The U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS,” for short) is wrapping up its 2015-2016 term this week. Starting all the way back at the beginning of last October, it’s been a busy term. Of note, SCOTUS decided two particularly noteworthy death penalty-related cases this term, and agreed to hear a third during its 2016-2017 term (which will begin next October).
First up in the “decided” column is Foster. On May 23rd, SCOTUS ruled (in Foster v. Chatman) that Timothy Foster—convicted in 1987 of capital murder and sentenced to death in a Georgia court—established purposeful racial discrimination in the prosecution’s dismissal of two black jurors during jury selection at his trial, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. By a vote of 7-1, the Court determined that Foster, armed with his newly discovered evidence of purposeful racial discrimination, was eligible to have his Batson claim reevaluated.
Also in the “decided” column is Williams. Decided on June 9th, SCOTUS found by a vote of 5-3 (in Williams v. Pennsylvania) that Terrance Williams—a death row inmate who had his prosecutorial misconduct claim denied by an appeals court led by the very prosecutor-turned-judge who at one time oversaw the very office responsible for the alleged misconduct—was due a new trial absent the biased judge. In so holding, SCOTUS noted both that the judge should have recused himself from hearing the case in the first place, and that "bias is easy to attribute to others and difficult to discern in oneself.”
Finally, we have particularly noteworthy death penalty-related case that SCOTUS agreed to hear during its 2016-2017 term. Specifically, on June 6th, SCOTUS decided that it would review the case of Buck v. Stephens—a case involving Duane Buck, a Texas man who was unfairly sentenced to death after his own lawyer inexplicably introduced an expert who testified that Buck would pose a future danger to society if he was only sentenced to life imprisonment, and his likelihood of future dangerousness was higher because he was black.
That’s all for now, Folks. The road to the abolition of the death penalty in America is long and hard indeed, with both victories and losses looming ahead. However—if we work together—we will reach our destination in the end.
Alan Williams, Staff Attorney at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, monitors legal and policy developments, and provides legal support to advance the Coalition’s mission of ending the death penalty.