Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021
State v. Defoe, 364 N.C. 29 (Apr. 15, 2010)

The 2001 amendments to the capital sentencing statutes revoked the statutory mandate that provided the rationale for State v. Rorie, 348 N.C. 266 (1998) (holding that the trial court exceeded its authority to enforce Rule 24 by precluding the State from prosecuting a first-degree murder case capitally). Thus, the trial court has inherent authority to enforce Rule 24 by declaring a case noncapital in appropriate circumstances. Declaring a case noncapital is appropriate only when the defendant makes a sufficient showing of prejudice resulting from the State’s delay in holding the Rule 24 conference. In this case, the defendant did not show sufficient prejudice to warrant declaring the cases noncapital. 

State v. Williams, 363 N.C. 689 (Dec. 11, 2009)

The random segregation of the entire jury pool so that it could be split among the defendant’s proceeding and other matters being handled at the courthouse that day was a preliminary administrative matter at which defendant did not have a right to be present.

(1) In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court deprived him of his state and federal constitutional right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury by prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors concerning their ability to follow the applicable law prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty upon an intellectually disabled person. Defense counsel informed the trial court that they wanted to ask the jurors whether they can follow the law with regard to mental retardation and that in order to make an adequate inquiry, defense counsel would need to tell the jurors about the relevant law. The trial judge determined that the defense would be limited to inquiring into the jurors’ ability to follow the applicable law. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, defense counsel told the jurors that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty and that it is defined, among other things, as having a low IQ. Both defense counsel and the prosecutor asked prospective jurors numerous questions related to intellectual disability issues. Although the trial court told defense counsel to limit their questioning with respect to intellectual disability issues to inquiry as to whether members of the jury could follow the law as given to them by the court, the defendant was allowed, without objection, to explain to two different jury panels, at a time when all prospective jurors were present, that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty. Additionally, defense counsel asked prospective jurors about their experiences with intellectually disabled persons, the extent of their familiarity with intelligence testing and adaptive skills functioning issues, their willingness to consider expert mental health testimony, and their willingness to follow the applicable law as given in the trial court’s instructions. When considered in conjunction with the fact that defense counsel was allowed to tell jurors that mental retardation was a defense, the questions defense counsel were allowed to pose sufficiently permitted counsel to determine whether jurors could fairly consider and follow the trial court’s instruction concerning whether the defendant should be exempted from the imposition of the death penalty on the basis of any intellectual disabilities. The limitations that the trial court put on defense counsel’s questioning of prospective jurors concerning intellectual disability issues was not an abuse of discretion and did not render the trial fundamentally unfair.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he demonstrated that he suffers from an intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and that the trial court erred by denying his motion to set aside the jury’s verdict in the State’s favor with respect to this issue. Although the defendant did present sufficient evidence to support a determination that he should be deemed exempt from the imposition of the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds, the State presented expert testimony tending to support a contrary determination. The relative credibility of the testimony offered by the various experts concerning the nature and extent of the defendant’s intellectual limitations was a matter for the jury. Because the record reveals a conflict in the evidence concerning the extent to which the defendant was intellectually disabled, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to set aside the jury’s verdict.

(3) The trial court committed reversible error at the defendant’s capital sentencing proceeding by failing to instruct the jury with respect to the statutory mitigating factor in G.S. 15A-2000(f)(6), which addresses the extent to which a defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired. The trial judge is required to instruct the jury to consider any mitigating circumstances which have adequate evidentiary support and the trial court has no discretion in determining whether to submit a mitigating circumstance when substantial evidence in support of it has been presented. Citing evidence in the record, the court held that it contains ample support for the submission of the mitigating circumstance at issue. The court went on to find that the trial court’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ordered a new capital sentencing hearing

(1) The trial court did not err by allowing the State’s challenge for cause of a prospective juror when the juror’s beliefs about the death penalty could not be pinned down. (2) The trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss asserting that disproportionate numbers of prospective jurors who were African-American, opposed the death penalty, or both, were excluded from the jury in violation of Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412 (1985). The court declined to reconsider its previous holding that death qualifying a jury in a capital case does not violate the United States or North Carolina Constitutions. (3) The trial court did not err by prohibiting defense counsel from suggesting during voir dire that there is a presumption that life without parole is the appropriate sentence when North Carolina law does not establish such a presumption. (4) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State injected error when it stated to prospective jurors that the jury had to be unanimous as to a sentence of death or life without parole. According to the defendant, these comments erroneously indicated that the jury had to recommend a life sentence unanimously, placing a burden on the defendant, when in fact life sentence is imposed if the jury cannot agree during a capital sentencing proceeding. While the defendant was correct that an inability to reach unanimity in a capital sentencing proceeding will result in a life sentence, the jury is not to be instructed as to the result of being unable to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation. (5) The State did not reduce its burden when it asked prospective jurors to presuppose that the defendant had been found guilty. Such a supposition was a necessary prelude to voir dire questions relating to the sentencing proceeding, should one be needed.

The Eighth Amendment does not require courts to instruct capital sentencing juries that mitigating circumstances “need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Bobby v. Mitts, 563 U.S. 395 (May. 2, 2011)

In a per curiam opinion, the Court reversed a Sixth Circuit decision granting relief to a defendant on grounds that the jury instructions used in his capital trial ran afoul of Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980) (holding that the death penalty may not be imposed when the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser-included non-capital offense, and when the evidence would have supported such a verdict). The Court concluded that the penalty phase instruction at issue was not invalid under Beck, which dealt with guilt-innocence phase instructions.

Smith v. Spisak, 558 U.S. 139 (Jan. 12, 2010)

Distinguishing Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 (1988), and holding that the penalty phase jury instructions and verdict forms were not unconstitutional. The defendant had asserted that the instructions improperly required the jury to consider in mitigation only those factors the jury unanimously found to be mitigating.

(1) The Eighth Amendment does not require courts to instruct capital sentencing juries that mitigating circumstances “need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” (2) The Eighth Amendment was not violated by a joint capital sentencing proceeding for two defendants. The Court reasoned, in part: “the Eighth Amendment is inapposite when each defendant’s claim is, at bottom, that the jury considered evidence that would not have been admitted in a severed proceeding, and that the joint trial clouded the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence like ‘mercy.’”

In this habeas appeal, the petitioner was convicted of two murders in 1992 in Arizona state court. At that time, no requirement existed that the jury determine facts supporting an aggravating factor. At least one aggravating factor must be found to support a sentence of death under the Court’s precedents. In the petitioner’s case, the trial court found factors in aggravation for both murders and imposed death. In federal habeas proceedings 20 years later, the Ninth Circuit found that the trial court improperly ignored mitigation evidence in violation of Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982) (reversible error for trial court to ignore relevant mitigation evidence at capital sentencing). The case returned to the Arizona Supreme Court, where the petitioner argued for a new sentencing hearing before a jury. The Arizona Supreme Court rejected this argument, pointing to Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990). Clemons allows a state appellate court to reweigh aggravating and mitigating factors in a death case following reversal for use of an improper aggravating factor (instead of a jury weighing those factors). The Arizona Supreme Court reweighed the sentencing factors in the case and again imposed death. The petitioner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a jury should have made that determination. A majority of the court disagreed and affirmed the death sentence.

The court first rejected the argument that Clemons did not apply because that case involved an improper aggravating factor, whereas the petitioner’s case involved a failure to consider a mitigation factor.

. . . [T]he Court’s decision in Clemons ruled that appellate tribunals may perform a ‘reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating evidence.’ In short, a Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error. 

The court also rejected the argument that Clemons was overruled by Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 (2002), and Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), which require a jury to determine facts supporting an aggravating factor. The petitioner argued that an appellate court could no longer reweigh aggravating factors under those cases and that a jury determination was required. This too was rejected. A jury need only find the facts in support of the aggravated factor; states are free to allow the trial court to make the ultimate decision on whether to impose a death sentence, so long as any facts necessary to support the aggravating factor were found by a jury. The court noted:

. . .[I]n a capital proceeding just as in an ordinary sentencing proceeding, a jury (as opposed to a judge) is not constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision within the relevant sentencing range. . . In short, Ring and Hurst did not require jury weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and Ring and Hurst did not overrule Clemons so as to prohibit appellate reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

The petitioner also pointed to the fact that no jury determined the facts of the factors in aggravation supporting his death sentence as Ring and Hurst require. This claim was foreclosed by the fact that Ring and Hurst were decided after the petitioner’s direct appeal became final. Those cases therefore do not apply retroactively to cases (like the petitioner’s) on collateral review under Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348. The court rejected the argument that the Arizona Supreme Court’s reweighing of aggravating and mitigating factors re-opened direct review. The Arizona Supreme Court categorized its decision as collateral review, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb that interpretation of state law. “As a matter of state law, the reweighing proceeding in McKinney’s case occurred on collateral review.” Id. at 8 (emphasis in original). The Arizona Supreme Court’s judgment was consequently affirmed by a 5-4 majority. Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas joined the majority opinion.

Justice Ginsberg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The dissenting justices disagreed with the majority that the Arizona Supreme Court’s action in reweighing sentencing factors was a collateral proceeding. In their view, that proceeding was a re-opening of direct appeal proceedings, and Ring applied. The dissenting justices would have found the death sentence unconstitutional and reversed the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court.

The Court held Florida’s capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional. In this case, after a jury convicted the defendant of murder, a penalty-phase jury recommended that the judge impose a death sentence. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Florida law required the judge to hold a separate hearing and determine whether sufficient aggravating circumstances existed to justify imposing the death penalty. The judge so found and sentenced the defendant to death. After the defendant’s conviction and sentence was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, the defendant sought review by the US Supreme Court. That Court granted certiorari to resolve whether Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring. Holding that it does, the Court stated: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

State v. Garcell, 363 N.C. 10 (Mar. 20, 2009)

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Notwithstanding Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of one who commits murder before eighteenth birthday), prior violent felonies committed when the defendant was only 16 years old could be considered with respect to the G.S. 15A-2000(e)(3) (prior violent felony conviction) aggravating circumstance.

State v. Maness, 363 N.C. 261 (June 18, 2009)

The trial court did not commit plain error by submitting both the (e)(4) (murder committed to prevent arrest or effect escape) and (e)(8) (crime committed against law enforcement officer) aggravating circumstances. The (e)(4) aggravating circumstance focuses on the defendant’s subjective motivation for his or her actions while the (e)(8) aggravating circumstance pertains to the underlying factual basis of the crime. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the aggravating circumstances impermissibly overlapped because the defendant’s motive for killing the officer was to avoid the very arrest that the officer was attempting to carry out at the time of the killing.

State v. Maness, 363 N.C. 261 (June 18, 2009)

The trial court did not commit plain error by submitting both the (e)(4) (murder committed to prevent arrest or effect escape) and (e)(8) (crime committed against law enforcement officer) aggravating circumstances. The (e)(4) aggravating circumstance focuses on the defendant’s subjective motivation for his or her actions while the (e)(8) aggravating circumstance pertains to the underlying factual basis of the crime. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the aggravating circumstances impermissibly overlapped because the defendant’s motive for killing the officer was to avoid the very arrest that the officer was attempting to carry out at the time of the killing.

The trial court did not err by submitting the (f)(1) mitigating circumstance (no significant history of prior criminal activity) to the jury. The defendant’s prior record included: felony breaking and entering in 1999; felony larceny in 1998; driving under the influence in 1996; larceny in 1993; sale of marijuana in 1991; and sale of a narcotic or controlled substance in 1990. The court found it significant that the priors were somewhat remote in time and did not appear to involve violence against a person. 

State v. Lane, 365 N.C. 7 (Mar. 11, 2011)

The trial court did not err by failing to submit the G.S. 15A-2000(f)(1) (no significant history of prior criminal activity) mitigating circumstance. A forecast of evidence suggested that the defendant had violently abducted his former wife and forced her to engage in sexual activity.

The trial court did not err by instructing the jury to consider, over the defendant’s objection, the (f)(1) mitigating circumstance (no significant history of prior criminal activity). The defendant’s priors consisted of breaking and entering a motor vehicle (Class I felony) and several misdemeanors (larceny, public disturbance, defrauding an innkeeper, trespassing, carrying a concealed weapon, and possession of marijuana). There was also evidence of unspecified thefts, mostly at school. Because the evidence pertained to minor offenses, a rational jury could conclude that the defendant had no significant history of criminal activity.

State v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

The trial court erred by submitting the (f)(4) mitigating circumstance (defendant was an accomplice in or accessory to the capital felony committed by another person and his participation was relatively minor) to the jury where it was not supported by substantial evidence. However, in the absence of “extraordinary facts,” the court concluded that the error was harmless.

(1) In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court deprived him of his state and federal constitutional right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury by prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors concerning their ability to follow the applicable law prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty upon an intellectually disabled person. Defense counsel informed the trial court that they wanted to ask the jurors whether they can follow the law with regard to mental retardation and that in order to make an adequate inquiry, defense counsel would need to tell the jurors about the relevant law. The trial judge determined that the defense would be limited to inquiring into the jurors’ ability to follow the applicable law. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, defense counsel told the jurors that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty and that it is defined, among other things, as having a low IQ. Both defense counsel and the prosecutor asked prospective jurors numerous questions related to intellectual disability issues. Although the trial court told defense counsel to limit their questioning with respect to intellectual disability issues to inquiry as to whether members of the jury could follow the law as given to them by the court, the defendant was allowed, without objection, to explain to two different jury panels, at a time when all prospective jurors were present, that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty. Additionally, defense counsel asked prospective jurors about their experiences with intellectually disabled persons, the extent of their familiarity with intelligence testing and adaptive skills functioning issues, their willingness to consider expert mental health testimony, and their willingness to follow the applicable law as given in the trial court’s instructions. When considered in conjunction with the fact that defense counsel was allowed to tell jurors that mental retardation was a defense, the questions defense counsel were allowed to pose sufficiently permitted counsel to determine whether jurors could fairly consider and follow the trial court’s instruction concerning whether the defendant should be exempted from the imposition of the death penalty on the basis of any intellectual disabilities. The limitations that the trial court put on defense counsel’s questioning of prospective jurors concerning intellectual disability issues was not an abuse of discretion and did not render the trial fundamentally unfair.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he demonstrated that he suffers from an intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and that the trial court erred by denying his motion to set aside the jury’s verdict in the State’s favor with respect to this issue. Although the defendant did present sufficient evidence to support a determination that he should be deemed exempt from the imposition of the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds, the State presented expert testimony tending to support a contrary determination. The relative credibility of the testimony offered by the various experts concerning the nature and extent of the defendant’s intellectual limitations was a matter for the jury. Because the record reveals a conflict in the evidence concerning the extent to which the defendant was intellectually disabled, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to set aside the jury’s verdict.

(3) The trial court committed reversible error at the defendant’s capital sentencing proceeding by failing to instruct the jury with respect to the statutory mitigating factor in G.S. 15A-2000(f)(6), which addresses the extent to which a defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired. The trial judge is required to instruct the jury to consider any mitigating circumstances which have adequate evidentiary support and the trial court has no discretion in determining whether to submit a mitigating circumstance when substantial evidence in support of it has been presented. Citing evidence in the record, the court held that it contains ample support for the submission of the mitigating circumstance at issue. The court went on to find that the trial court’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ordered a new capital sentencing hearing

State v. Garcell, 363 N.C. 10 (Mar. 20, 2009)

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The defendant was eighteen years and five months old when he committed the murder. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of one who commits murder before eighteenth birthday), required it to conclude that the defendant’s age had mitigating value as a matter of under the G.S. 15A-2000(f)(7) (defendant’s age when murder committed) mitigating circumstance. 

State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

(1) The trial court did not err by failing to give a peremptory instruction on statutory mitigating circumstances when the evidence as to each was contested. (2) Although the trial court erred by failing to give a peremptory instruction on the non-statutory mitigating circumstance that the defendant’s mother did not accept his deficits, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. (3) The trial court did not err by failing to give peremptory instructions on non-statutory mitigating circumstances when it was not clear how one was mitigating or that the evidence was credible; as to others, the evidence was not uncontroverted. 

State v. Maness, 363 N.C. 261 (June 18, 2009)

The trial judge did not err by declining to give a peremptory instruction on a non-statutory mitigating circumstance that the defendant accepted responsibility for his criminal conduct. While the defendant admitted killing the victim and acknowledged that the killing was a terrible mistake, he only authorized his lawyers to concede guilt to second-degree murder. A willingness to plead guilty to second-degree murder is evidence only of the defendant’s willingness to lessen exposure to the death penalty or a life sentence upon a conviction for first-degree murder.

The Court affirmed the decision below, rejecting the defendant’s argument that because of his unusual medical condition the State of Missouri’s lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him.

