HABEAS UPDATE: Susanne Bales, Research and Writing Attorney, FDSET
During the most recently ended 2004 term, the United States Supreme Court handed down several rulings of interest to habeas and capital defense practitioners. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court decided that the execution of juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005). The practical impact of the opinion was to remove seventy-two people from deathrow. www.deathpenaltyinfo.org. The opinion is important (and also controversial) because it relies upon international law in holding that execution of juvenile offenders violates standards of decency. Also, the opinion is significant because it relies upon mental health evidence showing the juvenile brain is not completely formed and thus decision making ability is diminished. Practitioners undoubtedly will use the reasoning of Simmons to argue the Eight Amendment bans execution of the severely mentally ill.
The Supreme Court also reviewed ineffective assistance claims. In Rompilla v. Beard, the Court held that in a death penalty case, counsel has an absolute duty to review court records regarding prior convictions which may be used in aggravation. 125 S.Ct. 2456 (2005). The Court relied heavily upon ABA Standards for Criminal Justice in determining counsel’s duty. In Florida v. Nixon, on the other hand, the Court refused to find per se ineffectiveness in a capital case, where counsel conceded guilt without his client’s permission. 125 S.Ct. 551 (2004).
Two Batson claims were well-received by the Court. In Miller-El v. Dretke, the Supreme Court granted deathrow inmate Miller-El a new trial in light of the strong evidence of racial bias during jury selection. 1255 S.Ct. 2317 (2005). The opinion is noteworthy for its scathing criticism of the state court’s’ review of the claim, stating its holding of no discrimination "blinks reality." In a similar case, Johnson v. California, the Court found unconstitutional California’s standard for reviewing Batson claims. 125 S.Ct. 2410 (2005). The Court found the burden of proof placed upon the defendant was too demanding.
The Court also addressed several highly technical procedural issues regarding the Anti-Terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act. Those cases will be discussed in a future post.