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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.

The Supreme Court decided today that the rule of Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020)--that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offense--is a new rule of criminal procedure and, as such, it does not apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review.  Edwards v. Vannoy, 593 U.S.

On May 17, 2021, the Supreme Court granted the certiorari petition of the Arizona Director of the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry in Shinn v. Ramirez, 20-1009.  The case below is Ramirez v. Ryan, 937 F.3d 1230 (9th Cir. 2019).

The question presented is:

     The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2), precludes a federal court from considering evidence outside the statecourt record when reviewing the merits of a claim for habeas relief if a prisoner or his attorney has failed to diligently develop the claim’s factual basis in state court, subject to only two statutory exceptions not applicable here. In the cases below, the Ninth Circuit concluded that AEDPA’s bar on evidentiary development does not apply to a federal court’s merits review of a claim when a court excuses that claim’s procedural default under Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), because the default was caused by post-conviction counsel’s negligence. The question presented, which drew an eight-judge dissent from the denial of en banc rehearing in each case, is:

     Does application of the equitable rule this Court announced in Martinez v. Ryan render 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) inapplicable to a federal court’s merits review of a claim for habeas relief?

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. ___ (April 22, 2021), ruling that its precedent does not require a sentencer to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing an individual who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18 to a sentence of life without parole.  Although the Court adhered to its holding in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. 190 (2016) that its decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S.