Category: Capital Punishment

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McWilliams v. Dunn

As a follow-up to my post last week about Steve Bright, I wanted to draw your attention to this draft paper on the case by Fred Vars (at the University of Alabama Law School). Here is the Abstract:

The Supreme Court yesterday (April 24, 2017) heard the case of an Alabama death row inmate, James McWilliams. A thus far overlooked argument could save his life and help level the playing field in other capital cases. The Court in 1985 promised independent expertise. Now is its chance to make good on that promise.

 

 

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Steve Bright

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McWilliams v. Dunn, a capital punishment case. The case was argued for petitioner by Steven Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Bright recently announced that he will retire as the Director after more than thirty years of advocacy against the death penalty.

I took a class from Steve Bright when I was a law student, and he is a remarkable man. While I do not believe that the death penalty is unconstitutional under all circumstances, his work and example did convince me that many capital sentences are unconstitutional and that the use of that sentence should be reserved for a handful of cases (far fewer than what is done now). So I just wanted to take a moment to salute him and wish him well in whatever he does next.

 

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FAN 99.5 (First Amendment News) Execution secrecy bill passed by Mississippi Senate

Attorney General Jim Hood applauded the Mississippi Senate today for approving a measure intended to protect the safety of the individuals responsible for carrying out executions. Senate Bill No. 2237 would protect the identities of the state executioner and members of the execution team, and would also keep confidential the names of the local supplier or suppliers of lethal injection drugs located in the State of Mississippi. The bill was drafted by the Attorney General’s Office, and it is part of the Attorney General’s legislative agenda. — Office of Attorney General Tim Hood, March 1, 2016

Mississippi Senator Sean Tindell introduced Senate Bill No. 2237, which in relevant part provides

“The identities of all members of the execution team, a supplier of lethal injection chemicals, and the identities of those witnesses listed in Section 99-19-55(2) who attend as members of the victim’s or the condemned person’s immediate family shall at all times remain confidential, and the information is exempt from disclosure under the provisions of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983.”

Senator Sean Tindell

Senator Sean Tindell

“Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, any portion of any record of any kind that could identify a person as being a current or former member of an execution team or a current or former supplier of lethal injection chemicals, or those witnesses listed in Section 99-19-55(2), shall be privileged and shall only be subject to discovery, subpoena, or other means of legal compulsion for disclosure by order of a court of competent jurisdiction, and the remainder of the record shall not be privileged or closed unless protected from disclosure by law.”

“A person may not knowingly disclose the identity of a current or former member of an execution team, a current or former supplier of lethal injection chemicals, or witness who wishes to remain confidential, or disclose any record of any kind knowing that it could identify a person as being a current or former member of an execution team, current or former supplier of lethal injection chemicals or confidential witness.  Any person whose identity is disclosed in violation of this section shall:

(a)  Have a civil cause of action against a person who violates this section;

(b)  Be entitled to recover from any such person:

(i)  Actual damages; and

(ii)  Punitive damages on a showing of a willful violation of this section. . . .”

The bill passed 32-18 and is currently being held in the Senate on a motion to reconsider.

Press Opposition

  • “‘If we’re going to be in the business of putting people to death, there needs to be as much openness as possible,’ said Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association.”
  • “[G]overnment secrecy coupled with prior restraint — the gag of state censorship — is unacceptable. — Geoff Pender, Clarion Ledger
  • “If there is anything that should be completely transparent, it is everything related to the state’s taking the life of one of its citizens. [This bill] rightfully should send chills down the spine of every Mississippian who values the civil liberties guaranteed by a free and unfettered press. This is Mississippi, not the old Soviet Union, not some banana republic, and this cannot be allowed to stand.” — Ray Mosby, Deer Creek Pilot
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AALS, Professor Dan Markel, and the Scholarly Tradition

This week is the annual law professor conference in New York City. The AALS conference is always a wonderful ritual of learning, discussion, and friendship. Indeed, it was the one time of the year that guaranteed a lunch, dinner, or chat with brilliant criminal law theorist and incredible friend Dan Markel. When Dan was murdered in the summer of 2014, I wrote this post for Forbes about his life’s lessons. For colleagues who are going to AALS this year, CoOp will be having a Markelfest in his honor tomorrow night. I wish that I could be there to celebrate Dan and his passion for scholarship and the world of ideas. We miss you, Dan.

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Lawyers and Clients: The Absurd Reality for Indigent Clients Facing Execution

A Thought Experiment

Suppose that Facebook got sued for a privacy tort for hosting nonconsensual pornography and that Facebook’s lawyer told company executives that she did not intend to mount Facebook’s preferred response—a motion to dismiss on the grounds of Section 230 immunity. Executives explained to the lawyer that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act is a knock out punch. An Internet intermediary can’t be held responsible for privacy-invading content created by a user. The lawyer, however, refused to listen to reason.

When Facebook tried to switch attorneys, its first lawyer told the court that Facebook should be forced to remain represented by that lawyer even though Facebook wanted a new one. In making that argument to the court, Facebook’s first lawyer told the court that she was doing a good job for Facebook and that her refusal to mount Facebook’s preferred defense was because Facebook had no Section 230 immunity. Facebook’s lawyer would not only be undermining her own client’s case, but would also be incorrectly representing the underlying issue to the court.

Facebook’s lawyer would be in flagrant violation of fiduciary duties to its client. Of course, clients with money can fire lawyers. Those lawyers certainly should not be permitted to undermine a client’s case in the course of trying to retain the representation—especially by inaccurately representing key features of a case. That sounds so obviously right: a contrary suggestion would surely be absurd.

Absurd Reality for Indigent Clients Facing Execution

For a reason that is hard to fathom, this is precisely what is allowed to happen in criminal cases affecting indigent clients facing execution. Apparently – at least in the Fifth Circuit – the relationship between client principals and lawyer agents is different.

This week, in Roberson v. Stephens, the Supreme Court will consider whether the execution of Robert L. Roberson should proceed even though his lawyers seem to have prioritized their own reputational interests at the expense of their client. Over at Balkanization, my colleague Mark Graber has a careful explanation of how Mr. Roberson’s lawyers seem more preoccupied with their reputations than with resuscitating a Sixth Amendment claim that might save his life.

At issue in Roberson is a failure of legal agency involving the same death penalty lawyers that a palpably displeased Justice Sotomayor rebuked on the eve of their client Raphael Holiday’s November 18 execution. The lawyers refused to file a clemency petition and opposed Mr. Holiday’s attempts to find a lawyer who would follow his wishes and file it. Forced to go along with the Court’s refusal to stay the execution because the attorneys filed a last-minute clemency petition, Justice Sotomayor nevertheless issued a powerful statement criticizing the lawyers for their behavior and the lower courts for failing to police it. She explained that the law does not permit “condemned men and women to be abandoned by their counsel at the last moment . . . [y]et this is exactly what happened here.”

Here again, the same lawyers have seemingly refused to listen to their client, Mr. Roberson, because doing so might require one of them to expose himself to a finding that the forfeiture of the Sixth Amendment claim was his own fault.

As briefing submitted in support of Supreme Court review explains: “In both Roberson and Holiday, the Fifth Circuit permitted the same pattern of conduct: CJA counsel’s refusal to pursue relief on the client’s behalf, followed by counsel’s inaccurate representations to courts about the constraints on seeking such relief, concluding with legal opposition to the very client they were appointed to represent. At base, both Roberson and Holiday express the Fifth Circuit’s view that [the statutory right to counsel] affords courts discretion to saddle inmates facing execution with lawyers who are not functioning as agents of their clients.”

The assessment of the ethics experts in the case is unequivocal. Yale Professor Lawrence Fox is the former Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, and the former Chair of the ABA Litigation Section. Professor Fox concluded “to a reasonable degree of a professional certainty that both lawyers are operating under profound conflicts of interest that prevent them from continuing the representation[.]” Charles Herring, a renown Texas ethics expert, explained: “James Volberding and Seth Kretzer have conflicts of interest that should prevent them from representing Mr. Roberson on the [Sixth Amendment issue in the case].”

I may not be a death penalty lawyer, but I know enough to understand that we should not be allowing attorneys to obstruct relief preferred by their own clients—particularly in cases where the attorneys seem to be engaged in obstruction as a means of protecting their own interests. If we would not allow counsel for Facebook to cling onto her job contrary to the interest of its client, we certainly should not do so in a case where the stakes are not just about money but about life and death.

 

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A Painful Death

Justice Breyer’s dissent this summer in Glossip v. Gross, has sparked much-needed commentary about the death penalty’s future. Declaring his belief that capital punishment is likely unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment “in and of itself” (meaning separate from challenges to state methods of execution), Justice Breyer outlined what he called the death penalty’s “fundamental constitutional defects”—unreliability, arbitrariness, and “unconscionably long delays” that undermine its penological purpose. He challenged defense lawyers to bring a case to the Court testing his thesis. Perhaps understandably, this pivotal dissent has eclipsed critical analysis of the Court’s 5-4 decision in Glossip, which upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol under the Eighth Amendment. But the majority opinion in Glossip says some troubling things about state violence that warrant closer examination. Thus, in this post, I focus not on the death penalty’s vulnerability, but rather on the implications of Glossip’s disastrous test for assessing methods of execution under the Eighth Amendment and its potential implications for constitutional doctrines applicable to state uses of force more broadly.

As I sketch out below, Glossip, provides that a State’s method of execution may be constitutional even if it creates a substantial risk of severe pain, so long as an alternative less painful measure is not readily available at the time of a challenge. This analysis ignores that, as a practical matter, foregoing an execution until it can be accomplished without a “substantial risk of severe pain” is necessarily always an option available to the State. It thus incorporates a de-facto exigency consideration within Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and allows the State to carry out painful deaths. I provide some initial thoughts about this issue, but first provide necessary background on Glossip.

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Death Penalty Free Riding

With the constitutional debate on the death penalty now back on, I want to make an observation about that punishment that flows from the recently completed Boston Marathon bomber trial.

It seems to me that the DOJ’s decision to seek the death penalty in a state that does not have capital punishment sets a precedent that could undermine that regime nationwide.  Suppose you’re in a state that is thinking about getting rid of the death penalty.  A good reply to that idea is that every once in a while there is a really heinous crime that merits a death sentence.  (The alleged killer in Charleston comes to mind.  So does Timothy McVeigh).

Not a problem, an abolitionist can say.  The DOJ will seek the death penalty in such a case.  In a really terrible crime, some ground of federal jurisdiction can be found.  In effect, states can just free ride on the federal government for “the worst of the worst” cases.”  No need to  maintain the expense of state death row, post-conviction review, or an execution method.

Not all states will feel this way, of course.  Some will say that the DOJ will not seek the death penalty often enough.  Or they might say that there can be horrible killers who would not trigger federal jurisdiction somehow.  My point, though, is that many states that have the death penalty but use it rarely might conclude that the DOJ can be safely entrusted with this discretion.  I wonder if we will see that argument made more often in the coming years.

 

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To Sarat or Not Sarat

As in Austin Sarat, Law and Humanities scholar at Amherst College.  As in one of the leading figures within the Association of Law Culture and Humanities, which has become one of my favorite destinations over the years for engaging discussion across the disciplines.  (FYI, today is the deadline to submit abstracts to the Law Culture and Humanities Conference being held at Georgetown this year).
Glancing across Sarat’s scholarship one might notice a fascination with documenting the morbidity of law.  Images of war, death, and imprisonment filter the landscape of writings; the images are used to magnify their contrast. They create discourses in binaries.  We understand legal violence distinctive from non-legal violence; death distinctive from non-death; and imprisonment distinctive from non-prisoned life.  Sarat sums this up in his Article Violence, Democracy, Responsibility, and the Problem of Punishment.

 

Moreover, by equating the conditions of legal legitimacy with that masking, much of that jurisprudence promotes righteous indifference and allows law’s violence to continue unabated. I am neither so idealistic nor so naive as to imagine that a change in legal theory would in itself end violence done, authorized or approved by legal institutions and officials. Still the energy in much of my work on punishment comes from a desire to interrogate legal theory in order to understand how law, surrounded by so much pain, is, nonetheless, able to maintain its calm, bureaucratic facade.

