Alabama Death-Row Inmates Ask for SCOTUS Review

Low wide angle view of the U.S. Supreme Court

Today, the US Supreme Court is considering three cert petitions involving important questions challenging the Alabama capital sentencing scheme. Two challenges involve the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which held that any fact necessary to expose a defendant to the death penalty must be found by a jury, not a judge.

Two cert petitions involve Tommy Arthur, a man who’s been on Alabama’s death row for 30 years. One petition is a Hurst-based challenge. In that petition, Arthur (1) makes a general challenge to Alabama’s scheme under Hurst; (2) argues Hurst requires a unanimous jury vote for death (his vote for death was 11-1); and (3) claims Hurst applies retroactively.

Arthur’s second petition raises Eighth Amendment claims against Alabama’s execution protocol.

The Court is also considering a cert petition from Jerry Bohannon. While I do not have a copy of Bohannon’s cert petition, I would imagine he is raising claims similar to those he presented to the Alabama Supreme Court in his case that was decided in September 2016. There, the Court rejected a number of Hurst claims, most notably Bohannon’s challenge that Hurst requires a jury to decide the weight of aggravating factors against mitigating factors.

In Alabama, a judge makes the final sentencing determination and must decide that the aggravating factors of a case outweigh the mitigating factors in order to sentence a defendant to death. Under Alabama law (which is grounded in pre-Aprendi/Ring SCOTUS decisions), the weighing of aggravators versus mitigators is purely a job for the judge, not the jury. A fairly clear and long line of cases has held that the Sixth Amendment does not require a jury to conduct this weighing. Hurst calls this thinking into question.

I’m bearish on either case’s chance. I think Arthur has a better shot on the Eighth Amendment issue than the Sixth Amendment issue, but I don’t think he’d have the votes to do anything. Bohannon’s weighing claim is somewhat blunted by the fact that the jury recommended death by a vote of 11-1, so whatever error he claims might be harmless. Moreover, I don’t believe he raised a claim that Hurst requires juror unanimity, which probably would have helped. The Court should wait on a better vehicle – an override case -to take that issue up.

However, should the Court take up Bohannon’s case on the weighing issue, I think there’s a good chance the Court would rule in Bohannon’s favor and hold that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to determine the weight of aggravators versus mitigators. I think the votes are there. Ginsburg authored Ring, Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent in the denial of cert in Woodward v. AL, a case that challenged override in the pre-Hurst era, Breyer believes the Eighth Amendment requires a jury to find everything (even if he doesn’t like Ring) and joined Sotomayor’s dissent in Woodward, and Kagan, Kennedy, Thomas and Roberts were in the majority in Hurst.

Even if the Court doesn’t take up one of these two cases, I believe the writing is on the wall that the Court will be forced to take a closer look at Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme either this term or next.

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Alabama Death-Row Inmates Ask for SCOTUS Review

The Modern Debtor Prison System

One trend occurring in prisons around the country involves courts receiving revenue from the fining of those who have committed minor offenses. For those in poverty-stricken neighborhoods or cities, the results can be devastating as they end up in prison after not being able to pay these mounting fines.

Last week, the New York Times published an editorial that explored a Justice Department motion in Ferguson, MO, a town that was put in the national spotlight in the wake of the Michael Brown case in 2014. The department said “state and local courts have an obligation to inquire about a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before jailing them for nonpayment.” The Supreme Court has also dealt with such perceived “unconstitutional” issues that violate the 14th Amendment.

The Ferguson plan hopes to secure measures that will help find better alternatives to imprisonment for someone’s inability to pay hefty fines related to minor offenses.

The Modern Debtor Prison System

Is the Supreme Court going to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty?

A death-row Pennsylvania defendant has asked the United States Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty. Relying upon the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” Shonda Walter contends that the time has come for the Court to end the practice once and for all.

Ms. Walter makes two arguments in petition asking the Supreme Court for review. First, she argues our standards of decency have evolved to a point where the death penalty is no longer “constitutionally sustainable.” Her petition cites the declining frequency in which the death penalty is imposed, the declining number of states where the death penalty is actually carried out, and the growing international consensus against the death penalty.

Second, Ms. Walter argues the legal framework surrounding the imposition of the death penalty is broken. Specifically, she contends that since the death penalty was reinstated almost 40 years ago, our laws have failed to ensure a system that’s reliable, consistent, not-arbitrary and “equally just.”

We could hear very soon whether the Supreme Court is going to revisit whether it’s time to do away with the death penalty in the United States. It only takes four justices to agree to hear a case. Just last term, Justice Stephen Breyer argued in decision that the Court should consider the constitutionality once again.

For anyone interested in this battle, I’d highly encourage you to read Ms. Walter’s petition by clicking HERE.

Is the Supreme Court going to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty?

Is Alabama’s Death Penalty Scheme on Life Support?

Today, by an 8-1 vote (Justice Alito dissenting), the US Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme in Hurst v Florida. This is huge news in Alabama as our death penalty sentencing scheme is very similar.
 
Under Florida law, a capital offense only exposes a defendant to a punishment of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (“LWOP”). A defendant can be sentenced to death only after the court makes additional findings. Essentially, after the guilt phase, a court conducts a sentencing hearing where a jury will make a sentencing recommendation of LWOP or death. This recommendation is purely advisory. Then, the sentencing judge makes a determination of whether to impose LWOP or death.
 
