Justices clash in death-penalty cases; Thomas concurrence highlights brutal murders

U.S. Supreme Court


Justice Clarence Thomas clashed with Justice Stephen G. Breyer on Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert in seven death-penalty cases.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the cert denial, but Thomas didn’t take her to task for urging the Supreme Court to hear the cases. Instead, Thomas referred repeatedly to Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Thomas stressed the brutal nature of the crimes and said he was writing separately to “alleviate” Breyer’s concerns that jurors might have made a contrary recommendation regarding capital punishment had they known of legal issues. The opinions are available here, beginning at page 8.

The seven defendants had been sentenced under Florida’s former sentencing scheme in which jurors issued advisory opinions on capital punishment and judges made the final decision. The U.S. Supreme had struck down the scheme in January 2016 in Hurst v. Florida because it allowed judges rather than jurors to find the facts necessary to impose the death sentence. In its rulings in the seven cases, the Florida Supreme Court found that any sentencing error was harmless, according to Sotomayor’s dissent.

Sotomayor acknowledged the inmates were “convicted of gruesome crimes,” and that the victims, the families and their communities suffered. But she said she was mindful that it is “this court’s duty to ensure that all defendants, even those who have committed the most heinous crimes, receive a sentence that is the result of a fair process.”

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Although the justices referred to more than one cert denial, their writings were captioned Reynolds v. Florida, for the case of inmate Michael Gordon Reynolds, convicted of murdering “nearly an entire family,” according to Thomas.

Breyer’s statement regarding the cert denial referred to his previous call to re-examine the constitutionality of capital punishment.

Breyer said the Reynolds case, along with 83 other cases the Supreme Court has refused to hear in recent weeks, dealt with the Florida Supreme Court’s application of the Supreme Court’s Hurst decision. He said the cases highlight three issues: the long delays between conviction and execution, how far back Hurst has retroactive effect, and whether the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless error analysis violates the Eighth Amendment.

Breyer said the Eighth Amendment question wasn’t fully developed, so he agreed with the decision not to grant cert.

Thomas started his concurrence in the cert denial with a description of the July 1998 murders of a father, his girlfriend and their 11-year-old daughter. Reynolds snuck up behind the father outside his camping trailer and beat his skull with concrete, Thomas said. Reynolds then entered the trailer, where he beat and stabbed the two others.

In a footnote, Thomas included details of other murders in cases before the court, including the murder a 75-year-old woman who had repeatedly helped the man convicted of killing her.

Thomas noted Breyer’s worries that jurors might have reached a different decision in Reynolds’ case had they known of legal issues. “In light of petitioner’s actions, I have no such worry,” Thomas wrote, “and I write separately to alleviate Justice Breyer’s concerns.”

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Thomas said Reynolds was not bothered by issues raised by Breyer.

Reynolds was evidently untroubled by death-penalty delays because he “has litigated all the way through the state courts and petitioned this court for review three separate times,” Thomas said.

Nor did Reynolds appear to be troubled about the advisory verdict scheme, Thomas said. Reynolds tried to waive the jury’s penalty recommendation, but the trial judge did not allow the waiver.

Thomas concluded his opinion by pointing out his difference with Breyer on whether the death penalty in general is cruel and unusual. “The only thing ‘cruel and unusual’ in this case was petitioner’s brutal murder of three innocent victims,” Thomas wrote.

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