Death Penalty in the News: Supreme Court Update

Volume III Issue 1


A complete schedule of the upcoming oral arguments can be found at The following completed and scheduled arguments may be of interest to those concerned with capital punishment and criminal law:

Nov. 9, 2009: Bobby v. Van Hook

Ohio Death Row inmate Robert Van Hook claimed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial in 1985. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief, relying on the 2003 ABA Guidelines.  In a per curiam opinion, the United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit.  The Court criticized the Sixth Circuit for failure to consider whether the norms embodied in the 2003 Guidelines were the same norms in place in 1985 when the trial occurred.  The Court did not, however, overrule its own precedent holding that the ABA Guidelines are guides to determining what is professionally reasonable legal representation in capital cases.  Read more about the case and the ABA’s analysis at

Jan. 12, 2010: Smith v. Spisak

In a unanimous decision the US Supreme Court struck down a circuit court ruling and reinstated the death sentence for Ohio prisoner Frank Spisak.  The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had held that defense counsel’s performance during the sentencing phase denied Mr. Spisak his right to effective legal representation when counsel referred to him as “sick, twisted, and demented.”  But the US Supreme Court disagreed and found no prejudicial effect.

Jan. 19, 2010:  Abu-Jamal v. Pennsylvania

Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death after the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Abu-Jamal was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.  Supporters of Mr. Abu-Jamal claim that racism pervaded the case.  The Supreme Court denied Mr. Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing, overturning the decision of the Third Circuit.   

Jan. 20, 2010: Wood v. Allen

The Supreme Court let stand the death sentence of a mentally impaired Alabama inmate convicted of killing his former girlfriend. Wood claimed that his trial attorneys left out crucial information pertaining to his mental deficiencies. In a 7-2 decision, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Justice Stevens issued a strong dissent, declaring “the only reasonable factual conclusion I can draw from this record is that counsel's decision [not to investigate and present evidence of mental deficiency] was the result of inattention and neglect."

Mar. 1, 2010: Holland v. Florida

The Court heard arguments about whether "gross negligence" by a defense attorney in a death penalty case provides a basis for extending the time to file a federal habeas challenge in a case where the habeas petition was filed late despite repeated instructions from the client.  Albert Holland, a prisoner on Florida's Death Row, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida after his lawyer did not do so.  But Mr. Holland’s petition was dismissed as untimely because it was filed beyond the one year statute of limitations.  The Eleventh Circuit held that, even though representation of Mr. Holland was “grossly negligent,” such actions did not rise to the level of “extraordinary circumstances” required for equitable tolling.


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