Category: U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS Appears Poised to Re-Instate Death Penalty for Boston Marathon Bomber

The Supreme Court today heard argument in one of the most prominent death penalty cases of the last few decades, that of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  News reports from the Washington Post and CNN  —  neither outlet being friendly to capital punishment  —  suggest that the Court will reverse the First Circuit and re-instate Tsarnaev’s thoroughly earned death sentence.

Continue reading . . .

The Riddles of Harmless Error and Habeas Corpus – Part II

Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Brown v. Davenport, No. 20-826 (transcript here; audio here).

The issue in this case involves the standard of review federal habeas courts must apply when reviewing a state court’s determination of harmless error. Davenport was partially shackled during his trial for first-degree murder. On direct appeal, the state appellate courts found that his partial shackling was unconstitutional, but was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under the standard announced in Chapman v. California (1968). Continue reading . . .

The Riddles of Harmless Error and Habeas Corpus

“An error occurred at trial. I have grave doubt whether this error contributed to the verdict. Therefore, no reasonable person could fail to have at least a reasonable doubt whether it contributed to the verdict.”

Does this follow, or is it a non sequitur? The U.S. Supreme Court puzzled over that question this morning in Brown v. Davenport, No. 20-826. To answer it correctly, in my view, the Court may have to disclaim a bit of dictum in Fry v. Pliler (2007). Continue reading . . .

The Long List from the Long Conference

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its October 2021 Term today, the First Monday in October. As usual, it released an orders list from last week’s conference containing many denials of certiorari, a number of “vacate and remand” orders for lower courts to reconsider judgments based on decisions from last term, a few individual opinions regarding denial of certiorari, and no grants for full briefing and argument. The latter were in the short list issued last Thursday.

Among the notable denials is Deck v. Blair, No. 20-8333, denying review of the Eighth Circuit’s reinstatement of the death sentence of Carman Deck for the 1996 murder of an elderly couple, James and Zelma Long. Deck had to be sentenced to death three times in this case because of erroneous decisions by the Supreme Court itself, one in Deck’s own initial case and another that caused his second sentence to be overturned in state court. CJLF filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Long family in the Eighth Circuit. The State of Missouri may now proceed with long-overdue justice, absent any extraordinary interventions by the courts. Continue reading . . .

Ineffective Assistance, Strategic Decisions, and Making a Record

The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its October 2020 Term with a summary reversal of a federal court of appeals decision for — you guessed it — giving the state court insufficient credit as required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s so-called “deference” provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This time it was the Eleventh Circuit, further undermining my old “circuits divisible by three” rule.

The twist in Dunn v. Reeves, No. 20-1084 is that the Eleventh had based its holding on Justice Sotomayor’s dissent from denial of certiorari earlier in the same case. The unsigned opinion of the Court rebukes the Eleventh for its failure to properly observe § 2254(d), noting that the case is in a different posture on habeas corpus than on the Supreme Court’s direct review of a state court decision. Despite that difference, Justice Sotomayor is livid, with a dissent as long as the opinion of the Court. Continue reading . . .

Detention of Illegally Re-Entering Aliens

The U.S. Supreme Court issued three decisions today as it wraps up its October 2020 term. The one marginally crime-related case is Johnson v. Guzman Chavez, No. 19-987. The case involves the detention pending deportation of aliens previously deported who illegally re-enter the United States. Such re-entry is a crime, a more serious one than first-time illegal entry. The holding is that such aliens are subject to the more stringent of two statutes on detention pending deportation, rather than the more lenient one with more leeway for release on bond or conditional parole. Continue reading . . .

Supreme Court Sends Excessive Force Case Back to USCA8

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two summary decisions today. In Lombardo v. St. Louis, No. 20-391, the Court sent a case back to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, a procedure known as “grant, vacate, and remand” or GVR. The case involves the death in custody of likely suicidal prisoner who was very actively resisting officers’ attempts to subdue him. Ironically, they caused the very result he tried to inflict on himself–death by asphyxiation.

Quoting a 2015 precedent, the unsigned opinion for the majority says that deciding claims such as these “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.” See the problem here? Continue reading . . .