Supreme Court Action: Death Penalty and Double Jeopardy

The Supreme Court is clearing out its docket as it nears the end of the term.  Five opinions were issued this morning, at least one of which is controversial.  Let’s go with that one first.  The case is Hall v. Florida (12-10882).  It concerns the eligibility of the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities.  Atkins v. Virginia basically said executing intellectually disabled individuals violates the Eighth Amendment.

Florida has a rule that provides anyone with an IQ of 70 or below cannot receive the death penalty.  Hall scored a 71.  The District Court denied his motion to vacate his sentence and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  It rejected a strict cut-off at 70, saying that it goes against current medical thinking defining intellectual disability as the existence of concurrent deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning.  The Court looked at the Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) that could place an individual on a range of plus or minus five from the reported score.  The trend in the states is to reject a strict number.  Florida is only one of nine states to define eligibility that way.  States need to allow testimony on adaptive deficits as a way of determining intellectual disability.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas.  Justice Alito accuses the majority of departing from the Court’s jurisprudence in this area of the law.  Hall, he notes, presented multiple test scores, all of which measured his IQ over 70.  He notes further that medical opinions on intelligence may change over time.

The next case is Martinez v. Illinois (13-5967).  It’s a case of prosecution strategy gone wrong.  Martinez was indicted on aggravated battery and mob action in August of 2006.  The trial was delayed for approximately four years due to delays attributed to Martinez.  Trial was set for August 3, 2009.  The State continued the case at multiple times as it could not locate the two main witnesses, the victims in this case despite issuing subpoenas for their appearance.  Trial was finally set to begin on May 17, 2010.  The witnesses were still nowhere to be found.  The trial judge offered two options to the prosecution:  the jury could be sworn or the state could move to dismiss its case.

The prosecution tried to continue the case.  The judge denied that motion and offered to delay the start of the trial until later in the day noting that the state had twelve witnesses on their list.  Running through the first ten would give the prosecution time to get arrest warrants for the two missing victims.  The prosecution told the judge that if the jury was impaneled that it would not be participating in the case.  The jury was sworn and the judge asked the State to give its opening statement.  The State declined stating that it was not participating in the trial.  The defense moved for a judgment of acquittal.  The State declined to reply, again stating that it was not participating in the trial.  The judge granted the motion.

The State appealed stating that the judge should have granted another continuance.  Martinez argued that the appeal was improper as he had been acquitted.  The Appellate Court held for the state.  The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed on the double jeopardy issue, stating that Martinez was never in risk of conviction.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  It held that the Illinois Supreme Court misread its precedents.  Double jeopardy attaches once a jury was impaneled. The Court cited a significant line of its precedents to that effect, rejecting the Illinois Supreme Court’s analysis that rigid and mechanical rules do not apply in these situations.  The Court also stated that the prosecution could have dismissed the case and brought charges again later, all before the jury was impaneled.

The case was decided per curiam.  There were no dissents.  I will write about the other three cases tomorrow.  – Mark

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