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January 20, 2016

Supreme Court, reversing Kansas Supreme Court, finds no Eighth Amendment problems with Kansas capital procedures

Continuing to do significant capital sentencing procedure work at the start of 2016, the Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion rejecting Eighth Amendment concerns with the way Kansas has imposed some capital sentences.  The opinion of the Court in Kansas v. Carr, No. 14-449 (S. Ct. Jan. 20, 2016) (available here), authored by Justice Scalia and joined by every Justice except Justice Sotomayor, is at times quite nuanced in its analysis and at times quite crisp.  Here are excerpts from the start and body of the opinion highlighting these realities: 

The Supreme Court of Kansas vacated the death sentences of Sidney Gleason and brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr. Gleason killed one of his co-conspirators and her boyfriend to cover up the robbery of an elderly man.  The Carrs’ notorious Wichita crime spree culminated in the brutal rape, robbery, kidnaping, and execution-style shooting of five young men and women. We first consider whether the Constitution required the sentencing courts to instruct the juries that mitigating circumstances “need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  And second, whether the Constitution required severance of the Carrs’ joint sentencing proceedings....

As an initial matter, the defendants’ argument rests on the assumption that it would be unconstitutional to require the defense to prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.  Assuming without deciding that that is the case, the record belies the defendants’ contention that the instructions caused jurors to apply that standard of proof....

Not once do the instructions say that defense counsel bears the burden of proving the facts constituting a mitigating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt — nor would that make much sense, since one of the mitigating circumstances is (curiously) “mercy,” which simply is not a factual determination.....

The instructions repeatedly told the jurors to consider any mitigating factor, meaning any aspect of the defendants’ background or the circumstances of their offense.  Jurors would not have misunderstood these instructions to prevent their consideration of constitutionally relevant evidence....

Whatever the merits of defendants’ procedural objections [about a joint sentencing], we will not shoehorn them into the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” As the United States as amicus curiae intimates, the Eighth Amendment is inapposite when each defendant’s claim is, at bottom, that the jury considered evidence that would not have been admitted in a severed proceeding, and that the joint trial clouded the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence like “mercy.” Brief for United States 24, n. 8. As we held in Romano v. Oklahoma, 512 U. S. 1 (1994), it is not the role of the Eighth Amendment to establish a special “federal code of evidence” governing “the admissibility of evidence at capital sentencing proceedings.” Id., at 11–12. Rather, it is the Due Process Clause that wards off the introduction of “unduly prejudicial” evidence that would “rende[r] the trial fundamentally unfair.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808, 825 (1991); see also Brown v. Sanders, 546 U. S. 212, 220–221 (2006).

The test prescribed by Romano for a constitutional violation attributable to evidence improperly admitted at a capital-sentencing proceeding is whether the evidence “so infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to render the jury’s imposition of the death penalty a denial of due process.” 512 U. S., at 12.  The mere admission of evidence that might not otherwise have been admitted in a severed proceeding does not demand the automatic vacatur of a death sentence.

In light of all the evidence presented at the guilt and penalty phases relevant to the jury’s sentencing determination, the contention that the admission of mitigating evidence by one brother could have “so infected” the jury’s consideration of the other’s sentence as to amount to a denial of due process is beyond the pale.

January 20, 2016 at 10:44 AM | Permalink


Wonder if the back and forth between Scalia and Sotomayor is indicative of how the Court will handle the jurisdictional issue in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

Posted by: Da Man | Jan 20, 2016 1:16:05 PM

I'd say that Sotomayor mailed in her dissent, but it's so atrocious.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 21, 2016 10:05:28 PM

The "wise sic] Latina" has certainly polluted the US Reports with lots of opinion diarrhea, but the dissent here is about as bad a legal opinion as one can find. The Carrs committed ghastly crimes--crimes that scream out for the death penalty, if for no other reason than to end the sick satisfaction these savages probably still have. Yet Sotomayor would allow a surviving victim and the victims' families to be cheated out of justice because she thinks that these capital murderers should get a hook up from a court that couldn't get the law right.

Someone will correct me if I am wrong, but didn't Sotomayor affirm the empathy standard? Well where is her empathy for Holly (the surviving victim)? We're not talking about law here---we're talking about prudence--the issue wasn't whether the Kansas Supreme Court erred--even Sotomayor doesn't really argue that--she just says that the case shouldn't have been taken. Apparently, Holly having to re-tstify isn't a reason for this "Justice" to have a little empathy.

"I see no reason to intervene in cases like these"--what a sick sick woman.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 23, 2016 9:46:43 AM

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