January 26, 2021

Year in Review: SCOTUS Makes Significant Criminal Case Law in 2020

Throughout 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several important decisions in capital, non-capital, and military criminal cases. In February, a divided Court upheld James McKinney’s death sentence in McKinney v. Arizona. In a 5-4 decision, the Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court, which had resentenced Mr. McKinney to death following reversal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit had held that the Arizona courts failed to consider non-statutory mitigating evidence relating to Mr. McKinney’s posttraumatic stress disorder, in violation of Eddings v. Oklahoma. After the Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the Arizona Supreme Court, the state court re-weighed the aggravating and mitigating evidence itself, rather than returning the case to the trial court for jury resentencing. The Court held that the proceedings were part of collateral review, not direct appeal, and that when an Eddings error is found during this stage, state appellate courts may correct the error.

The Court again ruled against a death row prisoner the following month, holding 6-3 in Kahler v. Kansas that due process does not require a state to adopt an insanity test based on the moral culpability of a defendant—that is, the defendant’s ability to recognize that their actions were morally wrong. Kansas eliminated the moral culpability prong of its insanity defense in 1995, but retains the cognitive incapacity test, which asks if at the time of a crime a defendant knew what they were doing. The Court has never held that a particular insanity defense is required by the Constitution, but instead, has found that a state rule about criminal liability only violates due process if it “offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience [of] our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” While the insanity defense is deeply rooted in our criminal legal tradition, the Court reasoned that as the cognitive incapacity test is still used in Kansas, it has not altogether eliminated the insanity defense. The decision on how to define the scope of criminal liability based on factors like mental incapacity, the Court explained, is best left to individual states.

The Court also issued significant decisions in non-capital cases that are likely to have a direct impact on capital proceedings as well.

In July, the Court issued a landmark decision for Oklahoma prisoners in McGirt v. Oklahoma. The 5-4 majority held that land deemed “Indian territory” in a series of a treaties between the tribes and Congress remained under tribal jurisdiction. Under the Major Crimes Act, crimes committed on such land are exclusively under federal jurisdiction, rendering petitioner Jimcy McGirt’s state conviction and life without parole sentence invalid. The McGirt decision came following a suspected Court deadlock in Carpenter v. Murphy, a capital case examining the same issue but from which Justice Gorsuch had recused himself. Mr. Murphy’s case was also ultimately remanded back to the lower courts for habeas relief under McGirt. The decision may affect the validity of scores of prior state prosecutions, and subsequent litigation  remains ongoing.

In a fractured April opinion, the Court in Ramos v. Louisiana addressed whether the right to a unanimous jury trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, extends to the states. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Gorsuch, fully incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury, previously applied to federal criminal trials, against the states. With various justices applying different reasoning across the majority and concurring opinions, there were ultimately six votes agreeing that the right to jury unanimity applies to the states. The Court splintered over the justification for incorporation as well as how to apply stare decisis—the legal principle that courts should follow the precedent set in prior, factually similar decisions—to Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 decision that upheld the constitutionality of non-unanimous criminal convictions in state courts. At the time of Ramos, only Louisiana and Oregon allowed for non-unanimous criminal decisions. The Ramos decision leaves open the question of whether the right to a unanimous jury in a state criminal case applies retroactively when raised during federal collateral review. The Court heard argument  on December 2, 2020, in Edwards v. Vannoy, which addresses the question of retroactivity. If the Court finds that Ramos applies retroactively, hundreds of defendants may be able to obtain new trials in Louisiana and Oregon. 

In June, the Court issued a decision on a complex procedural habeas question that will affect the proceedings of countless capital litigants, despite being raised in the context of a non-capital case. In Banister v. Davis, the Court granted certiorari to a pro se petitioner who sought review of a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision dismissing his motion for amended judgment, filed per Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). The Fifth Circuit had cited Supreme Court precedent in reaching its decision, but as Mr. Banister pointed out, the precedent spoke only to motions filed under a different rule, 60(b). Pro bono counsel from Goodwin Procter stepped in to represent Gregory Banister in merits briefing and oral arguments. The 7-2 decision found that 59(e) motions should not be subjected to the unauthorized “second or successive habeas petition” analysis applied to motions filed under Rule 60(b). The Court inferred the statutory drafting intentions behind the relevant federal death penalty law in finding that the contours of Rule 59(e) furthered the goal of avoiding unnecessary appeals by allowing a court to correct its own judgments. This decision preserves the full capability of an important procedural tool utilized by many death row prisoners in their federal habeas proceedings. 

Finally, in the latter half of 2020, the Court heard oral argument and decided for the Government in a non-capital military case that turned on the military code’s definition of rape as a crime “punishable by death.” On October 13, 2020, the Court heard arguments in United States v. Briggs, a consolidation of three cases involving military personnel convicted of raping fellow service members. At issue was whether the three should have been prosecuted in the first place under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which specifies in Article 43 that there is no statute of limitations for all crimes “punishable by death,” and in Article 120 categorizes military rape as a death-eligible offense. The case reached the Court following the Department of Justice appealing the decisions below, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed the convictions after finding that the offenses could not be death-penalty eligible, and therefore should have been subject to a five-year limitations period. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision reversed and remanded this judgment.

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