Death Penalty

Supreme Court grows 'increasingly hostile' to inmates seeking to delay executions

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death row

Corridor in an abandoned penitentiary. Image from Shutterstock.

The U.S. Supreme Court is growing “increasingly hostile” to arguments made on behalf of death row inmates, according to a Sidebar column in the New York Times.

Supreme Court journalist Adam Liptak supports his conclusion with references to recent actions by the high court.

One case concerned an inmate who wanted a pastor to lay hands on him and pray during his execution. Several justices raised concerns about litigation gamesmanship when they heard oral arguments in the case last week.

Among them was Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who asked whether the request by Texas inmate John H. Ramirez could be the first in an “unending stream” of lawsuits seeking religious accommodations, the New York Times reported in previous coverage.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to side with Ramirez, saying, “You should have a pastor to help guide you to the other place.”

Sotomayor sided with another inmate, Wesley P. Coonce Jr., when the Supreme Court denied his cert petition Nov. 1, the Sidebar column points out. Her dissent to the cert denial was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The federal case was unusual because both the U.S. government and Coonce’s defense lawyers agreed that the case deserved another look, according to the New York Times. The issue in the case concerned whether Coonce was intellectually disabled, which would make his execution cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis had affirmed a federal court’s decision to deny Coonce a hearing using the definition of intellectual disability developed by the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia. That decision, which cited clinical definitions, said a person with an intellectual disability must have demonstrated a low IQ and problematic social and practical skills before age 18.

In Coonce’s case, his intellectual disability apparently stemmed from a traumatic brain injury at age 20.

After the 8th Circuit ruled against Coonce, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities changed its definition of intellectual disability to extend the onset period to before age 22.

“To my knowledge,” Sotomayor wrote, “the court has never before denied a GVR [granting cert, vacating the decision below and remanding to the lower court] in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt.”

Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan also dissented when the Supreme Court on Oct. 28 vacated stays of execution imposed by a federal appeals court that wanted to consider arguments of two Oklahoma inmates, including John Marion Grant.

The inmates had contended that Oklahoma’s execution methods could cause severe pain. They also opposed a trial judge’s requirement that they choose their execution method by checking a box, arguing that doing so required them to violate their religious beliefs by dying by suicide.

During the Oct. 28 execution, Grant had full-body convulsions about two dozen times and vomited.

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