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Today, the Supreme Court granted a certiorari petition in a non-capital habeas case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Brown v. Davenport, 20-826.  The question presented is:

On March 29, 2021, the Supeme Court issued a per curiam decision reversing a grant of habeas relief by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a Tennessee death penalty case on a claim that trial counsel had been ineffective at the guilt and sentencing phases of the trial by failing to suggest that the man who discovered the victim’s body was the actual killer.  Mays v. Hines, 592 U.S.

Governor Ralph Northam today signed legislation abolishing the death penalty, making Virginia the 23rd state, and the first in South, to stop executions.  Governor Northam signed the death penalty repeal into law during a ceremony outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia. Prior to the bill signing, he toured the facility’s execution chamber, where 102 people have been executed since its opening in 1991.

The Supreme Court granted the government's certiorari petition in United States v. Tsarnaev, 20-443.  The petition presents the following questions:

1. Whether the court of appeals erred in concluding that respondent’s capital sentences must be vacated on the ground that the district court, during its 21-day voir dire, did not ask each prospective juror for a specific accounting of the pretrial media coverage that he or she had read, heard, or seen about respondent’s case. 2. Whether the district court committed reversible error at the penalty phase of respondent’s trial by excluding evidence that respondent’s older brother was allegedly involved in different crimes two years before the offenses for which respondent was convicted.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals opinion under review is United States v. Tsarnaev, 968 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2020)

The Supreme Court denied the certiorari petition of Texas death row inmate Charles Victor Thompson, 20-5951.  The questions presented were:

On September 30, 2020, California Governor Newsom signed into law AB-2512 which amends California's statute (Cal. Penal Code section 1376) related to the prohibition on executing the intellectually disabled.  The amendments alter the definition of intellectual disability, changing the third prong age of on-set requirement from "before 18 years of age" to "the end of the developmental period, as defined by clinical standards."  A defendant or death row inmate is entitled to a determination of a claim of exemption from the death penalty due to intellectual disability upon a showing of a prima facie case.  As defined in the amended statute, "'Prima facie showing of intellectual disability' means that the defendant’s allegation of intellectual disability is based on the type of evidence typically relied on by a qualified expert in diagnosing intellectual disability, as defined in current clinical standards, or when a qualified expert provides a declaration diagnosing the defendant as intellectually disabled."  If an evidentiary hearing is held concerning a death row inmate's claim of intellectual disability, the statute now provides that "an expert may testify about the contents of out-of-court statements, including documentary evidence and statements from witnesses when those types of statements are accepted by the medical community as relevant to a diagnosis of intellectual disability if the expert relied upon these statements as the basis for their opinion."   Under new subsection (g) of the statute, "The results of a test measuring intellectual functioning shall not be changed or adjusted based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic status."  

On August 24, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petitions for rehearing en banc filed by the Director of the Arizona Department of Correction in the cases of Jones v. Shinn, 943 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2019) and Ramirez v. Ryan, 937 F.3d 1230 (9th Cir. 2019).  In the Jones case, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed a grant of habeas relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.  Although that claim was procedurally defaulted, the ineffective assistance by state post-conviction counsel was found to have provided cause for excusing the default.  The evidence that was presented to demonstrate post-conviction counsel's ineffectiveness was also considered as to the merits of the trial ineffective assistance claim.  In the Ramirez case, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that state post-conviction counsel's ineffectiveness provided cause to excuse the procedural default of a claim of ineffective assistance by trial counsel at sentencing.  It further found that the district court had erred in denying Ramirez evidentiarydevelopment of his ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, and that on remand he was entitled to evidentiary development to litigate the merits of that claim.  Judge Collins, joined by Judges Callahan, Ikuta, R. Nelson, Lee, Bress, Bumatay and VanDyke, dissented from denial of the rehearing petitions.  Jones v. Shinn, 18-99006 (Order Aug. 24, 2020)Ramirez v. Shinn, 10-99023 (Order Aug. 24, 2020).  Judge Collins argues that the two panel decisions "disregard controlling Supreme Court precedent by creating a new judge-made exception to the restrictions imposed by the [AEDPA] on the use of new evidence in habeas corpus proceedings. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2)."  Because in § 2254(e)(2), Congress explicitly abrogated the judicially created  "cause and prejudice" standard and replaced it with a much more demanding standard, the Ninth Circuit, according to Judge Collins, has "no authority to rewrite the statute and to engraft a judge-made Martinez exception onto it."

On July 15, 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted rehearing en banc in Hill v. Anderson, 99-4317.  In 2018, death row inmate Danny Hill had prevailed in the Sixth Circuit on an Atkins claim.  Hill v. Anderson, 881 F.3d 483 (6th Cir. 2018).  The Supreme Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed, holding that the Sixth Circuit erred in its 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) analysis by relying on Supreme Court precedent that had yet to be decided at the time the state courts addressed the claim.  Shoop v. Hill, 139 S.Ct. 504 (2019).  On remand, the Sixth Circuit again found that Hill was entitled to relief on his Atkins claim.  Hill v. Anderson, 960 F.3d 260 (6th Cir. 2020).  In granting en banc review, the panel decision granting relief was vacated.  Argument before the en banc court will be heard on December 2, 2020, following the filing of supplemental briefs.

The United States Supreme Court has affirmed the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Murphy v. Royal, 866 F.3d 1164 (10th Cir. 2017), which granted federal habeas corpus relief to Oklahoma death row inmate Patrick Dwayne Murphy, on the ground that Oklahoma lacked jurisdication to try him because  Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the crime was committed in Indian country.   Sharp v. Murphy, 591 U.S. ___ (July 9, 2020), relying on McGirt v. Oklahoma, 591 U.S. ___ (July 9, 2020).  

On June 16, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a stay of Texas death row inmate Ruben Guetierrez's then-pending execution.  The order read:

     The application for stay of execution of sentence of death 
presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is 
granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of 
certiorari.  Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be 
denied, this stay shall terminate automatically.  In the event 
the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall 
terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.  
The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever 
evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems 
would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to 
choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his 
immediate presence during the execution.

Gutierrez v. Saenz, 19-8695 (19A1052) (June 16, 2020). 

On June 9, 2020, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in case number 1:19-CV-185, had issued an Order staying the upcoming June 16th execution.  The case is a § 1983 action challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ DNA testing statute and the refusal of the Texas

On June 15, 2020, the Department of Justice announced that Attorney General William Barr had directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule execution dates for four federal death row inmates.  Daniel Lewis Lee is now scheduled to be executed on July 13, 2020.  Wesley Ira Purkey is scheduled to be executed on July 15, 2020.  Dustin Lee Honken is scheduled to be executed on July 17, 2020.  Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled to be executed on August 28, 2020.  The executions are to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Indiana.