Order Code RS21572
July 16, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Capital Punishment: Summary of Supreme
Court Decisions of the 2002-2003 Term
Paul Starett Wallace, Jr.
Specialist in American Public Law
American Law Division
In its 2001-2002 term, for the first time since 1988, the Supreme Court placed
substantial new restrictions on the powers to impose the death penalty. In Ring v.
Arizona1, it overturned a death sentence imposed by a judge, holding that defendants
have a Sixth Amendment right to have a jury–not a judge–determine whether
aggravating factors warrant the imposition of the death penalty. In Atkins v. Virginia,2
it held that the execution of the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual punishment. In
the 2002-2003 term, in Miller-El v. Cockrell the Court imposed an additional restriction
when it decided that an African-American death row inmate should have been allowed
to appeal the rejection of his contention that the jury that convicted him was screened
by prosecutors in a racially biased way. In Wiggins v. Smith, it held that a capital
defendant had been denied effective counsel. In Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, the Court
decided that there was no double-jeopardy bar to Pennsylvania’s sentencing scheme
providing for the death penalty on retrial. And in Stanford v. Kentucky, it denied a
habeas corpus petition filed by Kevin Stanford which in effect upheld the execution of
those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crime (Kevin was 17 when he killed a gas
The capital punishment decisions which were decided during the October 2002 Term
involved issues concerning: (1) the standards to be used to determine whether a capital
defendant should be granted a certificate of appealability in order to contest the denial of
his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, (2) whether double jeopardy barred the imposition
of the death penalty on the basis of aggravating and mitigating factors which an earlier
jury had been unable to agree were sufficient and as a consequence, a life sentence was
imposed, and (3) whether the performance of the defense attorneys at sentencing violated
the accused Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.
536 U.S. 584 (2002).
536 U.S. 304 (2002).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
In addition, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, denied a direct habeas corpus petition filed by
convicted murderer Kevin Stanford, whose case produced the 1989 decision in Stanford
v. Kentucky3 upholding the execution of those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their
crimes. Stanford was 17 when he killed a gas station attendant in 1981. Justice Stevens,
writing for the dissenters, made it clear in this case that an internal debate is underway
that could lead the Court someday–but not now-to re-examine the constitutionality of
executing individuals who committed their crimes when they were juveniles. Justice
Stevens cited the state response to the Court’s decision in Stanford v. Kentucky as
evidence of the same kind of trend that changed the outlook on executing the retarded.4
Therefore with regards to the execution of juveniles, we will have to wait to see if there
will be increased pressure on state legislatures to increase the execution ages, to help
produce the kind of trend the Court might credit when it does take up the issue.
Miller-El v. Cockrell.5 In 1986, Thomas Miller-El, an African-American male was
convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas jury. During the jury selection at
trial, the prosecutors struck ten of the eleven prospective African-American jurors from
the jury pool.6 African-Americans and Caucasians were questioned differently about their
views on the death penalty.7 Most African-Americans heard a detailed account of what
would happen to Miller-El when he was executed, and then they were asked whether they
could vote to execute someone.8 Only 6% of the potential Caucasian jurors heard the
same information.9 The petitioner also presented evidence of a pattern of race-based jury
selection methods used by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, including an
office manual advising prosecutors to remove minority jurors.10 The trial judge rejected
Miller-El’s equal protection challenge. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
While petitioner’s appeal was pending, the Court established in Batson v. Kentucky11 that
it is unconstitutional to strike jurors solely on the basis of race and put a greater burden
on the state to show that it was not engaging in such behavior by establishing a three-part
492 U.S. 361 (1989), petition for writ of habeas corpus denied, 123 S.Ct. 472 (2002).
Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). In Atkins, the Court overturned an earlier decision
which had held that the Eighth Amendment did not bar execution of the mentally retarded. It
reversed its position in part on the basis of the number of states that had banned execution of the
mentally retarded after the Court’s initial decision. In Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815
(1988), the Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment barred the execution of a juvenile who
had not reached the age of 16. In the first Stanford case, the Court refused to raise the bar to 18.
The dissenters felt that the trend of subsequent state activity warranted an Atkins-like response;
a majority obviously were not ready to go that far.
123 S. Ct.1029 (2003).
Id. at 1031.
Id. at 1037.
Id. at 1038.
476 U.S. 79 (1986).
process for evaluating equal protection claims such as the petitioner’s.12 On remand, the
trial court concluded that the petitioner failed to satisfy step one of Batson because the
evidence did not raise an inference of racial motivation in the State’s use of peremptory
challenges. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also determined that the State would
have prevailed on steps two and three because the prosecutors had offered credible, raceneutral explanations for the African-Americans excluded, i.e., their reluctance to assess,
or reservations concerning, imposition of the death penalty to the extent that the petitioner
could not prove purposeful discrimination.
After the petitioner’s direct appeal and state habeas corpus petitions were denied,
he filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 raising a Batson claim
and other issues. The Federal District Court denied relief and the Fifth Circuit Court of
Appeals refused to issue a Certificate of Appealability (COA).13 The Fifth Circuit noted
that a COA will issue “only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial
of a constitutional right”.14 Moreover, it reasoned that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) required
it to presume state-court findings correct unless it determined that the findings would
result in a decision which was unreasonable in light of clear and convincing evidence.
The Supreme Court held that the Fifth Circuit should have issued a COA to review
the District Court’s denial of habeas corpus relief to the petitioner because it applied
more than the threshold standard required. All the petition needed to show to satisfy 28
U.S.C. § 2253(c) was that his claim “would be found debatable or wrong among jurists
In a finding by the Fifth Circuit that Miller-El had failed to establish that the state
court resolution of his claim was both unreasonable and contrary to clearly established
federal law, the Fifth Circuit had improperly addressed the merits of the petitioner’s claim
rather than limiting its inquiry to whether the merits of his claim were debatable by
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice
Rehnquist, and Justices Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined.
Justice Scalia filed a concurring opinion in which he reviewed the arguments on behalf
of the State that made the issue of whether reasonable jurists might debate the merits of
the Batson claim a close question. Justice Thomas dissented. He said Miller-El did not
prove African-American jurors were excluded because of race.
The three-part process for evaluating claims that a prosecutor used peremptory challenges in
violation of the Equal Protection Clause are: (a) a defendant must make a prima facie showing
that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race, (b) if that showing has been
made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question, and (c)
in light of the parties’ submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has
shown purposeful discrimination. 476 U.S. at 96-8.
Before a prisoner seeking post conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 may appeal a district
court’s denial or dismissal of the petition, he must seek and obtain a certification of appealability
from a circuit justice or judge. 28 U.S.C. § 2253.
28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).
123 S. Ct. at 1046.
Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania.16 David Sattazahn was convicted of first degree murder
for killing a restaurant manager whom he and an accomplice were trying to rob. At the
sentencing phase of his trial, Pennsylvania introduced as an “aggravating factor” the fact
that he killed while perpetrating a felony. As “mitigating factors”,17 Sattazahn presented
his lack of a significant history of prior convictions and his young age at the time of the
crime. After 3½ hours of deliberation, the jury deadlocked: nine were against execution,
and three were in favor. The judge dismissed the jury and sentenced Sattazahn to life in
prison without parole as Pennsylvania law requires a judge to do whenever a death penalty
jury is deadlocked. Sattazahn appealed his first degree murder conviction. However,
before the appeal was decided, Sattahazn pled guilty to five different counts of burglary,
one count of robbery, and one count of third degree murder (which cannot be punished
by execution). Subsequently, Sattazahn won his appeal based upon a faulty jury
instruction. There was a retrial and Sattazahn was convicted, and again the State sought
the death penalty. This time, the State added an additional aggravating factor at the
sentencing hearing: that Sattazahn had a significant history of felony convictions and the
jury sentenced him to death. The petitioner argued that he should not have faced the death
penalty in his second trial because the trial judge had sentenced him to life in prison
following his first trial.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence. Justice Scalia
delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, IV, and V, in which Chief
Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas joined, and an opinion
with respect to Part III, in which Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas joined.
Justice O’Connor filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.
Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer
The Supreme Court said in a line of cases commencing with Bullington v. Missouri,18
“...the touchstone for double-jeopardy protection in capital-sentencing proceedings is
whether there has been an ‘acquittal.’”19 The “petitioner here cannot establish that the
jury or the court ‘acquitted’ him during his first capital-sentencing proceeding.”20 The
Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s system of requiring a default life sentence is not the same
for purposes of double jeopardy as an outright acquittal of the charges.21 “When, as in
this case, the jury deadlocks in the penalty phase of a capital trial, it does not ‘decide’ that
the prosecution has failed to prove its case for the death penalty. Rather, the jury makes
no decision at all”22 wrote Justice O’Connor in an opinion concurring with the majority.
123 S. Ct. 732 (2003).
Facts suggesting that the penalty should not be imposed.
451 U.S. 430 (1981).
123 S. Ct. at 738.
Id. at 738-39.
Id. at 743.
