Recent Decisions

2023 Term Decisions of Interest to Capital Habeas Practitioners

Smith v. Arizona, 602 U.S. ___ (June 21, 2024)In cases where a testifying expert conveys an absent analyst’s statements in support of the testifying expert’s opinion, and the statements provide that support only if true, then the statements come into evidence for their truth.  This raises the right to confront the absent analyst, provided that the absent analyst's statements were "testimonial."  (The Court did not decide whether the statements at issue were in fact testimonial.)  

Thornell v. Jones, 602 U.S. ___ (May 30, 2024).  Reversing grant of habeas corpus relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing.  The Ninth Circuit departed from Strickland v. Washington's prejudice inquiry in at least three ways: (1) "it failed adequately to take into account the weighty aggravating circumstances in this case"; (2) it applied a "clearly unsound" rule prohibiting a court considering a Strickland claim from "assessing the relative strength of expert witness testimony"; and (3) finding the District Court erred by attaching diminished persuasive value to Jones’s mental health conditions because it saw no link between those conditions and Jones’s conduct when he committed the three murders.  (While Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 114 (1982) held that a sentencer may not “refuse to consider . . . any relevant mitigating evidence” (Id., at 114), it did not hold that a sentencer cannot find mitigating evidence unpersuasive.)  When the Strickland prejudice analysis is properly applied, Jones is not entitled to habeas relief: "Most of the mitigating evidence Jones presented at the federal evidentiary hearing was not new, and what was new would not carry much weight in Arizona courts. Conversely, the aggravating factors present here are extremely weighty. As a result, there is no reasonable probability that the evidence on which Jones relies would have altered the outcome at sentencing."

McElgrath v. Georgia, 601 U.S. 87, 144 S.Ct. 651 (Feb. 21, 2024) The jury's verdict that McElrath was not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity constituted an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes of malice murder notwithstanding any inconsistency with the jury's separate verdict that McGrath was "guilty but mentally ill" regarding two other counts—felony murder and aggravated assault—all of which pertained to the same underlying homicide.