Supreme Court Criminal/Death Penalty Cases

It’s spring in Washington D.C. and not only does that mean cherry blossoms, but it means that the United States Supreme Court is very busy hearing arguments on pending cases and granting future hearings. Many of the cases granted certiorari (or granting hearings) are death penalty cases. A few months ago, the United States Supreme Court added 16 new cases to their Spring term and they are adding several more. Many of those heard this year and set for argument are criminal death penalty cases from Texas.

Some of the cases relate to racial bias, the rights of an accused person being given the ability to adequately prepare for their defense with the use of meaningful expert assistance, and others focus on intellectually disabled individuals.

Just yesterday the Supreme Court granted a hearing this coming fall for AYESTAS v. DAVIS, No. 16-6795. This case involves a Texas man convicted and sentenced to death in Harris County (Houston area). The only question before the Court is whether Federal appeals court erred by denying access to funds and resources to investigate his appellate claims, including the fact that he may have a mental disability. The claim is that the original state defense attorneys did not thoroughly investigate the potentially mitigating arguments in Ayestas’ defense.

Another Texas case that we have watched very closely is: MOORE v. TEXAS, No. 15-797. This case was decided March 28, 2017, on a 5-3 vote. The case centered around what are acceptable medical standards that can be used in determining the intellectual functioning of a defendant in a capital/death penalty case. The Court struck down Texas’ application of using outdated “legal-type” standards to determine intellectual disability. The Court stated that when determining intellectual disability of a person, the state must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The majority stated that using outdated/”outlier” medical standards gives an “unacceptable risk” that an intellectually disabled person could be executed.

BUCK v. DAVIS, No. 15-8049 (decided February 22, 2017) is probably the most notorious case, nationally, and this one is from Teas as well. The issue raised in this case was one of racial bias. Duane Buck was one of 7 Texas cases that involved an expert psychologist by the name of Walter Quijano, who told juries at sentencing that blacks and Hispanics were “more likely to commit future crimes.” Six of the 7 defendants were given new sentencing hearings based on this racially biased claim, but Buck was not and his case made it to the United States Supreme Court.

The question before the Supreme Court was one of national importance; to what extent is the criminal justice system going to allow for bias based on race? In an easy 6-2 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the “law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”

McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294- is a case set for oral argument April, 24, 2017. This case centers around the constitutional right that a defendant should receive meaningful expert assistance in preparation and presentation of his defense.

In this case, the defense counsel for James McWilliams requested expert assistance for neurological evaluations which were denied. Just moments before McWilliams sentencing hearing in state, court defense counsel received information related to the possibility of his client having an intellectual disability. The defense counsel, again, requested a continuance so that he could get a medical expert to further evaluated his client. His requests were denied and McWilliams was sentenced to death by the judge in Alabama.

Question Presented: Whether, when the Supreme 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.

Cert papers and the decision below are available here: http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/mcwilliams-v-dunn/

Davila v. Davis, No. 16-6219- is also set for argument April 24, 2017, and is a Texas Death Penalty case. The issue is more of a technical one asking whether Davila can raise the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the federal court level when the original appellate attorney did not raise the question of ineffective assistance of the original state attorney. So, part of the question is whether the federal appellate attorney made a mistake in not raising the issue to begin with. Usually, when an error argument is not raised initially, it is assumed the issue is waived. Many federal jurisdictions are split on this issue, so the decision of this case will answer the question once and for all.

Question presented: Whether the rule 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 apply to procedureally defaulted, but substantial ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.

Cert papers and the decision below are available here: http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/davila-v-davis/