In its 2013-2014 term, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to review cases that raised several very important death penalty issues. The following summaries describe how the Court handled three of those cases.
Hall v. Florida
On May 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hall v. Florida, ruling that Florida’s method for assessing intellectual disability in capital cases is unconstitutional. The Hall opinion reaffirmed the Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Court held that executing a person who is intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Atkins decision gave states discretion to determine how to evaluate intellectual disability in individual cases. After the Atkins decision, the Florida legislature passed a law establishing the requirements for demonstrating intellectual disability in capital cases. Under that law, defendants and prisoners must, as a threshold question, demonstrate IQ scores of 70 or below before being permitted to submit the additional evidence required to prove intellectual disability. Contrary to the apparent intent of the legislature, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted this rule as a bright-line cutoff without accounting for the standard error of measure (SEM) inherent in the test. Clinical definitions of intellectual disability take into account SEM, meaning that the cutoff IQ score for intellectual disability is 70 or below, plus or minus 5 points. The petitioner, Freddie Lee Hall, was sentenced to death in Florida despite the fact that he presented evidence of IQ scores ranging from 60 to 80. Because some of his scores were above 70, including scores that fell within the SEM, he was not allowed to present a wealth of additional evidence about his life-long intellectual deficits. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy stated that the Florida scheme for assessing intellectual disability “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” Finding that “[i]ntellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” the Court held that Florida’s law violates the Eighth Amendment and that “when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including adaptive deficits.” The case was remanded to the Florida Supreme Court for further proceedings.
Hinton v. Alabama
On February 24, 2014, in a per curiam decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Alabama death row prisoner Anthony Ray Hinton’s trial counsel was ineffective under Strickland v. Washington for failing to seek funds to hire an expert witness. Mr. Hinton’s counsel mistakenly believed that he could not receive more than $1,000 in court funding to hire a defense ballistics expert who could rebut the testimony of the prosecution’s expert. As a result, defense counsel hired the only expert willing to work for $1,000, an inexperienced and weak witness. Mr. Hinton’s counsel himself “did not consider [the witness’s testimony]. . . to be effective.” As noted by the Court, however, Alabama law provides that defense counsel are entitled to reimbursement for “any expenses reasonably incurred in such defense to be approved in advance by the trial court.” Mr. Hinton’s attorney failed to conduct basic legal research that would have revealed this information. Under Strickland, a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney’s performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and if there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different absent the deficient act or omission. In this case, the Supreme Court held that Mr. Hinton’s trial attorney failed to meet the reasonableness prong of the Strickland test. The Court stated that “[a]n attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with the failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland.” The Court then ordered the lower court to conduct hearing to determine whether Mr. Hinton’s attorney’s deficient performance was prejudicial under the second prong of the Strickland analysis.
Woodward v. Alabama
Mario Dion Woodward was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury in 2008. The jury voted 8 to 4 against sentencing Mr. Woodward to death, but the trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict of life in prison without parole and imposed the death penalty. Last year, Mr. Woodward filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether this judicial override process violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. On November 18, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Mario Dion Woodward’s petition for certiorari in Woodward v. Alabama. Justice Sotomayor dissented from the Court’s denial of cert, and Justice Breyer joined in two parts of her dissent. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor noted that Alabama is the only state in which judges have imposed death sentences “in the face of contrary jury verdicts” in the last decade. Justice Sotomayor acknowledged that the Court upheld Alabama’s judicial-override sentencing statute in Harris v. Alabama in 1995, but stated that “the time has come [for the Court] to reconsider that decision.” She also voiced concerns that the judicial override practice in Alabama violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, and argued that judges’ use of the override power demonstrates that “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.” Experienced defenders in Alabama estimate that nearly 20 percent of the people on Alabama's death row received a life verdict that was overridden by a trial judge.