The United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Payton today. William Payton was before the Court asking for a new trial based on a botching of the jury instructions during the penalty phase. In a 5-3 holding, the Supreme Court vacated the holding of the Ninth Circuit (en banc) that Payton deserved a new trial.
In an opinion drafted by Justice Anthony Kennedy (who this time joined the Scalia/Thomas contingent along with Justice Breyer who arguably switched from his Simmons vote with a concurrence related to the state court's rights under AEDPA), the Court held that it was inconsequential that the prosecutor incorrectly argued that evidence of Payton's religious conversion was irrelevant to evidence of mitigating factors. Irrelevant? Such evidence is highly relevant both to evidence of mitigating factors and to future dangerousness. The justices held that the prosecutor's statements were not enough to warrant a new trial since the jury had heard evidence of the religious conversion and could consider it if they chose. Wait a minute? Doesn't the judge have a duty to ensure that the jurors know exactly what mitigation means? By allowing those statements to go to the jury without (at least) further extrapolation and retraction, the judge essentially allowed the prosecutor's comments to become part of the jury's instructions and part of the definition of mitigation. The jury was told by the State of California that Payton's religious conversion was of no consequence when it came to mitigation. Essentially they were told that it was not a consideration in whether Payton deserved to die for his crimes or whether his life should be spared. Without correction in the jury instructions, there was no reason for the jury to think it SHOULD consider the evidence. Just because evidence is presented does not mean it is relevant to the consideration before the jury. They jury's charge is defined by the jury instructions. Those are under the purview of the judge. By not, at the very least, correcting the mitigation instruction to assure the jury knew of its ability to consider this evidence, the judge essentially nullified the Eighth Amendment's protections against unfair sentencing and its allowance for consideration of mitigating factors (as defined by the United States Supreme Court and the courts of many states). Even more infuriating, the United States Supreme Court today approved that judge's omission and essentially told the bench that it would not be held accountable for its duty to explain mitigation.
The Court also used AEDPA to avoid having to truly rule in this case. That fact actually makes me even more angry, especially in light of Bush v. Gore, the Schiavo case, and the constant flutter about same sex marriage at the federal level (I'm sorry, but when did marriage become a federal concern?). AEDPA, for those of you who don't know, is a federal law that defines what kinds of habeas cases can be decided by the federal courts. It is federalism at its "best." Under its provisions, the federal courts are only supposed to overturn state decisions in cases where the actions of the state fly in the face of the U.S. Constitution and clear federal law protections as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. One of my main problems with it (besides the fact that President Clinton broke my heart by signing it), is that it does not allow for "new" constitutional questions on habeas review. If the United States Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue before, that does not necessarily mean that the defendant's constitutional rights were not violated just because the state courts upheld the conviction and the actions of the state (the state in which it sits without lifetime tenure). On more than one occasion while I was a clerk at the United States Court of Appeals, I saw a panel turn away a case that clearly had constitutional implications simply because there was no United States Supreme Court precedent upon which to base a decision. So, why have the habeas post conviction relief opportunity anyway? If the federal courts cannot review the constitutionality of a state court's decisions without restraint, what role does habeas review serve in protecting an individual's rights? I suppose there is still some, but AEDPA is just subjective enough that a court can use it as an excuse to not have to rule on a difficult question. That, in and of itself, is annoying. (For the record, I OF COURSE find value in habeas review...I'm just expressing my irritation through sarcasm).
William Payton is probably out of stops. Its possible California will see a second execution this year. Payton has been on California's death row for 25 years while this question was fought. The federal courts awarded him a new trial. They gave him hope. Today, that hope was taken away.
Justices:Death row inmate's religious conversion properly considered