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On April 25, 2022, the Supreme Court granted Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed's certiorari petition.  The question presented is:

     In Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 524-25 (2011), this Court held that state prisoners may pursue post-conviction claims for DNA testing of crime-scene evidence in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court made clear that a prisoner bringing such a § 1983 claim may seek “to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process” after he has unsuccessfully sought DNA testing under available state procedures. Id. at 525, 530.

     The question presented is whether the statute of limitations for a § 1983 claim seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run at the end of state court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals (as the Eleventh Circuit has held), or whether it begins to run at the moment the state trial court denies DNA testing, despite any subsequent appeal (as the Fifth Circuit, joining the Seventh Circuit, held below).

The Supreme Court announced in Brown v. Davenport, 596 U.S. ___ (April 21, 2022), that when a state court has ruled on the merits of a state prisoner’s claim and found a constitutional error to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief without applying both the  test outlined in Brecht and the one Congress prescribed in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) of AEDPA.  Assuming here that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was correct in its conclusion that the prisoner satisfied Brecht as to his claim of unconstitutional shackling, it cannot be said that the Michigan court unreasonably applied Chapman when it found that the prosecution had established the prisoner's shackling was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  

The Supreme Court has issued its decision in Ramirez v. Collier, ruling that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), John Ramirez was entitled to a preliminary injuction ordering Texas to permit Ramirez's long-time pastor to pray with him and lay hands on him while he is being executed.  Therefore, if Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should enter appropriate preliminary relief.  If that happens, Texas can then attempt to justify its position by establishing a compelling state interest that cannot be acheived by a less-restrictive alternative.  The Supreme Court observed, in closing: 

Further proceedings on remand, if necessary, might shed additional light on Texas’s interests, and on whether its policies are narrowly tailored. But such proceedings might also contribute to further delay in carrying out the sentence. The State will have to determine where its interest lies in going forward.

The Supreme Court has issued a 6-3 decision reversing the First Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that had vacated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentences in the Boston Marathon bombing case.  United States v. Tsarnaev, 595 U.S. ___ (March 4, 2022).  The Supreme Court began by rejecting the First Circuit's conclusion that the District Court had abused its discretion during jury selection by declining to ask about the kind and degree of each prospective juror's media exposure, as required by First Circuit precedent.  The Supreme Court observed that it "has held many times that a district court enjoys broad discretion to manage jury selection, including what questions to ask prospective jurors" and that "a reviewing court may set aside a district court’s questioning only for an abuse of discretion."  The Supreme Court then held that "a court of appeals cannot supplant the district court’s broad discretion to manage voir dire by prescribing specific lines of questioning, and thereby circumvent a well-established standard of review."  (The dissent in this case by Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan and in all but one part by Justice Sotomayor, did not reach this issue.)

The second basis for invalidating the death sentences had been the First Circuit's finding that the District Court abused its discretion during sentencing when it excluded evidence concerning the possible involvement by Tsarnaev's older brother in an earlier triple-murder.  The defense theory was that Tsarneav's now deceased brother had been the mastermind behind the Boston bombing crimes and that Tsarnaev was pressured into assisting him.  The earlier murders, according to the defense, provided evidence of the older brother's domineering nature.  The primary proof that the older brother had committed the triple homicide was a statement made to investigating officers by a person who was killed shortly thereafter by the investigating officers. The District Court granted the prosecution's motion to exclude any reference to the triple murder, finding that the available information was “without any probative value” and “would be confusing to the jury and a waste of time.”  The Supreme Court majority concluded that the District Court's ruling was reasonable and there was no Eighth Amendment violation in the application of the statutory provision allowing exclusion of information if "its probative value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury."  Justice Breyer, with Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, dissented, finding that the reasons provided by the District Court did not justify excluding the triple-murder evidence, and it was an abuse of discretion to do so. 

On January 27, 2022, United States District Court Judge Karon Owen Bowdre of the Northern District of Alabama issued a Memorandum Order finding that Cory Maples was entitled to habeas corpus relief on his claim of ineffective assistance by trial counsel at the penalty phase of his Alabama capital trial.  The grant of relief came after an evidentiary hearing was ordered by the Eleventh Circuit in Maples v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., 729 F. App’x 817 (11th 2018). The case is Maples v. Dunn, 5:03-cv-02399-KOB.  

