Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Supreme Court Rebukes Texas Again Over a Death Sentence

Note: For any reader who may have forgotten, President Bush was Governor of Texas prior to being President and was responsible for killing an extreme number of inmates, along with Mr. Gonzales, his nominee for Attorney General who said it was ok to ignore the Geneva Convention and torture the prisoners in Abu Graib. Bush thinks its OK to kill adults in prison and teenagers on a battlefied they should not be on.

The New York Times
November 16, 2004

Supreme Court Rebukes Texas Again Over a Death Sentence

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 - The Supreme Court overturned a Texas death sentence on Monday while delivering its latest rebuke to the way the death penalty is being handled by judges in the state, which has executed far more people than any other in the modern era of capital punishment.

The errors committed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in upholding the death sentence of LaRoyce L. Smith were so clear to a majority of the Supreme Court that the justices decided the case in the inmate's favor on the basis of the briefs, without hearing arguments.

Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the unsigned 12-page opinion. They did not write an opinion of their own.

Mr. Smith was convicted in 1991 of murdering a co-worker at a Taco Bell restaurant in Dallas where he had recently worked. He was 19. With an I.Q. of 78, he had reached the ninth grade in special education classes.

In the sentencing phase of his trial, the jury sentenced him to death under a procedure that the Texas Legislature was then in the process of amending to conform to Supreme Court rulings.

The justices said Monday that the Texas appeals court ignored problems the Supreme Court had already identified and that it should have known, when it affirmed the sentence last April, that the jury instructions made the death sentence unconstitutional.The state court "erroneously relied on a test we never countenanced and now have unequivocally rejected," the justices said.

In the last few years, the Supreme Court has overturned a number of death sentences in Texas while making evident its frustration with both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the federal court that hears habeas corpus petitions from Texas inmates.

With Texas having the second-biggest death row in the country, the Supreme Court's increasingly careful monitoring of death sentences in that state could have a significant effect on the overall death penalty picture.

Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas who is Mr. Smith's lawyer, said although dozens of inmates might be freed from the Texas death row as a result of the ruling in Smith v. Texas, No. 04-5323, dozens of others in similar circumstances had been executed.

All were sentenced under a variant of jury instructions that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in opinions that began in 1989 and ended on June 24 of this year, when the court overturned another death sentence in a case, Tennard v. Dretke.

Although the Tennard case had already been argued and a decision was imminent, the Texas appeals court rejected Mr. Smith's appeal without waiting for the Supreme Court's further clarification. The question the justices dealt with in all these cases was whether Texas juries had received instructions that permitted them to give adequate weight to any mitigating factors offered by the defendant to show why he should not be executed.

Under the Texas law that the Supreme Court approved when it permitted capital punishment to resume in 1976, a death sentence was mandatory if jurors answered yes to two questions: Was the killing deliberate, and would the defendant present a continuing danger to society?

There was no room for consideration of mitigating circumstances that the court found in subsequent decisions had to be considered by the jury if the defendant offered them.

After the court ruled in 1989 that Texas had to give jurors the chance to consider mitigating factors, the state added new instructions. Jurors who wanted to take mitigating factors into account should do so by answering no to one of the two questions, even if they believed that the correct answer was yes.

In a decision in 2001, the Supreme Court found this response constitutionally flawed. It then amplified that decision in the Tennard case in June.

Both in 2001 and in June, the justices said, telling jurors to answer the questions honestly and while at the same time instructing them to disregard their own answers placed the jurors in an untenable position, most likely preventing them from giving proper weight to the defendant's mitigating evidence.

The court said Monday that Mr. Smith's mitigating evidence of a low I.Q. and troubled family background - his father stole from the family to support a cocaine habit and was sent to prison - were substantial enough to require the jury's consideration.

Of the 943 executions in the country since 1976, Texas has carried out 335, more than the next six states combined. It has 457 people on death row, second to the 635 in California, which has conducted 10 executions.