Tightening the Noose on Defendants

Court rulings whittle away Sixth Amendment

Tightening the Noose on Defendants
Photo by Jason Stout

It's been a busy couple of weeks in Texas' appeals courts – including at the state's highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals. In separate rulings, the CCA has tossed a death sentence, concluded that life without parole is appropriate for youthful offenders, and ruled that the "implied bias" doctrine – relating to a criminal defendant's right to an impartial jury – doesn't exist. Here's a roundup of recent and notable news from the court:

Withheld Evidence = No Death Sentence

On Nov. 17, the CCA overturned the capital murder conviction of Roderick Newton, who was sentenced to die for the 1999 kidnapping and murder of 20-year-old Jesus Mon­toya in Dallas in connection with a robbery gone wrong. Newton was facing execution last year when prosecutors reviewing all of Dallas County's death row cases discovered a statement – given by Newton's co-defendant to police – that was never turned over to Newton's defense. Newton argued that the statement, which did not match statements the co-defendant made in court, was exculpatory material that was required to be made available to him. As it turned out, Dallas County prosecutors agreed; last week, so did the CCA, which vacated Newton's conviction and sentence and kicked the case back to the trial court. The ruling does not mean that Newton will be a free man. In fact, in exchange for prosecutors removing the specter of execution, Newton agreed to plead guilty to Montoya's death, as well as to the attempted murder of a police officer, allowing the state to stack two life sentences. If Newton were to get parole on the first offense, he would have to serve the second before any possible release.

Life With Parole for Minors

Also last week, a majority of the CCA concluded that life without parole is a suitable punishment for youthful offenders – that is, juveniles 16 and younger. The seven-judge decision came in the case of Chris Meadoux, convicted for the 2007 double murder of Luis Martinez and Johnny You. Meadoux was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole but argued on appeal that the sentence violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juvenile offenders, and state lawmakers subsequently altered the penal code to take death off the table for juveniles, leaving life as the maximum punishment possible; in 2009, state lawmakers tweaked the code to reflect that the sentence could mean life with parole. Meadoux in part argued that the change to include possible parole signified state lawmakers were demonstrating an "evolving standard of decency" for juvenile offenders that forbids "the categorical assessment of [life without parole] for juvenile offenders." The court, however, disagreed that Meadoux had met the burden of demonstrating that the sentence was cruel. There is no national consensus that life without parole is unacceptable for juvenile murders – and even though a youthful offender may have less moral culpability than an adult, the "moral culpability is still great," Judge Charles Holcomb wrote for the majority upholding Meadoux's sentence. (At least on its face, the Holcomb opinion meshes with the Supreme Court's reasoning earlier this year in a Florida case in which it struck down life without parole for juveniles charged with offenses less serious than murder. Whether that means life without parole is appropriate for all juvenile murderers remains to be seen; court watchers expect the issue will continue to be a point of appeal for years to come.)

Judge Larry Meyers disagreed with the ruling, authoring a dissent joined by Judge Cheryl Johnson. When the Supremes outlawed death for youthful offenders in 2005, Texas did not yet have a life-without-parole option on the books, and all those juveniles on death row had their sentences commuted to life with a chance of parole; effective Sept. 1, 2009, lawmakers changed the maximum sentence simply to life, giving flexibility for life either with or without a possible future release. Meadoux was caught in between the 2005 and 2009 changes to the law and should be afforded a new sentencing hearing in order to have a jury individually decide the merits of his punishment, Meyers wrote.

No Implied Bias in Wronged Juror

In a third case decided last week, the CCA considered the limits of the so-called "implied bias" doctrine and the Sixth Amend­ment's guarantee of an impartial jury. In this case, defendant John Uranga was on trial for possession of a small amount of methamphetamine. During his punishment hearing, Witchita County prosecutors introduced to the jury a handful of other deplorable acts by Uranga – including a 2006 incident in which he drove his car onto someone's yard in an attempt to evade police. As it happens, when the jury saw video of that particular incident, one juror realized that he was viewing his own yard. He told the judge, who, over defense objections, allowed the juror to remain on the jury and denied a defense motion for a mistrial. The jury later concluded that Uranga was a habitual offender and sentenced him to life in prison. Uranga appealed on Sixth Amendment grounds, arguing in part there was "implied bias" and that the judge erred in failing to acknowledge the bias and grant a mistrial. Uranga lost, with a majority of the CCA, led by Judge Paul Womack, finding no actual bias and no reason to impute some more nebulous question of "implied" bias to Uranga's case. In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Tom Price (joined by Holcomb) argued that the court has "without fanfare" announced that there "is no such thing" as the doctrine of implied bias, first described by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "The whole thing is apparently a figment of Justice O'Connor's imagination," Price wrote, going on to remind the court that "sometimes a prospective juror's own ability to objectively gauge his impartiality may be impaired, or he may even have a motive not to disclose it." In such cases, the courts have a duty to and have recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires more stringency than just a juror's assurance to a judge that he can be fair. (Indeed, Price notes that even the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals – a notoriously conservative venue – has overturned a death case based on implied bias.) In this case, Price wrote, he would grant Uranga a new punishment hearing, without the possibly tainted input of the one juror.

In related news, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his reversal of a Bush administration policy that denied post-conviction DNA testing for defendants who had entered into plea deals with federal prosecutors. The so-called "DNA waivers" were used only in plea agreements and prevent the defendant from ever requesting DNA testing. In Texas, which leads the nation in DNA exonerations, more than 40 individuals have been freed from prison based on the results of DNA testing.

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