Death Row Inmates' Sentences Overturned

Supremes overturn death sentences of three Texas inmates, sending them back to state courts and calling into question the death sentences of dozens of other inmates

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned on April 25 the death sentences of three Texas death row inmates, sending them back to state courts and calling into question the death sentences of dozens of other inmates convicted before 1991. In the cases of LaRoyce Smith, Brent Brewer, and Jalil Abdul-Kabir, a 5-4 majority of the court ruled that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the state's highest criminal court) impermissibly prevented jurors from giving "meaningful consideration" to mitigating evidence – such as a history of childhood abuse or mental illness – that could have affected the outcome of the sentencing.

In the cases of all three inmates, originally sentenced prior to 1991, jurors were asked just two yes-or-no questions during the sentencing phase of trial: whether the killing was deliberate and whether the defendant would present a continuing threat to society – a "yes" answer to each meant death; a "no" answer to either meant life in prison. In the following years, the Supremes determined that offering just those two questions was inadequate, first prompting Texas courts to improvise a new standard – one of "nullification," wherein jurors could artificially change a "yes" answer to a "no" if they felt mitigating evidence might preclude death; later, lawmakers crafted a third question specifically asking jurors whether mitigating evidence warranted life confinement instead of death. The newer standard is now in place, but the old two-question standard is still at play in numerous death cases – perhaps 50 inmates currently on the row were sentenced under the scheme the Supremes have deigned insufficient – meaning that in the wake of the Supremes' decisions last week, dozens more cases might require a new sentencing hearing. (On Monday the Supremes overturned, without comment, the case of death row inmate Ronald Chambers, also based on faulty jury instructions. Chambers has been on Texas' death row for 31 years.)

In the majority opinions, Justices John Paul Stevens (who authored the majority opinions in the Brewer and Abdul-Kabir cases) and Anthony Kennedy (who led the majority in the Smith case) chastised the appellate courts for not heeding the Supremes' previous legal guidance on how to handle cases where questions of insufficient deference to mitigating evidence is raised on appeal. A long line of Supreme Court cases "have made it clear that when the jury is not permitted to give meaningful effect of a 'reasoned moral response' to a defendant's mitigating evidence – because it is forbidden from doing so by statute or a judicial interpretation of a statute – the sentencing process is fatally flawed," Stevens wrote.

UT Law professors Rob Owen and Jordan Steiker, working with students enrolled in the school's Capital Punishment Clinic, argued the cases before the Supremes in January. Including the three cases decided last week, the Cap Punishment Clinic has won in five consecutive cases before the Supremes over the last three years.

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Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Kalil Abdul-Kabir, LaRoyce Smith, Brent Brewer, death penalty, mitigating evidence

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