 

Drawing on themes that prompt considerations of justice and violence, it’s no wonder that Sarat and Robert Cover were walking the same halls in New Haven in the early 1980’s.  I don’t know if Sarat and Cover interacted much.  Really, does it matter?  Sarat himself was a well accomplished scholar in the humanities prior to enrolling at Yale (I mean how many of us as one L’s had their professor begin a civil procedure class by reading and discussing our own work?) .  Perhaps he and Cover never interacted.  I’d like to think they didn’t but that the recursiveness of space, time and ideas latched on to them independently as they traveled the halls.

Besides violence, Sarat’s scholarship prompts me to think about similar themes in my own work.   Loneliness has been a particular theme of mine.  Robert Penn Warren, Fydor Dostovsky, and Flannery O’Connor have been shaping devices of this theme.  They play themselves out in a chorus of questions about space, roles, isolation, and time.  When Warren writes about the South as a Lonely place, he prompts me to wonder whether and how time shapes people.  For those three, time is the violence of memory, sometimes maintained through static relationships of property, law, family, and culture.  Sarat likewise prompts us to consider how time shapes our understandings of justice and violence.  He writes in the same article prompted above:

For me, democracy requires a particular orientation toward time. Democratic temporality is the time of change, of reconsideration. It is open-ended and open to a sense of the endlessness of time. Acts of punishment, even if we had a way of calculating what people deserve, are always in some sense the servants, not the masters, of time. Numerous authors have highlighted the problem of time in asking whether the person being subject to punishment, 2, or 12, or 20 years after the crime is really the same person as the one who committed the crime that justified the punishment in the first place. When, many years ago, Justice Brennan described the death penalty as taking away the right to have rights, he might well have said that no punishment that seeks to be timeless, or stop the movement of time, can be reconciled with a democratic theory of punishment.

The conception of time as a marker of change is one, I think Robert Penn Warren would greatly admire.  On May 15, 1961, The New Republic published a review of Warren’s essay The Legacy of the Civil War.  In the review essay, writer Peter d’a Jones aligned Warrens views with Robert Patterson of the Citizens Counsel of Mississippi, a group formed following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  The group, put simply, was designed to use legal (and non-legal) violence to stymie desegregation.
Following the review of Warren’s essay, Warren wrote a letter to the New Republic editor:

Dear Sir,

This letter is promoted by a review of my essay the Legacy of the Civil War, which appeared in your issue of May 15.  I could wish that Mr. Peter d’a Jones had thought better of my essay or at least of my intellectual integrity, but I am not now writing in defense of either.  What I want to do here is disabuse those readers who may feel, from Mr. Jones’ review that I have much sympathy with Mr. Robert Patterson of the Citizens’ Committee of Mississippi, whom he cites with, perhaps, some effect of guilt by association.  

The quickest thing for me to do is state three things — things which it is strange for any citizen to feel constrained to state.

1 It is morally right, as well as politically and economically necessary, that all the rights and privileges of American citizenship be guaranteed to all citizens.  
2 A man’s worth should be judged by the qualities of his manhood.
3 Any official of any state who does not honestly and vigorously endeavor to punish, with full rigor, any violence against or coercion of any individual or group has violated his public trust and should be impeached.  

I suppose that a reader can easily infer from these statements my attitude in specific instances, as I had assumed one might from other writings of mine, including the Legacy of the Civil War; but I shall add that I think Dr. Martin Luther King a great man, and that the sit ins conducted according to his principles are morally unassailable, and will win.  One reason they will win is that they offer, even to the man howling from the sidewalk, an exhibition of courage, dignity, and self control.  

                        Very Respectfully Yours,

                        Robert Penn Warren

P.S.  One more thing: since Mr. Jones takes the trouble to quote from me in 1929, I wish he had taken the trouble in his researches to glance at my explicit repudiation some time back, of what I said in 1929.  In 1929, in my youth, I was wrong — and even now, I do not feel myself entirely above error.  

Warren’s reflection of change over time merges with his views of social responsibility.   For what its worth, Warren was also wandering around New Haven in the early 1980’s.  How I would enjoy sitting at a table amongst Warren, Sarat and Cover as they talked about these things.  How the walls in New Haven must have been ablaze with ideas in the early 80’s.

(P.S. Robert Patterson was also former Captain of the Mississippi State football team — ergo my promised college football reference, in case anyone needed an irrational reason to hate the number one ranked team).

