I haven’t had much time to post lately, but a substantial Supreme Court ruling this week demands a post. The Court ruled, by an 8-1 margin, that police searches that take place in the driveway of a home also require a warrant. Essentially, the court ruled that the curtilage of a home, that is, the immediate area surrounding the home, has similar protection to the home itself. In this case out of Virginia, an officer suspected that a stolen motorcycle could have been been stolen, and took it upon himself to peek under the cover. The Court found that the search was illegal because the officer did not obtain a warrant first.
Ultimately, this may not prove to be the most influential ruling… how many searches take place in a home’s driveway? Will this extend to the parking spot of an apartment complex? (I think so.) This ruling is not a great surprise, as the Supreme Court in the last few years has been very clear on the Constitutional protections for privacy against searches, particularly in relation to the home. And this will not hamstring law enforcement too much: cases like this one would present plenty of evidence to obtain a warrant.
Steven Avery, whose case was documented on “Making a Murderer” had filed a motion for new trial, alleging new evidence that would support granting him a new trial. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing, indicating that Avery’s attorney Katherine Zellner, had not met the legal standard for that type of motion in Wisconsin. Currently, that ruling is being appealed, but it’s fairly early in the appellate process: Zellner has not filed her brief yet.
Brendan Dassey, the young cousin of Avery, is still fighting to get his verdict overturned. He had gone through the State appeals process, when he then got a positive ruling from a Federal judge, finding his confession was illegally obtained and dismissing the trial result. However, a Federal Appellate court overturned that ruling, reinstating his conviction. He is now petitioning to the U.S. Supreme Court. The SCOTUS only takes a relatively few cases each year, and Wisconsin will likely be filing a brief arguing that there is no issue that needs to be addressed by SCOTUS. If the Supreme Court does not hear the case, Dassey could end up filing for a new trial as Avery has done.
The procedure for Florida’s Death Penalty was found to be unconstitutional, despite efforts to rework it, until March of last year, when a procedure that meets Constitutional muster was approved and signed into law. But what to do with the cases that had been sentenced under the old procedure. Florida’s Supreme Court ended up splitting the baby, basing their decision on when the US Supreme Court issued their controlling decision in Ring v. Arizona back in 2002. The Florida Court decided that the rule would be applied retroactively to cases decided after the Ring decision, but that individuals sentenced before then are out of luck: even though the Court had already decided the procedure used to sentence them was unconstitutional.
The decision is based on the rule that decisions based on procedure will not be retroactive. In the last several weeks, the Court has been busy issuing ruling after ruling that declines to apply the rule announced in the Hurst case to pre-2002 convictions. This column from the Tampa Bay Times takes a look at the spate of opinions that have recently been released, and the sometimes incongruous results. It’s definitely worth a read.
All Rise! Rookie superstar Aaron Judge has taken New York by storm this season, and the Yankees created a section in the outfield for his fans, called the “Judge’s Chambers”. They have people dress up in black robes and powdered wigs, and they go nuts when he comes up to bat. It’s fun!
This week, Supreme Court Justice, and lifelong Yankee fan, Sonia Sotomayor took in a game and naturally, she sat in the Judge’s Chambers. Looks like she had a great time, too! Even though Judge has been slumping since he destroyed everyone at the Home Run Derby, the Yanks took one from the Sox.
Florida effectively has no death penalty right now. First, the procedure that had been in effect for years was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Hurst decision. Then, the legislature rushed through a new law to try to fix it, but the new law also failed to require a unanimous recommendation by the jury, and the Florida Supreme Court struck it down, as well. A new bill seeks to correct that shortcoming.
This bill in the State Senate is the first step in changing the law to make a lawful death penalty. The Florida House would also have to pass a law, and then for it to be signed by the governor before the State can resume seeking the death penalty. Right now the death penalty is on hold, pending a new law. The House may end up looking at even more extensive changes to the death penalty when they take up the issue, probably in this upcoming session, as well. The legislature may also look at changes to the Stand Your Ground Law this year.
Mark Sievers & Jimmy Rodgers
Yesterday the State Attorney’s office filed a notice that they intend to seek the death penalty against Jimmy “The Hammer” Rodgers and Mark Sievers for the death of Sievers’ wife Theresa. That the state intends to seek the death penalty is not altogether surprising, as there are potentially several aggravating factors present that could justify the death penalty if proven, including the brutal nature of the killing, that it was premeditated, and that it was done for financial gain. On the other hand, the State has been unsuccessful in the last several attempts to seek the death penalty in Lee County.
To further complicate matters, the death penalty is very much in flux in Florida. Florida just amended its death penalty procedure, after the previous procedure was rejected by the Supreme Court in the Hurst decision. The new procedure, which increases the number of jurors that must vote to recommend the death penalty to 10 of 12, instead of unanimously, has already been rejected by some circuit-level judges. That matter will certainly be reviewed by the State Supreme Court.
This also means that Mark Sievers will have to get another attorney on his legal team, as his current lawyers are not death-penalty qualified. They can still represent him, but he will need a death penalty lawyer to join the team. Also keep in mind, the State has flipped Siever’s friend Curtis Wright to have him testify in the other prosecutions.
Florida’s Death Penalty laws are once again in disarray.
The Supreme Court
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the procedure Florida was using to determine when the death penalty should be imposed, in the Hurst case. That meant that there was functionally no death penalty in the state of Florida. The legislature moved quickly to amend the law to establish a new procedure to prosecute the death penalty in Florida, and a new version was signed into law in March. Now, all that work is out the window…
Judge Milton Hirsch, a circuit judge in Miami-Dade, has ruled that the new procedure is also unconstitutionally inadequate. The Florida procedure does not require a unanimous jury verdict before the death penalty can be imposed. Florida and Alabama are the only states that did not require unanimity, and that specific issue was not discussed by the Supreme Court in the Hurst case. Ultimately, the issue is likely to be appealed to the Florida Supreme court, and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court again, but Judge Hirsch’s opinion is the first to address the issue since the new procedure was passed.
Hirsch was critical of the law, finding that the changes were not enough. He wrote, “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight, but the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”
Timothy Hurst, currently on Death Row
Meanwhile, the other issue up in the air is whether the Hurst decision is retroactive. That is, are all of the Floridians on death row entitled to new sentencing hearings?- 390 of them are currently on death row. While they would still be subject to a new death sentence, a ruling finding that Hurst is retroactive would likely spare a great number of inmates that the state would not wish to retry their sentencing hearings.
While it seems to be a no-brainer that if the procedure used to impose death was unconstitutional that the sentences could not stand, the courts have often held that these types of rulings are procedural, and do not apply retroactively. It will be interesting to see what the Florida Supreme Court does on the issue. Until then, Florida executions will have to be on hold. The Florida Supreme Court recently heard arguments regarding whether Hurst will mandate that he, and many other similarly situated cases will be reduced to life without parole.
Posted in 14th Amendment - Due Process, 6th Amendment - Fair Trial, Criminal Law, Death Penalty, Florida, Supreme Court, Uncategorized
Tagged death penalty, Jury, murder, procedure, ring, sentencing, supreme court, timothy hurst, trial