Death penalty

  • June 6, 2014

    by Nicholas Alexiou

    The rickety nature of the American indigent defense system is on display in The Guardian as Ed Pilkington reports on the judicial system in Cordele, Ga. ACS Georgia Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors member Sara Totonchi is quoted.

    In The Washington Post, Mark Berman reports on the appeal of Ohio death row inmate Romell Broom, whom the state attempted to execute in 2009, but abandoned that effort after being unable to find a suitable vein to administer the lethal injection. The Ohio Supreme Court will determine whether another attempted execution would constitute double jeopardy as well as cruel and unusual punishment.

    Norm Ornstein argues for Supreme Court term limits in The Atlantic.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a trial court decision on Thursday to certify a class of inmates in the Arizona prison system who allege that their Eight Amendment rights have been violated reports Bob Ortega at the Arizona Republic.

  • June 3, 2014
    Guest Post

    by John H. Blume, Professor of Law, Director of Clinical, Advocacy and Skills Programs, Cornell Law School; Director, Cornell Death Penalty Project; Faculty Advisor, Cornell Law School ACS Student Chapter

    In Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States reaffirmed the core holding of Atkins v. Virginia, which – more than a decade ago – erected an Eighth Amendment categorical bar to executing persons with an intellectual disability. While the Atkins Court utilized and embraced the clinical consensus definitions of intellectual disability, it stated (in an unfortunate choice of language) that it was leaving “to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction.” Some states, Florida being one, concluded that the Court was giving them license to narrow the scope of the constitutional exclusion by adopting legislative (or as in Hall, judicially created) variations to the clinical definition of intellectual disability. 

    The deviation from the “unanimous professional consensus” at issue in Hall was the refusal to consider the standard error of measurement inherent in any IQ score. The first prong of the clinical definition of intellectual disability is that the person must have “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,” which translates to an IQ score of approximately 70 (two standard deviation below the mean). Even though the test designers, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Association for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) all stated before and after Atkins that the measurement error of 5 points had to be taken into account, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that any death sentenced inmate who did not have an IQ score of 70 or below was precluded as a matter of law from arguing that he was intellectually disabled. Applying this non-scientific rigid cut-off, the Florida courts rejected Hall’s claim that he was intellectually disabled because his IQ was measured at 71.    

  • June 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Frank Housh, owner of Housh Law Offices, PLLC, and chair of the ACS Western New York Lawyer Chapter. He participated in the preparation of the petition for a writ of certiorari in Johnson v. Texas, 509 US 350 (1993), a case related to the issue of the intellectual capacity of the defendant in a capital case.

    The Supreme Court’s May 27 decision in Hall v. Florida makes clear that fundamental notions of human dignity and the validity of the scientific method axiomatic in developed nations of the 21st Century have found no purchase by the majority of the Court. As a nation which still executes its own, the United States remains a peculiar outlier in the international order; the fact that our constitutional jurisprudence still tinkers with the obsolete machinery of death drags down the rule of law below the minimum standards of the world community.

    In 1989, a 5-4 Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that executing the “mentally retarded” was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. “Mentally retarded,” however, remained undefined in the decision. What followed was a macabre race to the bottom among the states, including Florida’s bright-line standard that funneled those capital defendants with an IQ of 69 or less to life without parole and those with a score of 70 and above to the gallows (Freddie Lee Hall scored a 71). Unfortunately, that race continues, as Hall does little to clarify the issue.

    Hall had two holdings: first, the more palatable “intellectual disability” is the phrase of choice over “mental retardation;” second, IQ score alone cannot be the final and conclusive evidence of the defendant’s intellectual capacity because “experts in the field would consider other evidence” due to the presence of a “standard error measurement.” No further guidance was given as to what constitutes a constitutionally permissible scheme to determine the the minimum standard of intellectual function necessary to strap someone to a gurney and shoot poison into them until they die.

  • May 30, 2014

    Acclaimed writer, poet and professor Maya Angelou died Wednesday at the age of 86. In a life that inspired many influential figures of the twentieth century including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Angelou eloquently merged the lines between artist and civil rights activist. Adam Serwer at MSNBC celebrates the legacy of an American hero. 
     
    Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has signed a bill that would close many of the state’s remaining abortion clinics. Writing for Salon, Katie McDonough comments on what the legislation could mean for women throughout the region.
     
    Alicia A. Caldwell at The Associated Press notes the Obama administration’s decision to delay a review of the nation’s deportation policy until the summer in an attempt to pressure Congress to act on immigration reform.
     
    On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s IQ requirements were too strict in assessing whether or not a prisoner was mentally competent enough to be executed. At The New York Times, Adam Liptak breaks down Hall v. Florida
  • May 22, 2014
    Last night, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Russell Bucklew, a Missouri inmate convicted of rape and murder. The Court granted the stay after Bucklew’s lawyers noted that his rare health condition would cause excruciating pain if he was executed via lethal injection. Robert Barnes and Mark Berman at The Washington Post discuss the role Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. played in the decision.
     
    On Tuesday, Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that the state’s ban on gay marriage violated the Constitution. Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Penn.) announced that he will not appeal the decision. Trip Gabriel at The New York Times reports on the victory for gay and lesbian couples in the Keystone State. 
     
    Writing for TIME, Andrew Rossi comments on the state of higher education as it begins to benefit more private than public interests.
     
    At Jost on Justice Kenneth Jost explains why “the history of the fight for marriage equality is yet to be written.”