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Intellectual Disability and Uncertainty in Hall v. Florida

I’ve been meaning to post about the Supreme Court’s decision last week in Hall v. Florida—the case in which the Court struck down as unconstitutional Florida’s law for determining whether an offender is intellectually disabled and thus cannot be executed. In its 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court concluded that it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to execute a “mentally retarded” individual. (Thankfully, in Hall, the Court switched over to the term “intellectually disabled.” I’ll be using the terms interchangeably in this post.) In Atkins, the Court stated that it was leaving it up to individual legislatures to determine when a person is “mentally retarded”—in the Court’s words, it was “leav[ing] to the States the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon their execution of sentences.” Now, other states and the medical community generally agree with Florida that a defendant is intellectually disabled if he has (1) “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,” (2) “deficits in adaptive functioning,” (3) and “onset of these deficits during the developmental period” (by age 18). The first prong—the one at issue in Hall—is ordinarily determined by a defendant’s IQ score. States have concluded that an IQ score that is 70 or lower meets the “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” standard. The Hall case raises the issue as to whether uncertainty in obtained IQ scores (or confidence intervals) ought to be included in determining the defendant’s true IQ score for the purpose of this first prong of the intellectual disability test.

In a 6-3 decision, the Hall Court concluded that Florida’s approach—of finding that an obtained IQ score greater than 70 may be determinative of the fact that the defendant is not intellectually disabled—is unconstitutional. In reaching this conclusion, the Court took a detour from its ordinary Eighth Amendment analysis, focusing heavily on the opinions of professional organizations. As in prior opinions, the Court was loose with the numbers in the state-counting aspect of its Eighth Amendment analysis, concluding that a “significant majority of States” have adopted procedures contrary to Florida’s approach. The dissent explains that, of the death penalty states, nine have adopted an approach similar to Florida, nine have not addressed the issue, and twelve take the approach that the Court finds to be constitutionally required. It is difficult to find a national consensus in these numbers. In finding a consensus, though, the majority includes the eighteen states that have abolished capital punishment. Whether to include non-death-penalty states in this calculus is an issue that the Justices have debated before. But the Court’s approach to finding a consensus in this case is especially interesting because of the metric it uses in doing so. Instead of looking at the number of states that have categorically prohibited a punishment—such as tallying the number of states that have banned executing the “mentally retarded,” the “insane,” or juveniles—the Court is counting the number of states that take into account standard errors of measurement (SEMs) in determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled. This metric accounts for the uncertainty inherent in obtained IQ scores and provides a range in which it’s likely the defendant’s true IQ score falls based upon his obtained score. In examining this metric, the Court frames the question as whether it is unconstitutional for a state to not take into account SEMs in determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled. But is it really this procedural matter that’s at issue here? Or do we instead care about whether individuals who actually have true IQ scores of 70 or below are being executed? For example, if a state were to conclude that a defendant is intellectually disabled if he has an obtained IQ score of 90 or below, and if the test used in the state has a SEM of 2.5—suggesting that it is quite unlikely that a defendant scoring above 90 on an IQ test would have a true IQ score of 70 or below—would it be unconstitutional for that state’s courts not to take into account the SEM in determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled? The dissent suggests that another way to probe the uncertainty is to admit multiple obtained IQ scores—a practice the Florida procedures in question allowed. While multiple obtained IQ scores are relevant to determining the reliability of the obtained scores, using this evidence, alone, means working with a fairly small sample size. In Hall, the defendant submitted nine obtained IQ scores, and two were excluded by the sentencing court.

The Court’s decision in this case continues to chip away at the death penalty, albeit quite slowly. The majority’s departure from its traditional Eighth Amendment framework for analysis—a step that is far from new for the Court—injects further uncertainty into the limits on punishments under the Constitution. The Court’s willingness to think more deeply about the methodologies, math, and science underlying some of its decisions, though, furthers the understanding that the meaning of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments is evolving. Unfortunately, uncertainty remains about how the Court gathers information about these complicated aspects of law and fact, and how adept the Court is at understanding and employing these concepts.

There is much more that could be said about the Hall case, the Eighth Amendment, and judges’ uses of science and technology, but it has come time for me to sign off of Concurring Opinions for now. Thanks again to the Co-Op gang for asking me to visit, and I look forward to the next time!