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Supreme Court Decision Update - Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman

deathpenalty.jpgAbdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (PDF of the opinion), the first of three death penalty cases handed down by the Supremes yesterday, involves jury instructions. Specifically, it looks at whether a judge allowed constitutionally adequate consideration of mitigating evidence to be considered by a jury which wound up imposing the death penalty.

QuizLaw Analysis: Like the other two death penalty cases handed down today, this one was decided 5-4 in favor of the defendant. The Court reasonably concluded that a sentencing jury ought to be given the opportunity to consider constitutionally relevant mitigating evidence. The big hullabaloo in this case, however, is about what precedents should’ve controlled. And although Justice Stephens’ opinion gained the five-vote majority, Chief Justice Johnny’s dissent won the sarcasm award, hands down.

So, what’d this dude do? Back in 1987, Jalil Abdul-Kabir (formerly Ted Cole) decided — along with his stepbrother and his stepbrother’s wife — to rob the stepbrother’s wife’s grandfather, Raymond Richardson. Two days later, they did the deed, strangling Richardson with a dog leash and coming away with $20 dollars, which they used to buy beer and food. I hope that was some tasty beer, because it led to this capital case, in which Abdul-Kabir was convicted and sentenced to death.

Okay, and what’s the deal with the jury instructions? During the sentencing phase, the jury was given only two questions, which they were required to give a yes or no answer to: (1) did Abdul-Kabir deliberately kill Richardson; and (2) Is Kabdul-Abdir a continuing threat to society? During the sentencing hearing, Abdul-Kabir introduced family members who testified that he had a difficult childhood full of violence and neglect, as well as expert witnesses who testified that his difficult childhood and some neurological damage had a bearing on Adbul-Kabir’s violent tendencies (he had also been convicted of an earlier murder, for which he served out his sentence). However, that evidence had no relationship to the yes or no questions, according to the prosecutor, who told the jury to simply answer the questions based on the facts, disregarding other views as to what might constitute appropriate punishment. The judge also denied the defendant’s request that the jury be able to consider mitigating evidence that would have authorized “no” answers to those questions. Based on the facts alone, the jury responded in the affirmative to both questions and Abdul-Kabir was sentenced to death.

Bummer. So, what’s the issue? The issue is whether the jury instructions allowed the jury to consider and give full effect to his mitigation evidence.

All right, then. What’s the majority say? Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, devotes a large section of his opinion to the judicial history of this particular issue, discussing (cherry-picking?) at length the majority, concurrence, and dissenting opinions to something like 47,342 cases, before ultimately concluding that Penry I governs the facts of this case. And basically, Penry I says that, even if you do answer yes to the above questions (did he commit the murder deliberately and is he a future threat to society), you still have to provide the jury “with a vehicle for expressing its ‘reasoned moral response’ to” mitigating evidence.

While the dissent and some precedent established that mitigating evidence should only be used where there is a nexus between that evidence and the crime (e.g., where mental retardation was a contributing factor in a defendant’s decision to murder someone), the majority concludes that a jury should also be able to factor in mitigating evidence when deciding “whether death is an appropriate punishment for that individual in light of his personal history and characteristics and the circumstances of the offense.” In this case, the two yes-or-no questions given by the judge did not offer an outlet for the jury to express its “reasoned moral response.” Therefore, Stevens (joined by Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) overturned the lower courts’ rulings.

So, what’s up Chief Justice Robert’s ass? Well Roberts doesn’t seem to be nearly as upset with the actual decision than with how the majority arrived at that decision. He complains that the majority basically looked at five different cases that could’ve controlled here, picked Penry I, and “anoint[ed] that case as the one embodying ‘clearly established Federal law.’” He argues that “it should not take the Court more than a dozen pages of close analysis of plurality, concurring, and even dissenting opinions to explain what the ‘clearly established law’ is.” (We agree on at least one thing, Justice Roberts! I could’ve done without those 12 pages myself.) He further suggested that the lower courts didn’t have a “clearly established law” to work from — they only had a “dog’s breakfast” of divided, conflicting, and ever-changing analysis (hey, welcome to the Supreme Court, buddy). Chief Justice Johnny then chides the majority for, in turn, chiding the lower courts for not knowing what the controlling law is, when there was no way for the lower courts to make sense of the existing mess of law at the Supreme Court level.

Roberts then draws his conclusion by picking the cases that he wants to control and rule the day.

And surely the Scalia has something to say about this. Doesn’t he always. Well, Scalia — while agreeing with Chief Justice Johnny — also goes on to say, “hey, wait a minute, buster. There was clearly established law, and it wasn’t in the majority’s favor.” He says that Johnson v. Texas should control here, because it came after the Penry I case, so today’s majority ruling basically overturns Johnson. And, for the record, Johnson stated that a sentencing jury need only “be able to consider in some manner all of the defendant’s relevant mitigating evidence and not, as Penry I, suggested, in “every conceivable manner.”