Supremes: What'd We Say?

High court spikes yet another Texas death-row verdict

Evidence of death-row inmate LaRoyce Smith's low 
IQ wasn't sufficiently considered by Texas courts, the 
U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week. For a larger image 
click <b><a href=http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-11-19/summary.jpg 
target=blank>here</a></b>
Evidence of death-row inmate LaRoyce Smith's low IQ wasn't sufficiently considered by Texas courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week. For a larger image click here

In a 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 15 overturned the death sentence of Texas row inmate LaRoyce Lathair Smith, who had been sentenced to die for the 1991 murder of a Dallas Taco Bell employee. At issue was whether Smith's jury had the opportunity to consider Smith's low IQ (among several other matters) as mitigating evidence when deciding Smith's punishment.

In the opinion, the court cited their previous decisions in two other Texas death cases – those of John Paul Penry and Robert Tennard (whose case was decided this summer) – in which the court variously determined that Texas' death scheme shunted a jury's ability to give full consideration to mitigating circumstances that could result in a defendant getting a life sentence instead of death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals each denied Smith's appeal (the CCA's denial came shortly before the high court's June ruling in the Tennard case), ruling that Smith had failed to demonstrate that his "criminal act was attributable" to a "uniquely severe permanent handicap."

In the opinion handed down Monday, the Supremes again rejected that standard: "Our rejection of that threshold test was central to our decision to reverse in Tennard," the court wrote. None of their earlier opinions "screened mitigating evidence" for the "constitutional relevance" suggested by the two lower courts, the court wrote. "Rather, we held that the jury must be given an effective vehicle with which to weigh mitigating evidence so long as the defendant has met a 'low threshold for relevance,' which is satisfied by 'evidence which tends logically to prove or disprove some fact or circumstance which a fact-finder could reasonably deem to have mitigating value," the court wrote. "The Texas [CCA] relied on precisely the same 'screening test' we held constitutionally inadequate in [the] Tennard [case]."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined the court in overturning Smith's sentence, although he did not join the Tennard majority earlier this year. In a one-sentence dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas disagreed with the court on Smith, writing that they would've affirmed the CCA's ruling.

Nationwide, the number of U.S. inmates sentenced to death last year hit a 30-year low, according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice on Nov. 14. Last year, 144 inmates were sentenced to death, the lowest number since 1973. Also last year, 267 inmates had their death sentences overturned or vacated – the largest number since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's commutation of 155 death sentences and granting of four pardons accounted for 60% of the reversals. Although the number of executions in Texas has declined from the heyday of George W. Bush, the state was nonetheless able to retain the top spot on the national death list by sending 24 inmates to the death chamber last year – Oklahoma, with 14 executions, secured second place.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
MORE Death Penalty
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Two capital cases raise psychological and evidentiary issues

Jordan Smith, Oct. 4, 2013

Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
The state of Texas has three executions' worth of pentobarbitol

Jordan Smith, Aug. 9, 2013

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

U.S. Supreme Court, death penalty, Robert Tennard, John Paul Penry, LaRoyce Lathair Smith, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist, Court of Criminal Appeals, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, death penalty, George Ryan

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle