Conference Report – November 3, 2017 Conference

As part of its Order List from its November 3 Conference, the Supreme Court on Monday issued two summary decisions reversing lower court rulings in favor of habeas petitioners. It did not otherwise grant review in any new cases.

The first case, Dunn v. Madison, involves the execution of an Alabama inmate who cannot remember his crime due to neurological health issues stemming from a series of strokes. According to the ABA Journal, Madison was sentenced to death for murdering a police office in 1985. His execution is now approaching, and he sought habeas relief due to his memory loss, alleging that because he cannot remember the crime, he is not competent to be executed. The state trial court concluded he failed to show that he is unable to rationally understand that he is being executed as punishment for murder. He sought habeas relief, and the federal judge held the state trial court made a reasonable decision and correctly applied precedent — all that is required under the governing statute, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that because Madison does not recall the offense, he cannot possibly understand the connection between the crime and his execution.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed and stated precedent has not 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.” Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, concurred, explaining that the issue presented is substantial and important and would be worthy of the Court’s attention if brought on direct appeal. Because the case came to the Court on habeas, however, AEDPA, it could not address the issue directly and was limited to determining if the state court’s holding was not an unreasonable application of “clearly established Federal law as determined by the Supreme Court.”

In addition to joining Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence, Justice Breyer wrote a concurrence solely on his own behalf. Justice Breyer pointed to constitutional questions due to the aging class of inmates on death row. He wrote that the “lengthy periods of imprisonment between death sentence and execution can deepen the cruelty of the death penalty while at the same time undermining its penological rational.” As Robert Barnes of The Washington Post noted, “no conservative justice rebutted him, [although i]n the past, they have alleged that it is the numerous appeals and creativity of defense lawyers that have postponed the imposition of the death penalty.” Breyer also raised the issue of the constitutionality of the death penalty itself, something that he suggested the Court should consider in his opinion in Glossip v. Gross.

In the second case, Kernan v. Cuero, Michael Cuero pleaded guilty to two charges after he caused a car accident while under the influence of methamphetamines and left another man injured. Cuero was on parole from previous drug related offenses and was unlawfully carrying a firearm with him at the time of the accident. As explained by Court House News, his original plea bargain carried a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, but prosecutors sought to amend the original criminal complaint after the plea deal and before the sentencing date. They argued that due to his other previous offenses, Cuero fell under California’s “three strikes” law, meaning that he was eligible for a much longer sentence. Although the trial court allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea, he ultimately pleaded guilty again and was sentenced to 25 years to life.

On habeas review, Cuero argued that the state courts should have enforced the original plea deal. The Ninth Circuit held that the trial court wrongly refused to do so. The Supreme Court however, applying AEDPA, held that, “to the contrary, no ‘holding of this court’ requires the remedy of specific performance under the circumstances present here,” and thus reversed the lower court decision, thus upholding Cuero’s conviction and sentence. The opinion in Kernan was an unsigned per curiam opinion and there were no separate opinions.

This post was drafted by Matthew Webber and edited by Elisabeth Hieber, both ISCOTUS Fellows and members of Chicago-Kent Class of 2019.

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