Capital Punishment

In Bucklew v. Precythe the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Missouri wasn’t required to execute Russell Bucklew using a drug he claimed would cause him less pain due to his unusual medical condition, cavernous hemangioma.

Bucklew was sentenced to death for killing a neighbor who was sheltering his former girlfriend and her children after she broke up with Bucklew. Cavernous hemangioma causes tumors to grow in Bucklew’s head, neck, and throat. He claims that the sedative Missouri intends to use in its lethal injection protocol will cause him feelings of suffocation and excoriating pain due to his disease for a longer amount of time than the alternative drug he suggests. He claims Missouri’s protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him. 

The Eighth Amendment disallows “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court held in Glossip v. Gross (2015) that a state’s refusal to alter its lethal injection protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.”

All the Supreme Court Justices, even those not living in the D.C. area at the time, will remember the D.C. Snipers. Malvo’s case before the High Court is complicated.

In Miller v. Alabama (2014) the Supreme Court held that juvenile offenders convicted of homicide can’t receive a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Instead the sentencing court must take into account how children are different from adults and only sentence the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” to life imprisonment without parole. In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) the Supreme Court held that Miller’s rule applies retroactively to juveniles convicted and sentenced before Miller was decided.  

The question in Malvo v. Mathena is whether Lee Boyd Malvo may have his sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, issued before Miller, reconsidered under Miller even though they weren’t mandatory.

In Madison v. Alabama the Supreme Court held 5-3 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a person who lacks a “rational understanding” due to mental illness for why the death penalty has been imposed to be put to death regardless of what mental illness the person is suffering from.  

Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. Since then he has suffered a series of strokes and has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. He claims he no longer remembers the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments disallows executing a person who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing.  The Court “clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman [2007] by focusing on whether a prisoner can ‘reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.’”

In an unauthored opinion in Moore v. Texas II the Supreme Court concluded Bobby James Moore has intellectual disability. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002) the Supreme Court held that persons with intellectual disability can’t be executed.

As the dissenting Justices point out, the Supreme Court typically opines whether a lower court has correctly applied as a standard and sends the case back to the lower court if it didn’t. The Supreme Court usually doesn’t apply the standard itself. It may have done so in this case because it previously held the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals failed to correctly apply the intellectual disability standard to Moore in Texas v. Moore (2017) (Moore I).

Russell Bucklew was sentence to death for murder, kidnapping, and rape. He suffers from cavernous hemangioma, which causes clumps of weak, malformed blood vessels and tumors to grow in his face, head, neck, and throat.

Missouri intended to execute him by lethal injection. But he claims that killing him by gas, still on the books in Missouri but not used since 1965, would substantially reduce his risk of pain and suffering given his cavernous hemangioma. The Eighth Circuit rejected his request.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide four issues in Bucklew v. Precythe. Until merits briefs are filed and oral argument is held in the fall it difficult to know what the Supreme Court will focus on. For now, the Eighth Circuit opinion provides the best clues.

Echoing his 2015 dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, where the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol, Justice Breyer asked the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment in his concurring opinion in Dunn v. Madison.

Vernon Madison was sentenced to the death for the 1985 murder of a police officer. In 2016 he argued he was no longer competent to be executed due to a series of strokes. His psychologist and the state’s psychologist agree that Madison understands that he is being executed in retribution for murder. But he doesn’t remember killing anyone.

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A U.S. circuit court has dismissed claims by several Ohio death-row inmates that a state law on capital punishment unconstitutionally conceals information from them. The November decision affirmed a lower court ruling that the prisoners had no standing because they couldn’t prove harm from the denial of information, The (Toledo) Blade reports.

On July 1, 2016, a new Virginia law will take effect that will protect the identities of nearly all parties involved in state-performed lethal injections. HB 815 provides exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to make confidential all identifying information of producers, suppliers, compounding pharmacies, executioners, and all other individuals involved in the procurement and use of lethal injection drugs. Virginia will become at least the 13th state with such a law.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that when a judge had significant prior personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case the judge must recuse himself or herself. 

District attorney Castille approved a subordinate prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty against Terrance Williams. Williams was accused of a robbery and murder which he denied, on the stand, participating in.

Almost 30 years later Williams’s co-conspirator revealed that he had informed the prosecutor on the case that Williams and the victim had a sexual relationship that was the motive for the murder. A lower state court threw out Williams’s execution after discovering extensive prosecutor misconduct. 

Meanwhile, Castille had become Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which was tasked with reviewing the lower court’s decision. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court. Castille refused to recuse himself.

In Moore v. Texas the Supreme Court will review a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision to apply a previous definition of “intellectually disabled” adopted in a 1992 death penalty case rather than the current definition. Texas Legislature’s failure to act compels its decision, the lower court reasoned.

In Atkins v. Virginia (1992) the Supreme Court held that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court tasked states with implementing Atkins.

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