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On October 15, 2019, on remand from the Supreme Court (McWilliams v. Dunn, 137 S.Ct. 1790 (2017)), the Eleventh Circuit (Tjoflat, with Wilson; Jordan concurring in the judgment) issued a decision holding that James McWilliams is entitled to habeas relief as to his death sentence due to a violation of Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985).  The Supreme Court had found that the trial judge’s refusal to provide McWilliams with requested psychiatric assistance at sentencing, which the Alabama appellate courts had upheld, was a decision that was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law” and that a violation of Ake had occurred.  It then remanded for the Eleventh Circuit to reassess its prior flawed determination that any "error" did not have the "substantial and injurious effect or influence" required to warrant a grant of habeas relief and to decide if “access to the type of meaningful assistance in evaluating, preparing, and presenting the defense that Ake requires would have mattered.”  McWilliams, 137 S.Ct. at 1801. Looking to Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), the panel majority found that the error at issue was structural and, therefore, not subject to harmless error analysis. The majority explained: 

On October 17, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit (Marcus, with E. Carnes and Tjoflat), in a pre-AEDPA case, issued a decision affirming the grant of habeas relief to Lawrence Jefferson on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase.  Jefferson had been sentenced to death for the robbery-murder of a co-worker.  A key issue in the appeal was whether the adverse factual findings by the state habeas court were entitled to the pre-AEDPA presumption of correctness.  See Jefferson v. Upton, 560 U.S. 284 (2010) (per curiam).  The district court found that they were not.  The Eleventh Circuit agreed, noting: " The state habeas court adopted verbatim the State’s proposed order; it offered no guidance to the Assistant Attorney General drafting the proposed order, including how to resolve important credibility conflicts; apparently, it did not review the order, other than signing it, dating it, and changing the concluding sentence, notwithstanding the glaring errors it contained; and it did so ex parte without so much as affording Jefferson a chance to challenge any of it or propose an alternative order."

On August 14, 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution to Texas death row inmate Dexter Johnson and authorized the filing of a second or successive habeas petition raising an Atkins claim.  Click here to view the Fifth Circuit's opinion.

On July 25, 2019, the United States Department of Justice announced that Attorney General William P. Barr had directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol.  This Addendum replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital. Also pursuant to the Attorney General's direction, execution dates were set for five federal death row inmates: Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois, and Dustin Lee Honken.

On June 18, 2019, Senior United States District Court Judge William T. Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana ruled that Bruce Webster "has satisfied his burden of proving his intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and is thus ineligible for the death penalty." Webster v. Lockett, 2:12-cv-86-WTL-MJD (S.D. Ind. June 18, 2019)

On June 19, 2018, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requesting answers to questions about Texas' pending request for certification for purposes of obtaining the benefits of Chapter 154 of Title 28.  The questions were based largely on comments submitted in response to the Texas application.  There is no specific due date for the response.  

On March 20, 2018, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew pending the disposition of his certiorari petition.  The Chief Justice and Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch would have denied the stay application.  Bucklew's cert petition raises the following questions: (1) Should a court evaluating an as-applied challenge to a state’s method of execution based on an inmate’s rare and severe medical condition assume that medical personnel are competent to manage his condition and that the procedure will go as intended? (2) Must evidence comparing a state’s

On March 21, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Ayestas v. Davis, 584 U.S. ___ (March 21, 2018).  This case concerns the denial of funding to a habeas petitioner.  The Supreme Court assumes, without deciding, that a COA is required to appeal the denial of funds and finds that the rule applied by the district court in denying funding was not only debatable but actually erroneous.  It further finds that the district court’s ruling on the funding request was not an administrative decision such that the court of appeals and the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal.  Turning to the merits, the Supreme Court held that the lower courts applied the wrong legal standard when denying petitioner funds under 18 U.S.C. §3599(f).  The statute authorizes funding that is “reasonably necessary” for the representation of an applicant.  The Fifth Circuit’s requirement that an applicant establish a “substantial need” for the funding was arguably more demanding than the statute requires.  The Fifth Circuit exacerbated the problem by invoking precedent that a habeas petitioner seeking funding must present “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.”  This precedent is too restrictive 

February 26, 2018 - Chapter 154 developments

On February 23, 2018, a complaint and request for injunctive relief  was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Texas Defender Service, et al. v. Sessions, et al., 1:18-cv-00426-RBW.  This action under the Administrative Procedure Act,, 5 U.S.C. §§
551-59, 701-06, seeks injunctive and other relief to set aside the Final Rule regarding Certification Process For State Capital Counsel System, 78 Fed. Reg. 58,160-01 (Sept. 23, 2013), issued by the Department of Justice. Various comments challenging the applications of Arizona and Texas seeking certification as compliant with Chapter 154 have been submitted to the Department of Justice.

On February 26, 2018, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review in Madison v. Alabama, 17-7505.

The preamble to the questions presented explains: On January 25, 2018, the State seeks for the second time to execute Vernon Madison, a 67-year-old man who has been on Alabama’s death row for over 30 years. Mr. Madison suffers from vascular dementia as a result of multiple serious strokes in the last two years, and no longer has a memory of the commission of the crime for which he is to be executed. His mind and body are failing: he suffers from encephalomacia (dead brain tissue), small vesselischemia, speaks in a dysarthric or slurred manner, is legally blind, can no longer walk independently, and has urinary incontinence as a consequence of damage to his brain.