For more detail about this decision, see my colleague blog post here: https://unc.live/2uNfWf3.

In this case, challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, the Court affirmed the denial of the prisoner’s application for a preliminary injunction. The prisoners, all sentenced to death in Oklahoma, filed an action in federal court, arguing that Oklahoma’s method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment because it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain. They argued that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied the prisoner’s application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, as did the Supreme Court, for two independent reasons. First, the Court concluded that the prisoners failed to identify a known and available method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain. Second, the Court concluded that the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.

In a per curiam opinion in this capital case, the Court held that the defendant has shown he is a person with intellectual disability. In 2015 a Texas appellate court held that the defendant did not have an intellectual disability and consequently was eligible for the death penalty. The Court considered the lawfulness of that determination, vacated the court’s decision, and remanded the case for further consideration. The Texas court subsequently reconsidered the matter but reached the same conclusion, holding that the defendant had not demonstrated intellectual disability. The defendant filed a petition for certiorari, arguing that the trial court record demonstrates his intellectual disability. The prosecutor agreed with the defendant that he is intellectually disabled and cannot be executed; the Attorney General of Texas however asked the Court to deny the defendant’s petition. Considering the merits, the Court agreed with the defendant that the Texas appellate court’s determination was inconsistent with its prior opinion in the case. The Court noted: “We have found in its opinion too many instances in which, with small variations, it repeats the analysis we previously found wanting, and these same parts are critical to its ultimate conclusion.” For one thing, it explained, the Texas appellate court again relied less on the adaptive deficits to which the trial court had referred than upon the defendant’s apparent adaptive strengths. The Court also found that the Texas appellate court relied too heavily upon adaptive improvements made in prison. Furthermore, the Texas court concluded that the defendant failed to show that the cause of his deficient social behavior was related to any deficits in general mental abilities rather than emotional problems. The Court noted, in part, that in its last review, it said that the Court of Appeals had departed from clinical practice when it required the defendant to prove that his problems in kindergarten stemmed from intellectual disability rather than emotional problems. Additionally, despite the appellate court’s statement that it would abandon reliance on certain evidentiary factors, it seems to have used many of those factors in reaching its conclusion. The Court concluded:

[T]he appeals court’s opinion, when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper. And extricating that analysis from the opinion leaves too little that might warrant reaching a different conclusion than did the trial court. We consequently agree with Moore and the prosecutor that, on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.

Vacating and remanding in this capital case, the Court held that a Texas court was wrong to fault a lower court for using a current definition of intellectual disability and by focusing on superseded standards and non-clinical factors for determining intellectual disability. Consulting current medical diagnostic standards, a state habeas court found in 2014 that the defendant was intellectually disabled and recommended relief. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) rejected this recommendation and denied the defendant relief. It reasoned that the habeas court erred by using the most current standards regarding the diagnosis of intellectual disability rather than the test set out in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S. W. 3d 1 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004) which incorporated older medical standards and set forth “seven evidentiary factors,” later described by the Supreme Court as being unsupported by any authority, medical or judicial. The CCA determined that the Briseno standards “remai[n] adequately ‘informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.’” Applying them, that court found that relief was not warranted. One judge dissented, arguing that Atkins and Hall require courts to consult current medical standards to determine intellectual disability and criticizing the majority for relying on manuals superseded in the medical community. The dissenting judge also questioned the legitimacy of the seven Briseno factors, noting that they deviate from the current medical consensus. Before the Supreme Court the issue was whether the Texas court’s “adherence to superseded medical standards and its reliance on Briseno comply with the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s precedents.” The Court held that it did not. It noted that although its decisions in Atkins and Hall left to the States the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the restriction on executing intellectually disabled individuals, that determination must be informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework. Here, the habeas court applied current medical standards in concluding that the defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. The CCA, however, faulted the habeas court for disregarding the CCA’s case law and using a current definition of intellectual disability. The CCA instead “fastened its intellectual-disability determination” on a 1992 American Association on Mental Retardation manual definition adopted in Briseno. “By rejecting the habeas court’s application of medical guidance and clinging to the standard it laid out in Briseno, including the wholly nonclinical Briseno factors, the CCA failed adequately to inform itself of the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” (quotation omitted).

Because the Louisiana state court’s decision rejecting the defendant’s Atkins claim without affording him an evidentiary hearing was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, the defendant was entitled to have his claim considered on the merits in federal court. After the defendant was convicted, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Atkins, that “in light of . . . ‘evolving standards of decency,’” the Eighth Amendment “‘places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life’ of a mentally retarded offender.” The Court however left “to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences.” The Louisiana Supreme Court later held that “a diagnosis of mental retardation has three distinct components: (1) subaverage intelligence, as measured by objective standardized IQ tests; (2) significant impairment in several areas of adaptive skills; and (3) manifestations of this neuro-psychological disorder in the developmental stage.” That court further held that an Atkins evidentiary hearing is required when an inmate has put forward sufficient evidence to raise a “reasonable ground” to believe him to be intellectually disabled. In a post-conviction motion in the case at bar, the defendant sought an Atkins hearing. Without holding an evidentiary hearing or granting funds to conduct additional investigation, the state trial court dismissed the defendant’s petition. After losing in state court, the defendant pursued federal habeas relief. The defendant won at the federal district court but the Fifth Circuit reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted review and held that the state court’s decision denying his Atkins claim was premised on an “unreasonable determination of the facts.” In reaching this decision, the Court focused on the two underlying factual determinations on which the trial court’s decision was premised: that the defendant’s IQ score of 75 was inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability and that he had presented no evidence of adaptive impairment. The Court held that both of the state court’s critical factual determinations were unreasonable.

