Recent Judicial Decisions on Capital Punishment

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Posted August 12, 2010


United States Supreme Court:

Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008) 
Holding:  The four-drug lethal injection process does not violate the 8th Amendment.

Summary:  This case answered the question: Is the use of a four-drug lethal injection process to carry out death sentences a violation of the 8th Amendment? Two Kentucky inmates challenged the state's four-drug lethal injection protocol. The lethal injection method calls for the administration of four drugs: Valium, which relaxes the convict, Sodium Pentathol, which knocks the convict unconscious, Pavulon, which stops his breathing, and potassium chloride, which essentially puts the convict into cardiac arrest and ultimately causes death. The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the death penalty system did not amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. 

Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S.Ct. 2641 (2008)
Holding:  The Louisiana statute was determined to be unconstitutional because it violates the 8th Amendment.

Summary:  After a jury trial, the petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death under a state statute authorizing capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12 years of age. This case presented the question whether the Constitution bars the State from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in death of the victim. We hold the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for this offense.


Sears v. Upton, No. 09-8854 (2009)
Holding:  The case was remanded because the state post-conviction court failed to apply a proper prejudice inquiry in determining that counsel's facially inadequate mitigation investigation did not prejudice defendant.

Summary:  During the trials penalty phase, the petitioner's attorney portrayed his life as that of a well adjusted member of society. This strategy was meant to show how harmful a death sentence would be to his family, but it backfired and Sears was sentenced to death. During a post-conviction relief petition it was revealed that he had “significant frontal lobe abnormalities” and two different psychological experts testified that he had substantial deficits in mental cognition and reasoning as a result of several serious head injuries he suffered as a child. The court found that the initial mitigation hearing was constitutionally inadequate because it did not consider this evidence. The Court concluded, "A proper analysis of prejudice … would have taken into account the newly uncovered evidence of Sears’ 'significant' mental and psychological impairments, along with the mitigation evidence introduced during Sears’ penalty phase trial, to assess whether there is a reasonable probability that Sears would have received a different sentence after a constitutionally sufficient mitigation investigation." 


Holland v. Florida, No. 09–5327 (2010)
Holding:  Reversed and Remanded to consider whether the facts of this case constitute extraordinary circumstances sufficient to warrant equitable tolling.

Summary:  This case dealt with the question: Can "gross negligence" by counsel that directly results in the late filing of a petition for habeas corpus relief qualify as a circumstance warranting equitable tolling? The Court found that the District Court incorrectly rested its ruling not on a lack of such circumstances, but on a lack of diligence. Mr. Holland diligently pursued his rights by writing his attorney numerous letters seeking crucial information and providing direction, by repeatedly requesting that Collins be removed from his case, and by filing his own pro se habeas petition on the day he learned his AEDPA filing period had expired. The District Court erroneously concluded that Holland was not diligent, and therefore no lower court has yet considered whether the facts of this case constitute extraordinary circumstances sufficient to warrant equitable tolling.