Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief. View "McWilliams v. Dunn" on Justia Law

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Hutton accused Mitchell and Simmons of stealing a sewing machine in which he had hidden $750. On September 16, 1985, Hutton drove the two around, pointing a gun. Hutton recovered the machine. Simmons survived two gunshot wounds to the head. Mitchell was found dead. An Ohio jury convicted Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping, finding that Hutton engaged in “a course of conduct involving the . . . attempt to kill two or more persons,” and that Hutton murdered Mitchell while “committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after . . . kidnapping” as “aggravating circumstances.” The court instructed the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the state “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which the Defendant was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].” The jury recommended death. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed that sentence. Hutton sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254, arguing that the court failed to tell jurors that they could consider only the aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase. Hutton had not objected to the instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal. The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit erred in reviewing Hutton’s claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default. Assuming that the alleged error could provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death. Instead, it considered whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict. It was not shown by clear and convincing evidence that no properly instructed reasonable juror would have concluded that the aggravating circumstances in Hutton’s case outweigh the mitigating circumstances. Ohio courts weighed those factors and concluded that the death penalty was justified. View "Jenkins v. Hutton" on Justia Law

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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In 1999, LeBlanc, then age 16, raped a 62- year-old woman. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Virginia had abolished traditional “parole” for felony offenders and enacted its “geriatric release” program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Graham v. Florida, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole and that states must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” LeBlanc sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The state court denied the motion, citing the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfies Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders: “The regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute.” LeBlanc filed a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s grant of relief. The Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of existing Supreme Court authority. View "Virginia v. LeBlanc" on Justia Law

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Terry managed sales and inventory for a Tennessee hardware store owned by his brother, Tony. They were indicted for federal drug crimes including conspiracy to distribute a product used in methamphetamine production. The government sought judgments of $269,751 against each brother, under the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes, 21 U.S.C. 853(a)(1). Tony pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000. Terry was convicted. Despite conceding that Terry had no controlling interest in the store and did not stand to benefit personally from sales of the product, the government asked the court to hold him jointly and severally liable for the profits from the illegal sales and sought a judgment of $69,751.98, the outstanding conspiracy profits. The Sixth Circuit agreed that the brothers, as co-conspirators, were jointly and severally liable. The Supreme Court reversed. Forfeiture under section 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime; the provision does not permit forfeiture with regard to Terry. Use of the adverbs “directly” and “indirectly” to refer to how a defendant obtains the property does not negate the requirement that he “obtain” it. Congress did not incorporate into the section the principle that conspirators are legally responsible for each other’s foreseeable actions in furtherance of their common plan. View "Honeycutt v. United States" on Justia Law