On January 27, 2022, the Supreme Court vacated a preliminary injunction that had been issued by a federal district court in the Middle District of Alabama and upheld by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, thereby allowing the State of Alabama to execute Matthew Reeves by lethal injection.  The injunction came in Reeves's law suit which alleged that the Alabama Department of Corrections violated federal disabilities law by failing to take account of Reeves's cognitive deficiencies when offering death-row inmates a choice of execution methods. In Alabama, a recently enacted state law gave those inmates one month to select execution by nitrogen hypoxia, rather than lethal injection.  Reeves claimed that federal disabilities law required the prison to assist Reeves in understanding the execution options contained on the form provided to the inmates.  This failure by the prison to accomodate Reeves's cognitive deficiencies, according to Reeves, prevented him from timely choosing nitrogen hypoxia, which he believed was less painful than lethal injection.  Justice Barrett would have denied the application to vacate the injunction.  Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented from the order vacating the injunction.

January 22, 2022 - Supreme Court Developments

On January 21, 2022, the Supreme Court granted the certiorari petition in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, 21-429, limited to the first question presented:  Whether a State has authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country.   (The second question presented on which certiorari review was not granted is: Whether McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020), should be overruled.)

On January 20, 2022, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Hemphill v. New York, 595 U.S. ___ (Jan. 20, 2022), a non-capital murder case where the defense argued that a third party was the actual shooter of the gun whose stray bullet struck and killed a 2-year-old-child.  The Supreme Cout ruled that the defendant's Confrontation Clause rights were violated by the admission of portions of the transcript from the unavailable third party's plea allocution in which he admitted to possession of a different caliber gun than the one that caused the victim's death.  The Supreme Court found it was not the judge’s role to decide that the unconfronted evidence was reasonably necessary to correct a misleading impression allegedly created by the defense case. "Such inquiries are antithetical to the Confrontation Clause."

On January 14, 2022, the Supreme Court granted review in two cases of note to capital habeas petitioners.  In Shoop v. Twyford, 21-511, the questions presented are:

(1) 28 U.S.C. §2241(c) allows federal courts to issue a writ of habeas corpus ordering the transportation of a state prisoner only when necessary to bring the inmate into court to testify or for trial. It forbids courts from using the writ of habeas corpus to order a state prisoner’s transportation for any other reason. May federal courts evade this prohibition by using the All Writs Act to order the transportation of state prisoners for reasons not enumerated in §2241(c)? (2) Before a court grants an order allowing a habeas petitioner to develop new evidence, must it determine whether the evidence could aid the petitioner in proving his entitlement to habeas relief, and whether the evidence may permissibly be considered by a habeas court?

The case below is 11 F.4th 518 (6th Cir. 2021)Click here to view the warden's certiorari petition.

In Nance v. Ward, 21-439, the questions presented are:

     (1) Whether an inmate’s as-applied method-of-execution challenge must be raised in a habeas petition instead of through a § 1983 action if the inmate pleads an alternative method of execution not currently authorized by state law.  (2) Whether, if such a challenge must be raised in habeas, it constitutes a successive petition where the challenge would not have been ripe at the time of the inmate’s first habeas petition.

The case below is 981 F.3d 1201 (11th Cir. 2020)Click here to view the commissioner's certiorari petition.

On January 10, 2022, the Supreme Court granted a certiorari petition in a non-capital drug and firearm case, Kemp v. United States, 21-5726, on the following:

     Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) authorizes relief from final judgment based on “mistake,” as well as inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.

     The question presented is:

          Whether Rule 60(b)(1) authorizes relief based on a district court’s error of law.

The case below is Kemp v. United States, 857 Fed. Appx 573 (11th Cir. 2021).

On September 8, 2021, the Supreme Court granted John Ramirez's application for stay of execution and his petition for writ of certiorari, which presents the following questions:  (1) Under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc–2000cc– 5 (2000), does the State’s decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from laying his hands on his parishioner as he dies, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require the State to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest? (2) Under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc–2000cc– 5 (2000), does the State’s decision to allow Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, but forbidding the pastor from singing prayers, saying prayers or scripture, or whispering prayers or scripture, substantially burden the exercise of his religion, so as to require the State to justify the deprivation as the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest?

The Clerk was directed to establish a briefing schedule that will allow the case to be argued in October or November 2021.