The Court held unconstitutional a Florida law strictly defining intellectual disability for purposes of qualification for the death penalty. The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability. Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less. If, from test scores, a prisoner is deemed to have an IQ above 70, all further exploration of intellectual disability is foreclosed. The Court held: “This rigid rule . . . creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.” Slip Op. at 1. The Court concluded:

             Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test. Florida is one of just a few States to have this rigid rule. Florida’s rule misconstrues the Court’s statements in Atkins that intellectually disability is characterized by an IQ of “approximately 70.” 536 U. S., at 308, n. 3. Florida’s rule is in direct opposition to the views of those who design, administer, and interpret the IQ test. By failing to take into account the standard error of measurement, Florida’s law not only contradicts the test’s own design but also bars an essential part of a sentencing court’s inquiry into adaptive functioning. [Defendant] Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime.

             The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.

Slip Op. at 22.

(1) In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court deprived him of his state and federal constitutional right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury by prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors concerning their ability to follow the applicable law prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty upon an intellectually disabled person. Defense counsel informed the trial court that they wanted to ask the jurors whether they can follow the law with regard to mental retardation and that in order to make an adequate inquiry, defense counsel would need to tell the jurors about the relevant law. The trial judge determined that the defense would be limited to inquiring into the jurors’ ability to follow the applicable law. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, defense counsel told the jurors that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty and that it is defined, among other things, as having a low IQ. Both defense counsel and the prosecutor asked prospective jurors numerous questions related to intellectual disability issues. Although the trial court told defense counsel to limit their questioning with respect to intellectual disability issues to inquiry as to whether members of the jury could follow the law as given to them by the court, the defendant was allowed, without objection, to explain to two different jury panels, at a time when all prospective jurors were present, that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty. Additionally, defense counsel asked prospective jurors about their experiences with intellectually disabled persons, the extent of their familiarity with intelligence testing and adaptive skills functioning issues, their willingness to consider expert mental health testimony, and their willingness to follow the applicable law as given in the trial court’s instructions. When considered in conjunction with the fact that defense counsel was allowed to tell jurors that mental retardation was a defense, the questions defense counsel were allowed to pose sufficiently permitted counsel to determine whether jurors could fairly consider and follow the trial court’s instruction concerning whether the defendant should be exempted from the imposition of the death penalty on the basis of any intellectual disabilities. The limitations that the trial court put on defense counsel’s questioning of prospective jurors concerning intellectual disability issues was not an abuse of discretion and did not render the trial fundamentally unfair.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he demonstrated that he suffers from an intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and that the trial court erred by denying his motion to set aside the jury’s verdict in the State’s favor with respect to this issue. Although the defendant did present sufficient evidence to support a determination that he should be deemed exempt from the imposition of the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds, the State presented expert testimony tending to support a contrary determination. The relative credibility of the testimony offered by the various experts concerning the nature and extent of the defendant’s intellectual limitations was a matter for the jury. Because the record reveals a conflict in the evidence concerning the extent to which the defendant was intellectually disabled, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to set aside the jury’s verdict.

(3) The trial court committed reversible error at the defendant’s capital sentencing proceeding by failing to instruct the jury with respect to the statutory mitigating factor in G.S. 15A-2000(f)(6), which addresses the extent to which a defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired. The trial judge is required to instruct the jury to consider any mitigating circumstances which have adequate evidentiary support and the trial court has no discretion in determining whether to submit a mitigating circumstance when substantial evidence in support of it has been presented. Citing evidence in the record, the court held that it contains ample support for the submission of the mitigating circumstance at issue. The court went on to find that the trial court’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ordered a new capital sentencing hearing

State v. Ward, 364 N.C. 157 (June 17, 2010)

The trial judge has discretion regarding whether to submit the special issue of mental retardation to the jury in a bifurcated or unitary capital sentencing proceeding. The court held that in the case before it, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying a defense motion to bifurcate the issues of mental retardation and sentence.

State v. Locklear, 363 N.C. 438 (Aug. 28, 2009)

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury that a verdict finding the defendant mentally retarded would result in a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The trial judge had given N.C.P.J.I.—Crim. 150.05, which states, in part, that “no defendant who is mentally retarded shall be sentenced to death,” and the attorneys argued that if the defendant was found mentally retarded he would receive life in prison. Stating that on remand, the trial court should instruct the jury that “[i]f the jury determines the defendant to be mentally retarded, the court shall declare the case noncapital and the defendant shall be sentenced to life imprisonment.”

State v. Hembree, 368 N.C. 2 (Apr. 10, 2015)

In this capital case, the court held that the cumulative effect of several errors at trial denied the defendant a fair trial; the court vacated the conviction and sentence and remanded for a new trial. Specifically, and as discussed in more detail in the summaries that follow, the trial court erred by admitting an excessive amount of 404(b) evidence pertaining to another murder; by admitting evidence of the 404(b) murder victim’s good character; and by allowing the prosecution to argue without basis to the jury that defense counsel had in effect suborned perjury. 

State v. Maness, 363 N.C. 261 (June 18, 2009)

The trial judge properly denied a defense motion for imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment when polling revealed that the jury had returned a non-unanimous verdict after deliberations of just over 1 hour and 30 minutes. Under 15A-2000(b) “the only contingency in which a trial court unilaterally shall impose a life sentence in a capital case is when the jury is non[-]unanimous after having deliberated for a ‘reasonable time.’”

Where the State put the defendant’s future dangerousness at issue and acknowledged that his only alternative sentence to death was life imprisonment without parole, the Arizona court erred by concluding that the defendant had no right to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility. Under Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U. S. 154 (1994), and its progeny, where a capital defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and the only sentencing alternative to death available to the jury is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, the Due Process Clause entitles the defendant to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility, either by a jury instruction or in arguments by counsel.

