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Supreme Court shows impatience in death penalty cases

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Supreme Court shows impatience in death penalty cases

WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, on the same day that it heard arguments about the future of abortion rights in Texas, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal for a federal prisoner facing the death penalty.

The move was routine in a sense, as the court has become hostile to the arguments made by death row prisoners. This became apparent in the final months of the Trump administration, when, after a 17-year hiatus, the federal government executed 13 prisoners.

“In the course of this speedy execution, this court has consistently rejected the credible claims of prisoners’ relief,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent at the time.

The court’s impatience was also evident last week over an argument over whether a prisoner’s pastor could pray with him and touch him in the death chamber. Many conservative justices expressed dismay at the sporting spirit of last-minute litigation in death penalty cases.

Still, the case the court dismissed two weeks ago was extraordinary, providing a glimpse into the state of the death penalty in the United States. The court dismissed the prisoner’s plea, although the prosecution agreed that his case deserved a fresh look.

Justice Sotomayor, Justice Stephen G. Joined by Breyer and Elena Kagan, an 11-page disagreement stated that the majority had crossed a new bridge.

Justice Sotomayor wrote, “To my knowledge, the Court has never before” denied such relief as requested by both parties, where a new development has cast the judgment in such doubt. .

The case concerns Wesley P. Koons Jr., who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and carjacking when he helped murder another inmate in the mental health ward of a federal prison. Murder committed by a prisoner already serving a life sentence is a capital punishment, and he was sentenced to death.

Coons’ lawyers asked the judges to return their case to an appeals court to reconsider their argument that he could not be executed because he was intellectually incapacitated. There was, the lawyers wrote, a significant new development that could change the appeals court’s analysis.

The prosecution supported the request.

“The Government agrees” that a new form would be “appropriate in light of a significant intervening factual change that affects the central predicate of the Court of Appeals’ Eighth Amendment analysis,” Elizabeth B. wrote Prelogger, which has since been confirmed by the US Solicitor General.

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The Supreme Court has ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, forbids the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. The Court of Appeals had ruled that Mr. Koons did not qualify under the criteria set forth in the 2002 Supreme Court decision, Atkins v. Virginia, which was based on clinical definitions of intellectual disability.

Atkins’ decision defined intellectual disability as having three components: low IQ scores; lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both before the age of 18.

There was ample evidence that Mr. Conase satisfied the first two points of the trial. But his intellectual deficit was apparently the result of a traumatic brain injury at the age of 20.

Before the appeals court, Mr Koons’ counsel had argued that professional consent was developing on that third party. A leading professional organization, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, he wrote, was considering changing its definition.

This was not enough, a unanimous panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled. The court said it would not consider “predictions that medical experts would agree with Koons’ view in the future,” adding that “such evidence is not sufficient for us to determine the extent of any existing Eighth Amendment amendments.”

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After Mr Coonse asked the Supreme Court to hear his case, the association revised its criteria to say that the relevant development period has been extended to 22 years of age.

The prophecy had turned into reality. But the Supreme Court refused to allow the Court of Appeal to assess the importance of the development.

While the majority did not explain his thinking, Justice Samuel A. The 2014 dissent from Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, provided a clue. Justice Alito wrote that the meaning of the Eighth Amendment should not be determined by “positions adopted by private professional organizations.”

The majority would also have thought the Biden administration had its own tools to address Mr Koons’ case, particularly by granting him a clemency.

Days before the court turned down Mr Conce’s appeal, it lifted an execution stay from Oklahoma in a case that has a history of failed executions, again at the dissent of Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. The adjournment was imposed by a federal appeals court so that it could examine the arguments of two death row inmates, who challenged the state’s chosen method of requiring them to specify an alternative method of execution contrary to their belief. Was.

One of the men, John Marion Grant, who was convicted of murdering a prison cafeteria worker, was executed a few hours later, having convulsions and vomiting as the chemicals were administered.

Eric M. Friedman, professor of law at Hofstra, said the Supreme Court’s impatience with the arguments given by death row prisoners can take a toll.

“The Supreme Court is forgetting that its total supply of credibility is limited,” he said. “By persistently failing to act prudently in death penalty cases since the spring of 2020, the Court has undermined public acceptance that when in the spring of 2022 and beyond, in controversial areas such as abortion and religious freedom. The cases will need to be decided.”

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