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June 18, 2015

SCOTUS rules 5-4 for state capital defendant in Brumfield v. Cain, and 5-4 against state capital defendant in Davis v. Ayala

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), this Court recognized that the execution of the intellectually disabled contravenes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy dissent which ends with a picture and starts this way:

Federal collateral review of state convictions interrupts the enforcement of state criminal laws and undermines the finality of state-court judgments. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addresses that interference by constraining the ability of federal courts to grant relief to state prisoners. Today, the Court oversteps those limits in a decision that fails to respect the Louisiana state courts and our precedents.  I respectfully dissent.


Just a few minutes later, the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Davis v. Ayala, No. 13-1428 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case. The Court's opinion begins this way:

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy.  On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.  Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote interesting off-topic concurrences, which I will discuss in a separate post. More on point is the chief dissent in Ayala authored by Justice Sotomayor, which starts this way:

At Hector Ayala’s trial, the prosecution exercised its peremptory strikes to dismiss all seven of the potential black and Hispanic jurors. In his federal habeas petition, Ayala challenged the state trial court’s failure to permit his attorneys to participate in hearings regarding the legitimacy of the prosecution’s alleged race-neutral reasons for its strikes. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 97–98 (1986). The Court assumes that defense counsel’s exclusion from these proceedings violated Ayala’s constitutional rights, but concludes that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief because there is insufficient reason to believe that counsel could have convinced the trial court to reject the prosecution’s proffered reasons. I respectfully dissent. Given the strength of Ayala’s prima facie case and the comparative juror analysis his attorneys could have developed if given the opportunity to do so, little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.

June 18, 2015 at 10:11 AM | Permalink


Kennedy's concurrence is a lenghthy criticism of solitary confinement. Quite accurate and well-supported. In response, Thomas, says "that the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are afar sight more spacious than those in which his victims,Ernesto Dominguez Mendez, Marcos Antonio Zamora, and Jose Luis Rositas, now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years of age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."

In other words, who gives a damn how murderers are treated. They're lucky we keep that alive.
As far as I am aware, Thomas truly is the cruelest, most most cold-hearted, and most bitter judge ever to sit on the Court.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jun 18, 2015 5:34:34 PM

Mr. Levine, your conclusion is correct. Just the latest example of his utter lack of compassion for prisoners. In 1992, Thomas and Scalia argued that when a prisoner was hogtied to the floor and severely beaten by prison guards, it did not constitute a violation of the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. (name of case escapes me at the moment).

Posted by: observer | Jun 18, 2015 5:42:50 PM

He is a real mean guy. Take a look at his opinion in Thompson v. Connick where he (and Scalia) reverse a jury award to the innocent Thompson for $14 million for prosecutor's blatant and repeated Brady violations causing him 20 years of incarcerati0n. Even the Fifth Circuit had upheld he award. Thomas is mean, mean, mean.

Posted by: onlooker | Jun 18, 2015 9:08:44 PM

These decisions make my point that the number of Justices should be an even number.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 18, 2015 10:41:27 PM

Mr. Levine. I have to repeat myself because the pro-criminal biased lawyer refuses to listen.

Solitary confinement has benefits, and does not cause any mental illness.

For the twelfth time, since no one is listening.

Go to Page 11. Findings.


From another article.



The results of this study were inconsistent with the hypothesis that inmates, with or without mental illness, experience significant psychological decline in AS. Intercept comparisons showed that baseline differences were largely related to mental health status. Segregated inmates with mental illness displayed more symptoms than did inmates without mental illness. Mentally ill inmates in segregation were fairly similar to their comparison groups, but, from the beginning of the study, non-mentally ill segregated inmates had more symptoms than their GP comparison group had. It should be noted, however, that all offenders, regardless of their mental health status, reported symptoms that were significantly elevated over normative community samples. Although the initial values showed group differences, the change function indicated significant change in psychological symptoms over time with early fast improvements slowing to stability. In contrast to the hypotheses, this pattern of change was similar in all five study groups."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 19, 2015 1:07:21 AM

Another reversal of a Reinhardt majority opinion at the 9th. Stephen, are you ever going to get one of your opinions affirmed?

Posted by: DaveP | Jun 19, 2015 8:16:07 PM

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