In a per curiam opinion, for the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020) the court vacated the trial court’s order dismissing the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief filed pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and remanded the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole. 

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Davis, concurred in the result because he was bound by the decision in Robinson, a case in which he dissented.  Were he not bound by Robinson, Justice Ervin would have dissented for the reasons he stated in Robinson

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinion in Robinson.

The complex procedural history of this case, which involves motions for appropriate relief filed by three defendants under the Racial Justice Act and associated proceedings occurring over a years-long period of time when the RJA was amended and then repealed, is recounted in detail in the court’s opinion which vacates the trial court’s order ruling that the repeal of the RJA voided the defendant’s RJA MAR and remands the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  For the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020), the retroactivity provision of the RJA repeal violates the double jeopardy protections of the North Carolina Constitution.  For the reasons stated in State v. Ramseur, 374 N.C. 658 (2020), the retroactive application of the RJA repeal violates the prohibitions against ex post facto laws contained in the United States Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.

Justice Davis concurred in the result for the reasons stated in Justice Ervin’s concurring opinions in State v. Golphin, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 25, 2020) and State v. Walters, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 25, 2020). 

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinions in Robinson and Ramseur.

In a per curiam opinion, for the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020) the court vacated the trial court’s order dismissing the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief filed pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and remanded the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Davis, concurred in the result because he was bound by the decision in Robinson, a case in which he dissented.  Were he not bound by Robinson, Justice Ervin would have dissented for the reasons he stated in Robinson.

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinions in Robinson and State v. Ramseur, 374 N.C. 658 (2020).

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1994. The defendant filed a timely motion for appropriate relief pursuant to the RJA in 2010. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court resentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Following resentencing of three other defendants under the RJA, the General Assembly repealed the RJA. The repeal stated that it was retroactive and voided all pending motions for appropriate relief but did not apply to a trial court order resentencing a defendant to life without parole if that order was affirmed on appellate review.

A joint hearing was thereafter held by a different trial judge on the motions for appropriate relief by the four defendants, to consider whether the defendant’s claims were rendered void by the RJA repeal. While the trial court found that the defendant’ss rights had not vested and that the RJA repeal was not an ex post facto law, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by failing to consider the defendant’s double jeopardy argument.

The Supreme Court held that the initial trial court’s order resentencing the defendant to life in prison was an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy. The Court reasoned that once the trial court found that the defendant had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of the state constitution. One justice, concurring, agreed with the three-member majority that the judgment and commitment order in which the defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was a final judgment, for which appellate review was neither sought nor obtained, and that double jeopardy barred further review.

Justice Newby, in dissent, argued that the majority opinion presented three grounds for its ruling, only one of which garnered four votes, resulting in the narrow holding that the State failed to appeal the amended judgment and commitment order so that order is final. Justice Ervin, in dissent, concluded that based on the Court’s holding in State v. Ramseur, 843 S.E.2d 106 (N.C. 2020), the case should be remanded to the trial court for a full hearing on the merits of the defendant’s RJA claim at a proceeding where the State has a further opportunity to respond.

The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder based on offenses committed in 2007. He was sentenced to death in 2010. That same year he filed a motion for appropriate relief under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), but the trial court did not rule on it until after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. The repeal was made retroactively applicable to all pending MARs filed before the effective date of the repeal. The trial court therefore determined that the repeal rendered the defendant’s MAR void and dismissed it. The trial court also ruled in the alternative that the defendant’s RJA claims were without merit and that no evidentiary hearing was necessary to resolve them.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari. (1) The Court agreed with the defendant that retroactive application of the RJA repeal violated the prohibitions against ex post facto laws in the state and federal constitutions. The Court reasoned that this was the type of ex post facto law that inflicts a greater punishment for an offense than the law applicable when it was committed. Though the RJA did not exist when the defendant committed his crimes, the effective date coverage of the original RJA—which did include the defendant’s offense date—made the RJA applicable to crimes committed at that time. The Court concluded that the legislature’s repeal of a prior, retroactively-applicable ameliorative law like the RJA violated ex post facto principles. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the RJA was a mere procedural overlay that did not substantively change the law governing the death penalty. Through the RJA, the 2009 General Assembly affirmatively sought to allow the review of statistical evidence that the Supreme Court had not allowed in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), and to create a new claim for relief not otherwise available. The Court also acknowledged that the RJA repeal happened shortly after four defendants had obtained relief under the original Act, making relevant one of the policy purposes of the Ex Post Facto Clause: to restrain “arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.” Slip op. at 29.

(2) The Court next considered whether retroactive application of the 2012 RJA amendments to the defendant also violated the prohibition against ex post facto laws. The 2012 amendments made three significant changes to the law. And because the 2012 legislation included a severability clause, the Court analyzed each of them separately. The first change was to eliminate the mandatory requirement for an evidentiary hearing upon the filing of an RJA claim. The Court concluded that this was a procedural change that—despite working to the disadvantage of some defendants, including Mr. Ramseur—did not implicate the prohibition on ex post facto laws. The second change altered the evidentiary requirements for establishing racial discrimination in an RJA claim in several ways, including shrinking the relevant geographic region from the entire state to the specific county or prosecutorial district, limiting the relevant time for consideration, and mandating that statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish a meritorious claim. The Court concluded that this second set of changes implemented a more stringent standard of proof for establishing discrimination that cannot permissibly apply retroactively. The third change added a waiver provision, saying that a defendant must waive any objection to imposition of a sentence of life without parole as a prerequisite for asserting an RJA claim. The Court declined to address the constitutionality of that change because it was not at issue in Mr. Ramseur’s case. In summary, the 2012 amendment eliminating the mandatory hearing requirement could permissibly apply to an RJA claim asserted before the amendments became law, but the other evidentiary changes could not. Therefore, the evidentiary rules of the original RJA must apply to pre-amendment filings like Mr. Ramseur’s.

