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The After The Trial blog presents insights on ongoing and recent trials around the state of Alabama, including weekly criminal law round-ups.

Supreme Court Update - New Protections Against Executing The Mentally Disabled

J.D. Lloyd - Thursday, March 30, 2017

 

Moore v. Texas (U.S. Supreme Court, March 28/2017)

 

Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. In post-trial proceedings, a circuit court concluded that Mr. Moore was intellectually disabled and, thus, ineligible for execution under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. ___ (2014). The circuit court based its decision on the most current medical guidelines. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) rejected that conclusion and re-instated Moore’s death sentence. The CCA concluded that the circuit court erred in not following factors laid out in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S. W. 3d 1( 2004), which relied upon medical authority from 1992. Moore appealed, claiming the CCA’s reasoning violated the Eighth Amendment.

 

REVERSED.

In Atkins, the Supreme Court opened the door to allow states to develop their own tests for determining intellectual disability and ineligibility for the death penalty. However, as the states have developed different tests, the Court has indicated it will review these procedures to determine whether the states have created “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. at ___. Here, the Court took aim at Texas’ Atkins test for determining intellectual disability which was centered around out-dated medical information and court-created “factors” that have been widely criticized.

 

In holding that Mr. Moore was ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins, the circuit court relied on medical diagnostic standards coming from the 11th edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Development Disabilities (“AAIDD”) clinical manual and the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM-5”) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The court followed the “generally accepted, uncontroversial intellectual-disability diagnostic definitions” in reaching their conclusion. Basically, the circuit court relied on the most up-to-date diagnostic material in assessing Moore.

 

The CCA rejected the circuit court’s conclusion and chastised it for not applying the Briseno test for determining intellectual disability. The Briseno test was based upon the 9th edition of the AAIDD and included a seven-factor test that was not grounded in any medical authority -- just a judicial creation. The CCA recognized that the standards in the AAIDD may have changed, but concluded that the Briseno test “remained adequately informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.”

 

The Supreme Court concluded that the CCA’s reliance on out-dated medical information and “factors” that have been widely criticized and rejected in the legal and medical community could not comport with the Eighth Amendment as well as Atkins and Hall. While the State’s have leeway in formulating their own approach to addressing Atkins claims, the cornerstone of any scheme must be “the medical community’s diagnostic framework.”

 

 

Read the decision here

 

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.



 

Alabama's Lethal Injection Survives Another Challenge

J.D. Lloyd - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

 

 

Today, the United States Supreme Court denied an Alabama death-row inmate’s request to review the constitutionality of Alabama’s three-drug execution protocol. Tommy Arthur argued that Alabama’s lethal injection cocktail violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” because the method risks severe and unnecessary pain and suffering. The Court’s refusal to review the protocol almost certainly means that Tommy Arthur, who has been on death row for more than 30 years, will likely be executed soon. It also likely means that defendants who hope to challenge Alabama’s method of execution face a massive uphill battle in future fights.

 

Since lethal injection became the preferred method of execution in the 1980s, almost all states have used a three-drug cocktail to carry out the execution. The first drug administered would be a large amount of a sedative that’s supposed to knock the inmate unconscious and suppress all sensation. The second drug would be a paralytic, which would stop all muscular-skeletal movements, including the diaphragm. The final drug would cause the heart to stop.

 

Until recently, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol was either sodium thiopental. The manufacturer discontinued production of that drug, so states turned to pentobarbital. That drug also became unavailable in 2013. The states then turned to midazolam, the drug at the heart of recent Eighth Amendment litigation.

 

According to experts, midazolam doesn’t have the anesthetic effect of thiopental or pentobarbital. This is important because the second and third drugs administered in the the lethal injection process are extremely painful. Reports describe the pain from these drugs as a searing, burning pain spreading from the injection site throughout the body. Again, they literally stop your breathing and your heart. So, without a strong sedative, an inmate is likely facing an excruciating (and often prolonged) execution.

 

Executions using midazolam have been awful. Defendants executed with the drug in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alabama died slowly and, apparently, very painfully when midazolam has been the first drug administered. (Justice Sotomayor’s dissent below details these executions.)

 

In challenging a method of execution as unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, a defendant must show a readily available constitutional alternative. Here, Arthur argued that there was a constitutional alternative to lethal injection in Alabama: the firing squad. The lower federal courts rejected this claim because Alabama law doesn’t specifically provide for death-by-firing-squad. Because Arthur couldn’t prove a constitutional alternative, the court wouldn’t review his claim that the cocktail using midazolam was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

 

Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent from the the Court’s refusal to consider this case. The dissent pointed out that Alabama recently amended its laws to allow for the execution of a defendant by “any constitutional method of execution.” See 15-18-82.1(c). Justice Sotomayor argued that Arthur met his burden of showing a constitutional alternative, even if that alternative wasn’t on the books in Alabama.

 

The dissent here was largely a critique on the lethal-injection protocol itself and the Court’s refusal to consider how screwed up our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has become when a defendant can show that a method of execution causes unnecessary (and unconstitutional) pain and suffering, but can still be executed with that method because a State doesn’t have another method of execution on the books.

 

Read Sotomayor’s dissent here.

 

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.


 

 

Alabama Death-Row Inmates Ask for SCOTUS Review

J.D. Lloyd - Friday, January 06, 2017

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.

 

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.



 

 

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

J.D. Lloyd - Friday, January 15, 2016
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.
 

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