Supreme Court Issues Habeas Decisions on Racial Bias, Specific Performance of Plea Agreements, and Competency to be Executed
The U.S. Supreme Court, in three habeas corpus decisions so far this term, continued a recent trend to grant relief in cases of racial bias, but deferred to state courts on other types of claims.
In Tharpe v. Sellers, decided January 8, 2018, the Court, in a brief per curiam opinion, reversed a denial of a certificate of appealability (COA) in a case involving a racially-biased juror.
Petitioner Keith Tharpe had moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceeding under Rule 60(b)(6) on grounds that a white juror had been biased against him because he is black. Tharpe submitted an affidavit from the juror that said, among other things, “there are two types of black people;” that Tharpe “wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category;” and that “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”
The juror denied, however, that his views affected his verdict.
The District Court denied relief on grounds that Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court, and he failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence that the juror’s presence on the jury prejudiced him.
The Eleventh Circuit denied a COA on grounds that Tharpe failed to show that the juror’s presence on the jury had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the verdict.
But the Supreme Court reversed.
Under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254(e)(1), the state court’s prejudice determination is a factual determination “binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary,” the Court said.
Here, the juror’s “remarkable affidavit – which he never retracted – presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected [the juror’s] vote for a death verdict,” the Court said. “At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong. The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.”
Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, dissented. They agreed that the juror’s affidavit expressed “odious” opinions about blacks, but said the Court was required to defer to the state court’s finding that Tharpe failed to show that racial bias was the basis for sentencing him.
No precedent holds that specific performance is required for deviation from plea agreement
In Kernan v. Cuero, decided November 6, 2017, a unanimous Court reversed a grant of habeas relief to a petitioner, Michael Cuero, whose sentence was increased after he had pleaded guilty, but before sentencing, when the state was allowed to file an amended information which pleaded an additional prior offense for sentence enhancement.
The plea court had offered Cuero the opportunity to withdraw his plea, but he claimed he was entitled to specific performance of his plea agreement, which called for a lower sentence.
The Ninth Circuit, on federal habeas review, held that the state courts had “acted contrary to clearly established Supreme Court law” by “refusing to enforce the original plea agreement.”
But the Supreme Court reversed.
Under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254(d)(1), a federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state court’s decision on the issue was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.”
The Court found that none of its prior precedents required specific performance as the remedy for Cuero. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971), held that the relief in similar situations is left to the discretion of state courts.
“Where, as here, none of our prior decisions clearly entitles Cuero to the relief he seeks, the state court’s decision could not be contrary to any holding from this Court,” the Court concluded.
No precedent holds that inability to remember the crime renders an inmate incompetent to be executed
In Dunn v. Madison, also decided November 6, a unanimous Court reversed a grant of habeas relief to a petitioner, Vernon Madison, who claimed he was incompetent to be executed because he could no longer remember the crime.
Madison had been on death row for more than 30 years and had suffered multiple strokes.
The state court had denied relief because, even though Madison may not be able to remember the crime, an expert testified that he did understand that he was in prison for murder, and that the state was seeking retribution for the murder by wanting to execute him.
The state court had held that under Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), and Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007), Madison must show that his mental condition prevented him from being able to rationally understand that he is being executed as a punishment for a crime, but Madison did not meet this test.
The Eleventh Circuit granted habeas relief on grounds that since Madison does not remember the crime, he cannot “rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution.”
But the Supreme Court reversed. Panetti held that a prisoner must understand that he is being executed for a crime, the Court said.
“Neither Panetti nor Ford clearly established that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case,” the Court said. “The state court did not unreasonably apply Panetti and Ford when it determined that Madison is competent to be executed because – notwithstanding his memory loss – he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.”
Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, concurred, but wrote separately to say that the issue of whether a state can execute someone who does not remember the crime is a “substantial question not yet addressed by this Court” and would warrant a “full airing” in an appropriate case. But given the “restraints imposed” by 28 U.S.C. 2254(d), they must defer to the state court on habeas review.
Justice Breyer wrote separately to highlight his concerns about the “unconscionably long periods of time” that prisoners spend awaiting execution, and how this impacts the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.