Finally, the Court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding without an evidentiary hearing that the defendant’s RJA MARs were without merit. The defendant’s motions included extensive evidence, stated with particularity, tending to show race was a significant factor in imposition of death sentences within the meaning of the RJA. The Court said the motions also established that the defendant was entitled to discovery of State files under G.S. 15A-1415(f). The Court remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

Justice Newby dissented, concluding primarily that the RJA amendments and repeal did not violate ex post facto principles because they left the defendant no worse off than he was when he committed his offense in 2007, before the RJA was enacted.

The defendant was sentenced to death for first-degree murder in 1993. He filed a first motion for appropriate relief in 1997, which was denied in 2011. He filed a new MAR under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (the RJA MAR) in 2010, amending it twice after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. In 2014, the trial court dismissed the defendant’s amended RJA MAR as procedurally barred and, in the alternative, as being without merit. On appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s orders and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with the Court’s opinion in State v. Ramseur, ___ N.C. ___ (2020), summarized above. (1) The General Assembly’s 2013 repeal of the RJA was unconstitutional as applied to the defendant under the state and federal constitutions, and the 2012 amendment can only be applied insofar as it affects procedural aspects of his claim. (2) The Court held that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s RJA MAR was procedurally barred, as the original version of the RJA included language, then codified in G.S. 15A-2012(b), allowing defendants to seek relief “[n]otwithstanding any other provision or time limitation” in the MAR article. (3) The Court also concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by dismissing the defendant’s claims without an evidentiary hearing in light of the evidence presented in his motion, including evidence that race was a factor in jury selection, sentencing, and capital charging decisions in the relevant jurisdictions; statistical evidence from Michigan State University College of Law; expert testimony and evidence from another RJA case; and evidence of race-based juror strikes in his own case. The Court remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion. Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissent in Ramseur.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion under the Racial Justice Act to prohibit the State from seeking the death penalty without holding an evidentiary hearing. Assuming arguendo that any version of the RJA applies to the defendant, the defendant failed to follow the provisions of that statute which mandate that the claim shall be raised by the defendant at the Rule 24 conference. Here, the defendant did not raise a RJA claim at the Rule 24 conference, despite being twice asked by the trial court whether he wanted to be heard. The court concluded: “Defendant cannot complain of the trial court’s failure to strictly adhere to the RJA’s pretrial statutory procedures where he himself failed to follow those procedures.” The court noted that its ruling was without prejudice to the defendant’s ability to raise an RJA claim in post-conviction proceedings.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu during the State’s closing argument during the sentencing phase of the trial. On appeal the defendant pointed to two statements made by prosecutors during the State’s closing arguments which refer to the defendant’s decision not to present mitigating evidence or closing statements. The court found no gross impropriety in the prosecutor’s remarks, noting in part that it is not impermissible for prosecutors to comment on the defendant’s lack of mitigating evidence.

(3) The court found that the defendant’s sentencing survived proportionality review, noting in part that the defendant kidnapped a five-year-old child from her home and sexually assaulted her before strangling her and discarding her body under a log in a remote area used for field dressing deer carcasses.

In this second RJA case the supreme court held that “the error recognized in this Court’s Order in [Robinson (summarized immediately above)], infected the trial court’s decision, including its use of issue preclusion, in these cases.” The court vacated the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s RJA MAR and remanded with parallel instructions. It also concluded that the trial court erred when it joined the three cases for an evidentiary hearing. 

In this capital case, before the supreme court on certiorari from an order of the trial court granting the defendant relief on his Racial Justice Act (RJA) motion for appropriate relief (MAR), the court vacated and remanded to the trial court. The supreme court determined that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the State’s motion to continue, made after receiving the final version of the defendant’s statistical study supporting his MAR approximately one month before the hearing on the motion began. The court reasoned:

The breadth of respondent’s study placed petitioner in the position of defending the peremptory challenges that the State of North Carolina had exercised in capital prosecutions over a twenty-year period. Petitioner had very limited time, however, between the delivery of respondent’s study and the hearing date. Continuing this matter to give petitioner more time would have done no harm to respondent, whose remedy under the Act was a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It concluded: “Without adequate time to gather evidence and address respondent’s study, petitioner did not have a full and fair opportunity to defend this proceeding.” The court continued:

On remand, the trial court should address petitioner’s constitutional and statutory challenges pertaining to the Act. In any new hearing on the merits, the trial court may, in the interest of justice, consider additional statistical studies presented by the parties. The trial court may also, in its discretion, appoint an expert under N.C. R. Evid. 706 to conduct a quantitative and qualitative study, unless such a study has already been commissioned pursuant to this Court’s Order in State v. Augustine, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2015) (139PA13), in which case the trial court may consider that study. If the trial court appoints an expert under Rule 706, the Court hereby orders the Administrative Office of the Courts to make funds available for that purpose.

(1) In a case centered on the constitutionality of the State’s method of execution in capital cases, the Court held that the N.C. Council of State’s process for approving or disapproving the Department of Correction’s lethal injection protocol is not subject to the Administrative Procedure Act and that petitioners cannot challenge it by going through the Office of Administrative Hearings. Instead, the court held, any issue petitioners have with the protocol rests with the state trial courts or the federal courts. (2) The court also held that the superior court erred by dismissing the petitioners’ declaratory judgment claim that the Council’s approval of the execution protocol violated G.S. 15-188. Nevertheless, the court affirmed the superior court’s order as modified because the court correctly construed G.S. 15-188 to mean that petitioners’ rights “are limited to the obligation that [their] death[s] be by lethal injection, in a permanent death chamber in Raleigh, and carried out pursuant to an execution protocol approved by the Governor and the Council of State” and that no factual or legal authority “supports Petitioner[s] claims of a due process right to participate in the approval process.”

