death penalty

In a 7-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts the Supreme Court held in Foster v. Chatman that the prosecutor’s decision to exercise preemptory strikes against all four prospective black jurors was racially motivated in violation of Batson v. Kentucky (1986). Five previous lower court rulings on this issue disagreed.    

In 1987 Timothy Tyrone Foster, who is black, was sentenced to death for murdering, sexually assaulting, and burglarizing an elderly white woman. The jury was all-white; the prosecutor peremptorily struck all four prospective black jurors. Prosecutors may strike a number of jurors for any unstated reason except because of race and sex, the Supreme Court has held.

In an 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Carr, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling overturning a jury’s death sentence for the Carr brothers and Sidney Gleason in an unrelated murder. Reginald and Jonathan Carr were convicted of killing four people in the “Wichita Massacre”; one intended victim survived because her hair clip deflected the bullet.  

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In Hurst v. Florida the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it allows the judge, instead of requiring the jury, to impose the death sentence.

In 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey the Court held that any factual determination that exposes a defendant to a punishment greater than that authorized by a jury’s guilty verdict must be determined by the jury. In Ring v. Arizona (2002) the Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme violated Apprendi because it allowed the judge to find facts necessary to impose the death sentence.

Florida’s scheme worked similar to Arizona’s. A jury verdict for first-degree murder would result in life in prison without parole unless a judge finds facts supporting a death sentence. But in Florida, unlike Arizona, the jury attends the sentencing evidentiary hearing and renders an “advisory verdict.” The jury does not have to specify any factual basis for its recommendation but the judge must give it “great weight.”

Like many cases involving the death penalty, Williams v. Pennsylvania is a long story.

Terrance Williams was sentenced to death for killing Amos Norwood during a 1984 robbery in Philadelphia when Williams was eighteen. Williams claimed at trial he did not know Norwood, who was fifty-six.

In 2012 Williams’ co-conspirator Marc Draper revealed, among other things, that the prosecutor urged him to falsely testify that the motive for the murder was robbery, not that Norwood had sexually abused Williams, and the prosecutor wrote an undisclosed letter to the parole board on behalf of Draper. A hearing revealed the prosecutor failed to disclose extensive evidence of Norwood’s homosexual ephebophilia (attraction to teenagers).

Since the Supreme Court’s term began in early October it has agreed to hear 15 cases—13 at its “long” conference before the term began and two subsequently. Many will have an impact on the states. And a number will only impact specific states (and a territory!).   

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