August 31, 2019
You can feel it in the air. The lines are drawn, old rivals prepare for battle, and fans wait in line to get in for opening day. No, it is not the first Sunday of NFL football — it’s the approaching first day of the fall term of the United State Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
If you’re a SCOTUS fan, particularly decisions impacting the criminal justice system, this term is going to be a real treat. The justices will hear a litany of cases dealing with everything from the insanity defense to the death penalty.
First, the court will consider the insanity defense. The insanity defense is not a justification for committing a crime — like self-defense — it is an excuse for committing a crime. The defendant admits the crime, but asserts a lack of culpability based on a severe mental illness.
Several years ago, Kansas abolished the insanity defense. There are only three other states without the insanity defense.
James Kahler was charged with murder in Kansas. His attorneys argued to the jury that their client wasn’t guilty because he was unable to appreciate the difference between right and wrong when he committed murder.
Without a recognized defense for insanity, Kahler was convicted. His case has made its way to the Supreme Court where it will be argued this fall.
To get to this point, his lawyers argued that Kansas’ approach “defies a fundamental, centuries-old precept of our legal system: People cannot be punished for crimes for which they are not morally culpable.”
In a second case out of Kansas, the high court will decide whether, for purposes of an investigative stop by police under the Fourth Amendment, it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle absent any information to the contrary.
Next, the death penalty. James McKinney was sentenced to death by a judge in Arizona. Following years of appeals, a federal appeals court ruled that the Arizona courts erred by not considering mitigating evidence during his sentencing, and ordered the state to reconsider the sentence.
Since McKinney’s first sentencing, the law changed requiring a jury, not a judge, to impose a death sentence. However, the Arizona court said because the law was different when he was first sentenced, McKinney should again be sentenced by only a judge.
McKinney is asking the Supreme Court to affirm his constitutional right to be sentenced by a jury. The court’s decision will impact a number of states since there is disagreement among the various state courts on this issue.
There is another case that has generated some interest--not only because of who is involved--but because of the potential impact on juvenile life sentences. Lee Boyd Malvo rose to infamy in 2002 when he and John Allen Mohammad went on a 21-day sniper spree that killed 10 motorists in the Washington, D.C., area.
Malvo was 17 when he committed the offenses, which led to a sentence of life without parole. After he was sentenced, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama. The court ruled in Miller that the Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing a juvenile to a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Virginia, where Malvo was sentenced, has argued that Malvo’s sentence of life without parole was not mandatory because Virginia law permits judges to suspend a life sentence. The Supreme Court must decide whether Miller applies to a sentencing scheme like Virginia’s that doesn’t “officially” impose a mandatory life without parole sentence.
Finally, in a case out of Louisiana, the Court will decide if the Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts in all state criminal trials, as occurs in 49 out of 50 states?
Although Louisiana revised its state constitution to require unanimous verdicts—Oregon is now the only state that allows non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases—the change came after Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder by only 10 of 12 jurors. Ramos wants the benefit of the new law.
SCOTUS, like the NFL, has a busy schedule this fall, but don’t look for any SCOTUS outcomes until after the Super Bowl.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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