December 01, 2016

2016 Decisions of the Court

Hurst v. Florida

On January 12, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s death penalty sentencing statute unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The statute employed a hybrid sentencing structure where a jury issued an advisory sentencing verdict, but the judge was not bound by the jury’s sentencing recommendation. The jury’s recommendation was not required to be unanimous, and the judge was also permitted to independently weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances prior to determining the sentence. The Court ruled that the jury’s function under the Florida statute was insufficient to satisfy the Sixth Amendment requirement that all facts of a crime be found by the jury. The Florida legislature subsequently passed a revised death penalty statute that the Florida Supreme Court quickly struck down, finding that it violated Florida law by not requiring a unanimous jury verdict. That court is still considering whether the Hurst decision will apply retroactively to older death sentences.

Williams v. Pennsylvania

On June 9, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in Williams v. Pennsylvania that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s denial of a recusal motion and subsequent participation in petitioner Williams’ judicial proceeding violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1984, Chief Justice Castille, then the District Attorney of Philadelphia, approved the trial prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty against Mr. Williams. In 2012, a state Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) court granted a temporary stay of execution, finding that prosecutors had suppressed an exculpatory statement and obtained false testimony from Mr. Williams’ co-defendant. However, a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Castille, voted to reverse the PCRA court’s findings and vacated Mr. Williams’ stay.

On review, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the Due Process Clause, there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when judges have a “significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding a defendant’s case.” This was true of former Chief Justice Castille because he had made the decision to allow the trial prosecutor to pursue the death penalty. According to the majority, the decision to pursue the death penalty “is one of the most serious discretionary decisions a prosecutor can be called upon to make.”

Mr. Williams will receive a new hearing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as a result of the Court’s decision in June. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered a moratorium on all executions in 2015, and the state has not carried out a death sentence since 1999. This decision not only has the potential to change recusal policy around the country, but also highlights the importance of due process protections during post-conviction proceedings.

Foster v. Chatman

On May 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Foster v. Chatman that Georgia prosecutors intentionally discriminated against African American prospective jurors in Timothy Foster’s 1987 capital trial. During jury selection, prosecutors used four of their peremptory challenges to strike all of the qualified African American prospective jurors from the jury pool. Decades later, after a lengthy investigation, Mr. Foster’s post-conviction lawyers obtained the prosecution’s voir dire notes. The notes included a handwritten list of six potential jurors that were labeled “definite NO’s,” which included all of the African American veniremembers. Additionally, the file included the venire list where the names of African American jurors were highlighted in bright green. A legend at the top of each copy indicated that the green highlighting represented African Americans. However, Mr. Foster’s state appeals based on impermissible discrimination in jury selection were denied.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the State’s justifications for striking African American jurors were not grounded in fact and were unreasonable. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that the prosecution’s file “plainly demonstrate[d] a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” As a result, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial. The Foster decision has the potential to provide an opportunity for other prisoners on death row to challenge their sentences by presenting new evidence of calculated racial discrimination.