Death Penalty Clinic Amicus Curiae Briefs
Baze v. Rees
The Death Penalty Clinic drafted an important amicus brief in Baze v. Rees, a Kentucky case that that represented the only time the Supreme Court has evaluated the procedures by which lethal injection executions are administered in this country. The Clinic’s brief was filed on behalf of death row inmates in California, Missouri, Maryland, and Florida. Professor Ty Alper and two Clinic students, Joy Haviland and Vanessa Crawford, working under his supervision, surveyed thousands of pages of documents from more than a dozen states, with the aim of presenting to the Court a detailed account of the widespread lack of professionalism and competency in the administration of lethal injection in this country, using compelling examples from states with more detailed records of lethal injection problems than the Kentucky record in the Baze case.
On March 19, 2008, the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction and death sentence Allen Snyder. Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008). On September 5, 2007, the Death Penalty Clinic and WilmerHale filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of the Constitution Project in support of Mr. Snyder. Two Death Penalty Clinic students, Desiree Ramirez and Armilla Staley, and the Clinic Staff Attorney, Kate Weisburd, worked on the amicus brief with Professor Elisabeth Semel. At issue was the prosecutor’s exercise of peremptory challenges to remove African Americans from the trial jury in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which prohibits racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges in jury selection. In a 7-2 opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the majority held that “the trial court committed clear error in overruling petitioner's Batson objection with regard to [one of the African-American jurors].” 552 U.S. at 474.
Mr. Snyder, who is African American, was tried by an all-white jury, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1996 in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Mr. Snyder was arrested the year before, and charged with the murder of his estranged wife's male companion. His trial took place less than a year after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in California. Prior to Mr. Snyder's trial, the prosecutor publicly referred to Mr. Snyder's case as “his O.J. Simpson case.” During jury selection, the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike all qualified prospective African Americans from the panel. Despite his promise to the trial judge that he would not refer to O.J. Simpson before the jury, the prosecutor, in his rebuttal penalty phase argument, compared Mr. Snyder's conduct to that of the defendant in “[t]he most famous murder case” that all the jurors “have heard about,” pointing out that the “perpetrator” in that case “got away with it.” On direct appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Mr. Snyder's conviction and death sentence against a claim that the prosecutor had exercised his peremptory challenges in a discriminatory manner in violation of Batson. See State v. Snyder, 750 So.2d 882 (La. 1999). In 2005, the Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court, and remanded the case to that court in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005). See Snyder v. Louisiana, 545 U.S. 1187 (2005). The Court's landmark opinion in Miller-El, and the Clinic's role in that case, is discussed below. On remand, by a 4-3 majority, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed its opinion, denying relief to Mr. Snyder, who again petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. The Court granted review to decide whether Mr. Snyder’s right to Equal Protection was violated by the prosecutor's use of his peremptory challenges. See State v. Snyder, 942 So.2d 484 (La. 2006); Snyder v. Louisiana, 551 U.S. 1144 (2007).
The Clinic’s amicus brief on behalf of Mr. Snyder argued that the Louisiana Supreme Court majority failed, at the final step of the Batson inquiry, to take into consideration all relevant evidence in determining whether the State had struck black jurors based upon their race. It emphasized the “unusual, unethical, and unconstitutional nature” of the prosecutor's conduct in regard to the O.J. Simpson comparisons as “powerful evidence of the prosecutor's discriminatory intent to use his peremptory challenges to purge the capital jury of all African Americans.” The case was argued before the Supreme Court on December 4, 2007.
Briefs, opinions, oral argument and are available in PDF format:
On June 13, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court granted relief to Thomas Miller-El, who had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Texas in 1986 Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005). The Death Penalty Clinic and the firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood had filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the petition for writ of certiorari and after review was granted, urging that Miller-El’s conviction and death sentence be overturned. At issue was the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges to strike 91 percent of African Americans from the jury. Justice Souter, writing for a six-justice majority, concluded that the State's explanations for its strikes were “pretextual,” noting that it “blinks reality” for the State to deny that it had challenged specific jurors because they were black. Id. at 266.
The Clinic and Sidley Austin filed four briefs in this matter on behalf of former judges and prosecutors. Amici included former federal appellate court judges, a former deputy U.S. attorney general, a former F.B.I. director, former state attorneys general, former assistant U.S. attorneys, and the former district attorney of Boston. Amici joined in this effort because of their commitment to the principle that members of the bench and law enforcement officials bear responsibility to carry out constitutional mandates such as the Equal Protection Clause and ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system.
Three Death Penalty Clinic students, Racheal Turner, Jessica Simbalenko and Portia Glassman, worked on the briefs with Professor Elisabeth Semel, who was counsel of record in the Supreme Court for the amici.
At stake in this litigation was enforcement of the rule in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which prohibits racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges in jury selection. The Clinic’s first amicus brief was filed in support of a petition for writ of certiorari, which was pending when Miller-El was facing an execution date. In February 2002, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and, in May 2002, the Clinic filed an amicus brief urging reversal of the conviction and death sentence.
In 2003, the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 opinion in Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003), held that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had applied ‘too demanding a standard” when it declined to consider Miller-El’s Batson claim. Id. at 341. It concluded that Miller-El had clearly demonstrated his case should be heard by the lower federal court. The opinion corrected long-standing errors in the Fifth Circuit's habeas corpus practice. While the majority did not reach the merits of the Batson claim, it engaged in a detailed review of the extensive evidence concerning the prosecution’s discriminatory jury selection practices and also criticized the lower court’s “dismissive and strained interpretation” of the evidence. Id. at 344. Justice Kennedy’s opinion modeled for the lower courts how Batson claims should be addressed.
In March 2004, the Fifth Circuit held that prosecutors had not intentionally excluded African Americans from Mr. Miller-El’s capital jury. Miller-El v. Dretke, 361 F.3d 849 (5th Cir. 2004). The Clinic and Sidley Austin filed an amicus brief in support of the petition for writ of certiorari. Their brief argued that the circuit court panel refused to follow the Supreme Court’s directives regarding the application of Batson and adopted instead an illogically truncated framework for review that simply ignored key aspects of the evidence.
In September 2004, after the Supreme Court granted review, the Clinic and Sidley Austin filed another amicus brief arguing for reversal of Miller-El’s conviction and death sentence. The amici urged that, in addition to the egregious constitutional error in Mr. Miller-El’s case, relief was necessary because the Fifth Circuit’s treatment of the Batson claim gave other courts a road map for insulating discriminatory peremptory challenges from judicial scrutiny. They further argued that, left to stand, the lower court's decision would do grave damage to public confidence in our judicial system. The case was argued on December 6, 2004.
Briefs, opinions, oral argument and are available in PDF format:
- 2003 Opinion, Thomas Miller-El v. Cockrell, United States Supreme Court
- February 2002 Brief of Amici
- May 2002 Brief of Amici
- October 16, 2002 Oral Argument Transcript
- Opinion, Thomas Miller-El v. Dretke, 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
- Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Thomas Miller-El v. Dretke
- May 2004 Brief of Amici
- Petitioner's Brief on the Merits, Thomas Miller-El v. Dretke
- September 2004 Brief of Amici
- Petitioner's Reply Brief
- December 6, 2004 Oral Argument Transcript
- June 13, 2005 Opinion, Thomas Miller-El v. Dretke, United States Supreme Court