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June 29, 2010

A few final wins for criminal defendants on the final day of the SCOTUS Term

Though yesterday felt like the final day of the October 2009 Supreme Court Term, the Justices actually released today a final set of orders.  And, as effectively described in this SCOTUSblog post, this final set of orders included some notable victories for a few criminal defendants:

The Court sent back to lower courts for another look the convictions of the former Alabama governor and a top health industry executive on charges of arranging large campaign contributions in return for official favors on state health policy.  The lower courts are to reexamine those cases under the Court’s decision last week in Skilling v. United States — a ruling that significantly narrowed the federal fraud law as it applies to corruption schemes.   The returned cases are Scrushy v. U.S. (09-167), involving Richard M. Scrushy, founder and CEO of HealthSouth Corp., and Siegelman v. U.S. (09-182), involving former Gov. Don Eugene Siegelman. [SL&P addition: This order list also includes five other Skilling GVR's]...

Also sent back to a lower court was Maloney v. Rice (08-1592), a case in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor, when she was a member of the Second Circuit, had also ruled that the Second Amendment does not apply to state and local government levels.  The Maloney case did not involve guns, but rather tested a New York state law that bans personal possession of a martial arts device — a nunchaku — that also can be used as a weapon.   Justice Sotomayor did not take part in the Maloney order Tuesday.

Over the objection of four Justices, the Court issued a summary decision in a highly unusual death penalty case, in which the defense attorney had sought to win favor with the jury by portraying the individual’s childhood as stable, loving, and “essentially without incident” as a way to show that a death sentence would devastate the individual’s family, who wee shocked and dismayed by the crime.  But, the Court concluded Tuesday, that strategy backfired, and prosecutors used that background evidence. suggesting that the individual had led a “privileged” life,  in their closing argument and obtained a death sentence.  The majority said that the defense lawyer’s choice of that theory led to a completely inadequate investigation of a childhood that was immersed in parental abuse, and the youth had suffered head injuries that doctors deemed significant enough to impair his capacity.  The case involved Demarcus Ali Sears, convicted of murder in Georgia — a woman was kidnapped in Georgia, and killed in Kentucky.  Sears was sentenced to death.  The Court’s ruling came in an unsigned (“Per Curiam”) decision, apparently on a 5-4 vote.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., noted that they would have denied review.  Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.  The case was Sears v. Upton (09-8854).

The substantive Sears ruling spotlights that there are still five votes to summarily reverse in those capital cases in which the affirmance of a state death sentence bothers the liberal wing of the Court. 

Especially in light of the historic role that Justice Stevens played in the evolution of the Court's capital jurisprudence, it is fitting that Justice Stevens engineered a final win for a capital defendant on his way off the Court.  And it is now useful and interesting to speculate as to whether likely future Justice Elena Kagan will be just as willing and eager to side with death row defendants in future Terms.

June 29, 2010 at 03:09 PM | Permalink


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Kagan seemed altogether too willing to volunteer that she had no moral qualms about the death penalty today.

Posted by: nan | Jun 29, 2010 6:43:08 PM

In fact, her answers seemed to echo Justice Thomas's answers on the same subject during his confirmation hearing almost 20 years ago.

Posted by: nan | Jun 29, 2010 8:07:48 PM

"Kagan seemed altogether too willing to volunteer that she had no moral qualms about the death penalty today."

Neither did Abraham Lincoln.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 29, 2010 10:01:56 PM

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