Supreme Court Overturns Texas Death Sentences

They were based on faulty jury instructions that did not give sufficient weight to mitigating factors, according to three decisions issued today.

The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned death sentences for three Texas inmates that were based on faulty jury instructions, the Associated Press reports.

The jury instructions, no longer used by Texas, did not give sufficient weight to mitigating factors.

In Smith v. Texas (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog), the court ruled 5-4 that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had improperly applied a harmless error standard in evaluating the jury instructions, according to a summary on SCOTUSblog.

The court also ruled 5-4 in two other cases that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had wrongly interpreted prior rulings on jury instructions, SCOTUSblog says. Those cases are Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman (PDFs posted by SCOTUSblog).

Writing in dissent in those cases, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said there was no clearly established law establishing a right to relief.

“Whatever the law may be today, the court’s ruling that ‘twas always so—and that state courts were ‘objectively unreasonable’ not to know it—is utterly revisionist,” Roberts wrote.

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