Supreme Court to Hear Two Challenges to Texas Death Penalty

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 8, 2016

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The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear another case which tests the constitutional limits of the death penalty.  Two cases challenging Texas capital punishment procedures were accepted by the Justices, and the decisions could influence how states account for mental competency and racial background of death penalty defendants. 

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Challenges to Texas Death Penalty

Earlier this week the Supreme Court granted review of two cases which challenge the constitutionality of Texas’s death penalty procedures.  In one case the Court will look at the procedures Texas uses to determine whether someone is too intellectually disabled to receive the death penalty, while the other will consider the validity of a death sentence in a case where the defendant’s own lawyer introduced evidence that he was more likely to be dangerous because he was black.

Although the cases address different issues within the death penalty process in Texas, both have the potential to reshape the capital punishment landscape in a state which executes more inmates than any other in the nation.  Texas has carried more than half of America’s 28 death sentences since 2015, and has the most aggressive capital punishment laws in the country, but attorneys for the state have responded to both legal challenges by arguing Texas has not overstepped its constitutional authority in either incident and that its death penalty procedures are legal.

Two Cases Challenge Texas Death Penalty Procedure

In the first challenge to Texas’s capital punishment rules, Duane Buck, convicted of 1995 murders of his ex-girlfriend and one of her friends while her children were present, challenged his death penalty sentence on the grounds that prosecutors did not properly prove he was a future danger to society.  According to Buck’s lawsuit, evidence that he was a danger came from a psychologist who testified that racial demographics was a factor which contributed to future danger.  The psychologist testified that because Buck is a black man he was statistically more likely to be dangerous.  Buck’s attorneys have argued that racial discrimination was used to sentence the defendant to death, which speaks not only to Buck’s conviction but to concerns about stereotypes used in any Texas death penalty case.

The other challenge targets Texas’s mental evaluation process which attorneys for Bobby Moore argue are unconstitutional and outdated.  Moore was convicted in 1980 for fatally shooting a 72-year-old grocery store clerk, and has been on death row for the last 36 years.  Moore was declare mentally unfit to receive the death penalty by a trial court, but the decision was reversed by an appellate court which stated a 23-year-old method of determining intellectually disabled was the proper standard.  Attorneys for Moore challenged his conviction by arguing the state has unconstitutionally rigid tests for intellectual disability.

The two cases are the latest in a string of death penalty challenges the Supreme Court has heard since the 1990’s.  Last year the Court upheld the use of a new lethal injection drug, but with the last 16 years it has also rejected restrictive IQ test measures of intellectual disability in Virginia and Florida, and challenged Alabama’s capital punishment scheme.  While the Court has not accepted a case which challenges the constitutionality of the death penalty outright, there are clear indications that some of the Justices would like to see it banned.

Latest Supreme Court Death Penalty Case Highlights Interests of Justices

In a pointed dissent to last year’s 5-4 decision which upheld the use of controversial new lethal injection drugs, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, suggested that the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment by criticizing the Court’s continued efforts to steer capital punishment down a constitutional path.  Writing, “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution,” Breyer openly questioned the validity of capital punishment.

While neither of the current challenges to Texas death penalty will open the door for Justices Breyer or Ginsberg to justifiably ban the death penalty all together, the continued presence of challenges to the scope of capital punishment that the Supreme Court hears opens the door for the larger question in the future.  Attorneys and inmates will likely continue to push for federal appeals which challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty, particularly if the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing is filled by a judge with a noted history of opposition to capital punishment.

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