Supremes to Examine Death Row Appeals

Supreme Court agrees to hear three Texas death row appeals during its new term

So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear three Texas death row appeals during its new term, which begins this month. In each case, the high court will determine whether lower courts – specifically the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – have complied with the Supremes' previous rulings regarding jury instructions. In 1989, the high court rejected the state's special instructions, given to jurors in death-penalty cases, which omitted any clear way for jurors to weigh mitigating evidence in deciding a sentence – including whether the inmate had any mental disability or a history of childhood abuse; in 1991 the instructions were finally rewritten to include a specific question regarding mitigating evidence that might preclude imposing a death sentence.

All three of the cases the high court has agreed to hear, however, involve prisoners sentenced under the old guidelines, and what the court decides in these cases could determine whether the death sentences of potentially 68 prisoners sentenced under the old guidelines will stand. The court will hear the appeals of Jalil Abdul-Kabir (aka Ted Calvin Coe), Brent Brewer, and LaRoyce Smith; in the Abdul-Kabir and Brewer cases, the court will be asked to determine whether the 5th Circuit correctly determined whether the jurors had a chance to factor mitigating evidence into their decisions; in Smith's case, the court will determine whether the CCA knowingly disobeyed its 2004 ruling that Smith deserved a new sentencing hearing. On rehearing, the CCA in March opined that Smith's sentence should stand.

The Supremes' decision to accept the three cases at hand suggests they're not finished smacking the 5th Circuit and the CCA, two courts that they've chastised before in opinions suggesting the appellate courts should pay more attention to the high court's rulings. Indeed, the justices sent Smith's case back to the CCA without even hearing oral arguments, instead issuing a tersely worded order that the court review its work. Notably, the Supremes also ultimately tossed the conviction of death row inmate Thomas Miller-El, after determining that the 5th Circuit seemingly ignored its ruling that the court thoroughly vet evidence that Miller-El's conviction had been tainted by race-based jury selection. After hearing the case a second time, the Supremes yanked the conviction, sending Miller-El's case all the way back to Dallas Co. district court for retrial.

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Capital Punishment, U.S. Supreme Court, death row, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Jalil Abdul-Kabir, Brent Brewer, LaRoyce Smith, Thomas Miller-El

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