mental retardation inquiry was sophisticated and nuanced, so that the risk of error was taken fully into account.  While such a rule might not definitely hand over the details to the judgment of scientists and doctors, it apparently would not tolerate an approach designed simply to assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability.  That appeared to be Florida’s main objective.

This account of the tenor of the Hall oral argument seems right, and yesterday's SCOTUS discussion reinforces the all-too-usual modern death penalty dynamic of Justice Kennedy seemingly being the swing vote so that whatever he may think about hard capital issues becomes Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  But beyond my standard annoyance with modern constitutional death penalty law now being all about what Justice Kennedy thinks, the Hall oral argument has me extra annoyed because the Court seems intent on focusing application of Atkins on the narrow medical issue of how exactly IQ tests can be used when assessing mental disability rather than on the critical legal/constitutional issue of how burdens of proof can be allocated when deciding who is exempt from the death penalty.

I suppose I should not be too surprised, based both on the cert grant and the approach taken by the advocates in Hall, that Florida's IQ line-drawing approach to Atkins took center stage during yesterday's SCOTUS argument.  But as Kent highlights in this effective post at Crime & Consequences, the discussion of statistics and IQ measurement error among the Justices was garbled at best, and really more an example of junk science on display rather than a serious exploration of whether and when an inexact measurement device (an IQ test) can itself establish at the margins placement of a defendant in an inexact medical category (mentally retarded/disabled) which SCOTUS has given legal significance via its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  

That IQ is, at best, an inexact measurement device is amply proved by the Brief of petitioner Freddie Lee Hall: that brief indicates that IQ measurements for Hall have ranged from 60 to 80 and that various doctors at various times have scored his IQ at 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, and 79.  This reality suggests that IQ tests can only provide a general fuzzy picture of a person's mental abilities and that it would be foolish and misguided for anyone to use IQ scores alone as dispostive "scientific" or "objective" evidence of whether a murderer is or is not mentally retarded/disabled.  In this sense, I suppose, Florida does look bad having a bright-line IQ line for administering Atkins.  But given that IQ tests will always scatter in these kinds of cases, I think the legal issue of who bears the burden of proof and at what level as to Atkins claims is what ultimately determines the reach of Atkins in any state.

If SCOTUS strikes down the current Florida approach to Atkins without speaking to burdens of proof, Florida could then just employ Gerogia's approach to "assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability" by requiring defendants to prove they have MR beyond a reasonable doubt (or perhaps even say beyond all doubt).  Already, Florida requires a defendant to prove his disability by clear and convincing evidence, and that standard (with or without an IQ requirement) necessarily entails that Florida will be able to execute murderers whom judges reasonably think, but are not clearly convinced, are mentally retarded/disabled.   The experience in since Atkins makes clear that states eager to limit who gets off death row can do so using legal standards like proof burdens rather than relying just on IQ numbers.  Thus if (and when?) SCOTUS only addresses how IQ tests are used in Hall and dodges any discussion of burdens of proof, Atkins application issues (and interstate Atkins disparity) will persist.

I suppose I am frustrated here in large part because SCOTUS has long been eager to avoid, in all sorts of settings, establishing any clear and predicatble constitutional rules for burdens of proof concerning facts or factors that impact only sentencing determinations and not guilt.  These burden-of-proof issues, which may be viewed as a Fifth Amendment due process concern and/or an Eighth Amendment concern depending on the setting, can be found lurking in the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment line of cases, but they have never gotten the independent treatment that I think they merit and needs  I have long been hoping Hall might finally lead to some useful burden-of-proof constitutional jurisprudence, but after the oral argument I am no longer hopeful on this front.

March 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

SCOTUS finally to grapple with how states are applying Atkins

I helped represent a Texas death-row defendant with a very low IQ in habeas appeals years before the 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Atkins v. Virginia decided the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of murderers who are mental retarded.  As a result of that work two decades ago, I have long been interested in the question the Supreme Court will this morning finally confront at oral argument in Hall v. Florida: how can (or must) states define and apply mental retardation for purposes of determining who is excluded from execution due to Atkins.

For a variety of reasons, Hall could end up being a huge case about constitutionally required sentencing procedures that could impact lots of cases outside the context of the death penalty.  I suspect, however, that some Justices will be eager to ensure the Court's work in Hall ends up modest and limited.  For this reason, I think today's oral argument may provide an interesting window into how certain Justices are approaching Hall and this broader issues of procedure and federalism that it raises.

I expect to post on the substance of the Hall oral argument later this week.  But for more pre-game analysis, here are a few media reports and commentaries on Hall:

March 3, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack