February 20, 2018 Summary Decision (decision without hearing arguments):
January 22, 2018 Decisions:
January 8, 2018 Decision:
The Supreme Court can decide on a case without hearing oral arguments and without even asking for briefing from the parties. The Court issued a "summary decision" on January 8, 2018, over a dissent from three Justices (Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch).
Tharpe v. Sellers
In 1991 Keith Tharpe was sentenced to death for murdering his sister-in-law. Years later, Tharpe's attorneys got an affidavit from one of the jurors indicating the juror had significant racial bias (e.g. the juror "wondered if black people even have souls."). A state court would not review the affidavit as evidence of racial bias, and neither would a federal district court. The federal appeals court also would not consider the evidence.
The Supreme Court reversed. It said the affidavit purporting to show racial bias should have been considered as evidence in the federal court case. Although the federal court may only overturn the refusal to consider the affidavit if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that refusing it was wrong, the Supreme Court found the affidavit was remarkable enough that it might have met that standard.
The lower federal courts must consider the affidavit, although the Supreme Court notes that relief for Thorpe from the death penalty is still a long shot.
November 8, 2017 Decision:
November 6, 2017 Decisions:
The Supreme Court can decide on a case without hearing oral arguments and without even asking for briefing from the parties. The Court issued two unanimous "summary decisions" on November 6, 2017.
Dunn v. Madison
Over 30 years ago, Madison was convicted of shooting a police officer in the back of the head twice. He was sentenced to death. More recently, he suffered several strokes and in 2016 he challenged his death sentence on the basis of mental incapacity.
The situation as presented to the Court was: Madison did not have memory of shooting the police officer. However he did understand that he is facing the death penalty as retribution for the crime.
The lower court (federal appeals court) ruled that Madison's lack of memory of the event means he is not competent to receive the punishment.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court said memory of the event is not essential. As long as he "rationally comprehend[s] crime and punishment," as the case here, he can be executed. Supreme Court precedent just requires that he understand the retributive purpose of his punishment.
Kernan v. Cuero
Cuero pled guilty to two felonies alleging he drove his truck into someone while on meth without a license and carrying a gun. The maximum punishment was just over 14 years.
After the court accepted his plea, the prosecution realized it made a mistake: the prosecution didn't list one of Cuero's prior convictions that would turn his case into one with a minimum of 25 years.
The court allowed the prosecution to add the prior conviction. Cuero (now facing a much longer punishment) was offered to withdraw his guilty plea and start over. He ended up pleading guilty again and got 25 years to life.
Cuero challenged the sentence, arguing the prosecution could not take away the original the 14-year deal. The lower court (federal appeals court) sided with Cuero, saying the prosecution broke a contract by taking away the original deal. It also said failure to honor the contract violated "clearly established Federal Law" as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court got into this case to say: no, no. It's not a violation of federal law as determined by us, the Supreme Court. Offering Cuero to withdraw his plea and to start from scratch is acceptable under Supreme Court precedent.