In the dissent, Justice Ginsburg said the issue was “genuinely debatable” but that
double jeopardy should prevent Sattazahn’s death sentence in the second trial.23 She said
“I recognize that this is a novel and close question: Sattazahn was not ‘acquitted’ of the
death penalty, but his case was fully tried and the court, on its own motion, entered a final
judgment–a life sentence–terminating the trial proceedings.”24 She also said the Court’s
decision “confronts defendants with a perilous choice, .... [I]f a defendant sentenced to
life after a jury deadlock chooses to appeal her underlying conviction, she faces the
possibility of death if she is successful on appeal but convicted on retrial. If , on the other
hand, the defendant loses her appeal, or chooses to forgo an appeal, the final judgment for
life stands.”25 In the end, she said, “a defendant in Sattazahn’s position must relinquish
either her right to file a potentially meritorious appeal, or her state-granted entitlement to
avoid the death penalty.”26
Wiggins v. Smith.27 In 1989, petitioner Wiggins was convicted of capital murder by
a Maryland judge and subsequently elected to be sentenced by a jury. His public
defenders moved to bifurcate the sentencing, stating that they planned to prove that
Wiggins did not kill the victim by his own hand and then, if necessary, to present a
mitigation case. The court denied the motion. At sentencing, one of the defense attorneys
told the jury in her opening statement that they would hear, among other things, about
Wiggins’ difficult life, but this evidence was never introduced. Before closing arguments
and outside the presence of the jury, the defense attorney made a tentative overture to the
court to preserve the bifurcation issue for appeal, detailing the mitigation case they as
defense counselors would have presented. The lawyers for Wiggins never mentioned his
life history or family background. The jury sentenced Wiggins to death, and the Maryland
Court of Appeals affirmed. Represented by new counsel, Wiggins sought postconviction
relief, arguing that his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to
investigate and present mitigating evidence of his dysfunction background which included
sever physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother and while under
the care of a series of foster parents. The trial court denied the petition, and the State
Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that trial counsel had made a reasoned choice to
proceed with what they considered their best defense. Subsequently, the federal district
court granted Wiggins relief on his federal habeas petition, holding that the Maryland
courts’ rejection of his ineffective assistance claim involved an unreasonable application
of clearly established federal law. In reversing, the Fourth Circuit found trial counsel’s
strategic decision to focus on Wiggins’ direct responsibility to be reasonable. The
Supreme Court granted certiorari28 and reversed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Id. at 744.
Id. at 747.
Id. at 748.
123 S. Ct. 2527 (2003).
537 U.S. 1027 (2002).
The Court said the legal principal has been established that governs claims of
ineffective assistance of counsel in Strickland v. Washington29 and in a 7-2 decision, held
that counsel did not conduct a reasonable investigation and reversed the death sentence
of Wiggins. An ineffective assistance claim has two components: A petitioner must
show that counsel’s performance was deficient, and that the deficiency prejudiced the
defense.30 To establish deficient performance, a petitioner must demonstrate that
counsel’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”31 The
Court has declined to articulate specific guidelines for appropriate attorney conduct but
instead emphasized that “[t]he proper measure of attorney performance remains simply
reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.”32 Counsel decision not to expand
their investigation beyond a presentence investigation report and Baltimore City
Department of Social Services records fell short of the professional standards prevailing
in Maryland in 1989.33 Standard practice in Maryland capital cases at that time included
the preparation of a social history report. Although there were State funds to retain a
forensic social worker, counsel chose not to commission a report. Moreover the Court
concluded that Wiggins had been prejudiced by the failure to fully investigate his social
history given the relative weakness of the aggravating evidence offered by the
prosecution. Wiggins was therefore entitled to a new sentencing hearing.34
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice William
Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom Justice Clarence
Thomas joined, dissented.
In the past, the Court has stressed the importance of effective legal representation but
has provided leeway for lawyers to conduct trials as they deemed appropriate.35 The
decisions in Wiggins, however, could send a strong signal to lower courts reminding them
of the need for more vigilant defenses in death-penalty cases.
466 U.S. 668 (1984).
123 S. Ct. at 2535.
The original lawyers concentrated on trying to raise doubts about their client’s guilt. Although
they had some information about Wiggins’ early life, they did not order the usual detailed
background investigation that could be used to win sympathy from a jury. If jurors knew the
ghastly details, they might well have chosen a life sentence for Wiggens, the Supreme Court
This is marked contrast to the Court’s treatment of Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19 (2002)
where the lower courts had conceded Visciotti’s ineffectiveness of counsel claim, but found no
prejudice because of the relative strength of the aggravating factors in the case.
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
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