The N.C. Medical Board’s position statement on physician participation in executions exceeds its authority under G.S. Chapter 90 because it contravenes the specific requirement of physician presence in G.S. 15-190. 

The court remanded to the trial court this case challenging North Carolina’s drug protocol for lethal injections. The plaintiffs appealed a trial court order granting summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiffs’ challenge to North Carolina’s previously used three-drug protocol for the administration of lethal injections (“the 2007 Protocol”). During the appeal, the 2007 Protocol was replaced by the “Execution Procedure Manual for Single Drug Protocol (Pentobarbital)” (“the new Manual”) after a statutory amendment vested the Secretary of NC Department of Public Safety with the authority to determine execution procedures. As a result, the plaintiffs’ only remaining contention on appeal was that the new Manual must be promulgated through rule-making under the Administrative Procedure Act. The court remanded so that the trial court could determine this issue in the first instance.

 

If a defendant with no memory of his crime rationally understands why the State seeks to execute him, the Eighth Amendment does not bar execution; if a defendant with dementia cannot rationally understand the reasons for his sentence, it does. What matters, explained the Court, is whether a person has a “rational understanding,” not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.

            The Court noted that in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399 (1986), it held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing. It clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman by focusing on whether a prisoner can “reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.” Here, Vernon Madison killed a police officer in 1985. An Alabama jury found him guilty of capital murder and he was sentenced to death. In recent years, Madison’s mental condition sharply deteriorated. He suffered a series of strokes, including major ones in 2015 and 2016. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia, with attendant disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss. Madison claims that he can no longer recollect committing the crime for which he has been sentenced to die. After his 2016 stroke, Madison petitioned the trial court for a stay of execution on the ground that he had become mentally incompetent, citing Ford and Panetti. The trial court found Madison competent to be executed. Madison then unsuccessfully sought federal habeas corpus relief. When Alabama set an execution date in 2018, Madison returned to state court arguing again that his mental condition precluded the State from going forward, noting, in part, that he suffered further cognitive decline. The state court again found Madison mentally competent. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

            The Court determined that a person lacking memory of his crime may yet rationally understand why the State seeks to execute him; if so, the Eighth Amendment poses no bar to his execution. It explained: “Assuming, that is, no other cognitive impairment, loss of memory of a crime does not prevent rational understanding of the State’s reasons for resorting to punishment. And that kind of comprehension is the Panetti standard’s singular focus.” It continued, noting that a person suffering from dementia or a similar disorder, rather than psychotic delusions, may be unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence; if so, the Eighth Amendment does not allow his execution. What matters, it explained, “is whether a person has the ‘rational understanding’ Panetti requires—not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.” The Court continued, noting that the “standard has no interest in establishing any precise cause: Psychosis or dementia, delusions or overall cognitive decline are all the same under Panetti, so long as they produce the requisite lack of comprehension.” Ultimately, the Court returned the case to the state court for renewed consideration of Madison’s competency, instructing:

In that proceeding, two matters disputed below should now be clear. First, under Ford and Panetti, the Eighth Amendment may permit executing Madison even if he cannot remember committing his crime. Second, under those same decisions, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing Madison even though he suffers from dementia, rather than delusions. The sole question on which Madison’s competency depends is whether he can reach a “rational understanding” of why the State wants to execute him. Panetti, 551 U. S. at 958.

In a per curiam decision in this capital murder case decided under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Court held that the state court did not unreasonably apply the law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed. The defendant was sentenced to death in an Alabama court. As his execution neared, the defendant petitioned the trial court for a suspension of his death sentence, arguing that due to several recent strokes, he had become incompetent to be executed. At a hearing on the matter, a court appointed psychologist noted the defendant’s significant post-stroke decline but testified that he understood the posture of his case and that the State was seeking retribution against him for his criminal act. A defense psychologist testified that the defendant’s strokes rendered him unable to remember numerous events that had occurred in the past. However, he found that the defendant was able to understand the nature of the pending proceeding, what he was tried for, that he was in prison because of murder, that Alabama was seeking retribution for that crime, and the sentence, specifically the meaning of a death sentence. The defense witness also opined that the defendant does not understand the act he is being punished for because he cannot recall the sequence of events from the offense through the trial and believes that he “never went around killing folks.” After the trial court denied the defendant’s petition, the defendant pursued federal habeas proceedings. The federal district court denied the defendant’s petition and the Eleventh Circuit reversed. That court found that because the defendant has no memory of his capital offense it inescapably follows that he does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution. On that basis, the federal appellate court held that the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant is competent to be executed was plainly unreasonable. The Court disagreed. Reviewing its prior case law, the Court concluded that those decisions did not clearly establish that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from the failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case. Thus, the state court did not unreasonably apply Supreme Court law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed because, notwithstanding his memory loss, he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.

A judge who did not preside over the guilt phase of a capital trial had jurisdiction to preside over the penalty phase. The first judge had declared a mistrial as to the penalty phase after the defendant attacked one of his lawyers and both counsel were allowed to withdraw. The fact that the original guilt phase jury did not hear the penalty phase when it was re-tried after the mistrial did not create a jurisdictional issue. A death sentence imposed after the re-trial of the penalty phase was not out-of-session or out-of-term.

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