The Court found this scheme violates Ring v. Arizona, which held that all facts necessary to impose death must be found by the jury. Only judicial — and not jury — fact-finding can expose a defendant to death under Florida law. Pursuant to Ring, this scheme violates the Sixth Amendment.
 
In Alabama, we have a similar scheme; however, by statute, a capital conviction exposes a defendant to LWOP or death — a Florida conviction, standing alone, only exposes a defendant to LWOP. After receiving a recommendation from the jury, the Alabama judge makes the final determination of what sentence to impose. So the sentencing decision still falls upon the judge in Alabama.
 
Whether the Alabama system holds a distinction without a real difference from the Florida law will be litigated in the very near future. Regardless, the reins have been tightened a little more on the death penalty.
For more information on the decision, click here.

 

Is Alabama’s Death Penalty Scheme on Life Support?

Interesting Gun Control Battle in DC

Yesterday, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for DC vacated a district court decision that had previously enjoined a DC gun control measure. The DC ordinance essentially only allowed residents to register a handgun “for protection within the home.” While the district court struck down the ordinance as violative of the 2nd Amendment, the Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s decision on the grounds that the lower court judge, who was sitting by special appointment, acted outside the power of his appointment.
Read the district court’s decision and discussion on the Ordinance by clicking here.
Read the Court of Appeals decision vacating the district court’s decision by clicking here.

 

Interesting Gun Control Battle in DC

Alabama Courts Finally Adopt US Supreme Court Precedent 12 Years Later

*This post contains more “mature” content than my usual posts, so please be aware before reading on*

Law and justice concept, legal code

Williams v. State of Alabama

Background

In two cases released on July 2, 2015, we see the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals finally have a chance to apply the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Lawrence v. Texas to a challenge of Alabama’s sexual misconduct statute, sec. 13A-6-65.

In Lawrence, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ anti-sodomy statute which only applied to homosexual conduct was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Williams, the Court of Criminal Appeals explained:

“Section 13A-6-65(a)(3) provides: ‘A person commits the crime of sexual misconduct if … [h]e or she engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another person under circumstances other than those covered by Sections 13A-6-63 and 13A-6-64[, Ala. Code 1975]. Consent is no defense to a prosecution under this subdivision.’ The commentary to that statute notes that the specific subdivision ‘was changed by the legislature to make all homosexual conduct criminal, and consent is no defense.’ See Commentary to § 13A-6-65, Ala. Code 1975. Section 13A-6-60(2), Ala. Code 1975, defines ‘deviate sexual intercourse’ as ‘[a]ny act of sexual gratification between persons not married to each other involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another.’

Williams – Conviction Reversed

Williams was alleged to have sodomized another man against his will. He was prosecuted for first degree sodomy. At trial, Williams testified in his own defense and explained to the jury that he and the other man had engaged in consensual conduct.

While the parties discussed how the jury should be instructed, the Court considered whether a sexual misconduct instruction should be given as a lesser-included offense of first-degree sodomy. Williams objected, arguing that in his case, a sexual misconduct instruction would allow the jury to convict him of consensual sodomy. Williams argued this conviction would be unconstitutional under Lawrence. The judge overruled the objection and Williams was convicted of sexual misconduct.

The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and rendered Williams’ conviction. The Court concluded that the sexual misconduct statute was unconstitutional under Lawrence as applied to Williams’ consensual conduct.

Wesson – Conviction Affirmed

Wesson was charged with engaging in acts of sodomy with a woman against her will. He was indicted on the charge of first-degree sodomy and sexual misconduct. Wesson pleaded guilty to the sexual misconduct charge and the sodomy charge was dismissed. He, like Williams, argued the sexual misconduct statue was unconstitutional as applied to him and appealed the constitutionality of his conviction to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. First, the Court rejected Wesson’s argument that the sexual misconduct statute was unconstitutional on it’s face. The Court concluded that Wesson didn’t raise that argument before the trial court, so they weren’t going to consider it on appeal. Next, the Court concluded that Wesson’s as-applied challenge under Lawrence was doomed to fail because he could not demonstrate that his conduct fell within the bounds of protected conduct described by Lawrence — namely, he couldn’t prove that the sex acts that occurred were consensual. Because he could not, Lawrence would not provide him any relief.

Consent is Now a Defense After 12 years, an Alabama court has finally recognized that Lawrence prohibits the criminalization of consensual conduct covered by sec. 13A-6-65(a)(3).

Alabama Courts Finally Adopt US Supreme Court Precedent 12 Years Later

SCOTUS – Administrative Searches – Los Angeles v. Patel

The Court today released an interesting opinion on administrative searches in Los Angeles v. Patel.

Under the Los Angeles Municipal Code, hotel operators are required to keep certain information in their hotel registry for 90 days. The Code requires the operators to allow the LAPD to inspect these registries upon request, or they could be charged with a misdemeanor. The hotels owners filed a facial challenge under the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed the challenge, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding this statutory scheme authorized unconstitutional administrative searches.

AFFIRMED.


The Court noted that the statutory scheme forced hotel operators with an unconstitutional “Comply or Else” dilemma without affording them any opportunity for administrative review of the validity of the search. The Court concluded that an administrative search scheme that does not create a mechanism for operators to seek administrative review of “on-the-spot” searches violates the Fourth Amendment as it authorizes an unconstitutional search. The Court noted that any administrative search carried out with an administrative warrant or as an exception to the warrant requirement would comply with the Fourth Amendment.

The opinion is available here:

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-1175_2qe4.pdf

SCOTUS – Administrative Searches – Los Angeles v. Patel