• Stephanie Lauria

Death by Blood Asphyxiation, Felon-enhanced Sentences for “Slight Resistance”, and more SCOTUS Cases


As the fall semester begins for students, October brings the beginning of another Supreme Court session. The Supreme Court has original—the first and only court to hear the case—and appellate jurisdiction—authority to review decisions of lower courts—in regard to hearing cases. Appellate jurisdiction is specifically extended to those who petition the Supreme Court to hear their case; jurisdiction is granted to those who file Writs of Certiorari and to which four Justices vote to accept the case. If accepted, the parties’ case is put on the docket and the parties file corresponding briefs for the Supreme Court to read and review; those who are interested in the outcome of the case may file an amicus curiae to discuss their arguments and personal recommendations as to how the case should be decided. Upon the hearing of an oral argument, the Justices conference as to their decision of the case. When the Justices tie, the lower court’s decision is upheld.

Although the last few weeks have been focused on the effect of a new Justice on the Supreme Court, the current eight Justices have been busy granting and denying certiorari, reading briefs, hearing oral arguments, and conducting conferences. A few influential criminal law cases were heard prior to Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, with a few left to be heard and many more to be granted cert.

Here is a quick look at what the Court will be conferencing on soon:

MADISON v. ALABAMA – oral argument held on October 2, 2018

Issue(s): Does the Eighth Amendment and the Court’s jurisprudence prohibit a state from executing a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of the commission of the capital offense? Does the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment preclude a state from executing a prisoner who suffers from severe cognitive dysfunction such that he cannot remember the crime for which he was convicted or understand the circumstances of his scheduled execution?

Discussion: Madison suffered numerous strokes throughout his years on death row. His strokes have caused slurred speech, blindness, an inability to walk independently, and urinary incontinence. Most importantly, he is unable to remember the crime he committed that warranted the death sentence. Under four principles set forth by Justice Brennan in Furman v. Georgia, the Court should review whether the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to requiring a prisoner to retroactively appreciate his crimes prior to execution. The patently unnecessary principle will most likely drive this issue because the Court will have to discuss whether it is patently unnecessary for a man to be subject of capital punishment without the knowledge of doing so. If the Court finds the punishment is unnecessary, it will open up possible abusive litigation to appeal death row sentences for many elderly convicts and incentivize them to “forget” to avoid this sentence.

STOKELING v. UNITED STATES – oral argument held on October 7, 2018

Issue(s): Is a state robbery offense that includes “as an element” the common law requirement of overcoming victim resistance categorically a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(b)(i), when that offense has been specifically interpreted by state appellate courts to require only slight force to overcome resistance?

Discussion: Stokeling’s enhanced sentence is predicated upon the belief that his previous arrests for robbery were a violent felony, upon the jurisdictional element of overcoming resistance will most likely fluctuate on the line of textualists and constitutionalists. Because this issue rests solely on an element that is statutorily decided, the Court may discuss the purpose of the state legislature and their effect on changing this law and the elements for burglary. The ideology of the Court will most likely weigh towards affirming the lower court’s decision to implement the enhanced sentence upon their original intent beliefs; recent and retired Justices have been self-proclaimed originalists, including Justice Ginsburg and the late Justice Scalia. The majority of the Court believes, per Article I of the Constitution, that the legislature has the authority to effectuate statutory change rather than the Court in making a decision that would affect statues.

UNITED STATES v. STITT – oral argument held on October 9, 2018

Issue(s): Is the crime of a residential burglary under Arkansas law, or aggravated burglary under Tennessee law, the same as or narrower than “general burglary” such that convictions for those crimes serve as predicate crimes for the purpose of the enhanced sentencing provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984?

Discussion: Similar to the case of Stokeling v. United States, the Court will compare the jurisdictional elements of a crime with the federal elements to either support or reject an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which is applicable to those with three prior “violent felonies.” Similar to the discussion in Stokeling, the Court will likely weigh the decision based upon their constitutional ideology. Notably, Justice Kavanaugh was present for the oral arguments and will participate marking this case as one of the first he will be in on the decision with.

BUCKLEW v. PRECYTHE

Issue(s): This case calls for various questions, including: (1) does the Eighth Amendment require an inmate with a unique and severe medical condition to prove an adequate alternative method of execution when raising an as-applied challenge to the state-authorized method of execution? (2) what evidence is required for a court to determine whether an inmate’s proposed alternative method of execution significantly reduces the rise of severe pain as compared to the state’s method? (3) may a court evaluating an as-applied challenge to a state’s method of execution assume that medical personnel on the execution team are competent to manage the inmate’s condition? (4) did the petitioner meet his burden in proposing an alternative execution method under Gossip v. Gross?

Discussion: Utilizing the four principles set forth by Justice Brennan in Furman v. Georgia, the Court should review whether the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to the method of injection that could result in death by blood clotting due to a medical condition. The wholly arbitrary fashion principle will be of contention because Bucklew, knowledgeable of the side effects of lethal injection, has provided alternative methods of execution to avoid arbitrary capital punishment.

#SCOTUS #sentencing #EighthAmendment #ArmedCareerCriminalAct

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