by Jessica Pezley, Judicial Clerk, Oregon Circuit Courts
The debate over the constitutionality of the death penalty took on a renewed vigor last term in Oklahoma’s lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, in which Justice Breyer in dissent suggested it “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” While the Court decided 5-4 that Oklahoma’s use of the lethal injection drug midazolam—part one of a three-part drug cocktail meant to numb an individual from the pain caused by the other drugs working to stop the heart—was constitutional, the close vote and impassioned dissent highlighted a growing skepticism of capital punishment in the Court. Flash-forward to this term and the issue was high on the docket with four cases raising procedural questions about the death penalty. Two have since been decided.
First, in Hurst v. Florida the Court deemed unconstitutional a sentencing scheme that charged the judge, and not a jury, with making the ultimate sentencing decision in capital cases. Decided 8-1, Hurst seemed to indicate the direction the Court would take in its three remaining death penalty cases. Then, just over a week later in Kansas v. Carr/Kansas v. Gleason, the Court voted 8-1 against recognizing additional Eighth Amendment procedural protections. What accounts for this difference? And what do these inconsistent results spell out for the remaining two death penalty cases, Foster v. Chatman and Williams v. Pennsylvania?
In Carr, the Kansas Supreme Court vacated three death sentences—those of the Carr brothers and of Gleason, a defendant in an unrelated case—because of the lower court’s failure to affirmatively instruct the jury that mitigating factors need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and in the case of the Carr brothers, not allowing severance at the sentencing phase of trial. Kansas’s attorney general challenged this decision, and the Court granted certiorari on the question of whether the Eighth Amendment demands the procedural protections recognized by the Kansas Supreme Court.
It became readily apparent that the respondents in Carr were in trouble. Justice Scalia halted oral argument to recount, at length, the grisly details of the Carr brothers’ crime spree, known as the Wichita Massacre. It came as no surprise then, when the opinion for the case was handed down, that Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, used over two pages of his 18-page opinion to again hash out the horrendous facts. In the remaining pages, the Court found little trouble in dispensing with the respondents’ arguments.