The Supreme Court this morning exemplified exactly what’s wrong with the death penalty in this country. In a clear effort to avoid a decision that would impose a death sentence, the Court made a nonsense ruling so it could extend the course of appeals — appeals that have already run for three decades. The Court further delayed an outcome, continuing the stress and injustice of uncertainty to the defendant, the victims, and the criminal justice system.
One Saturday afternoon in 1980, Gary Cone robbed a Memphis jewelry store of about $112,000 worth of trinkets. He led a police officer on a high-speed chase through town and into a residential neighborhood. Abandoning his car, he ran off on foot. He shot a police officer who pursued him, and a citizen who tried to stop him. Re-thinking his abandonment of the getaway car, he tried his hand at carjacking, tried to shoot the driver, but was out of ammo.
Cone ran and hid all that day and into the next morning. He then tried to force his way into an old lady’s apartment at gunpoint, but she refused to let him in. The highly-intelligent Vietnam War veteran was foiled again. But later that Sunday afternoon, he broke into the home of an elderly couple, Shipley and Cleopatra Todd, aged 93 and 79, and brutally beat them to death.
After hiding the bodies, ransacking their home, and shaving off his beard, he made his way to Florida. There, he robbed a drugstore, got arrested, and admitted to killing the Todds and shooting the police officer.
In 1982, he was convicted of the murders, after unsuccessfully arguing that he had been on drugs and suffered from post-traumatic stress, and thus lacked the necessary mens rea. He didn’t really present a lot of evidence to back that up. The jury found him guilty, found the requisite aggravating factors, and sentenced him to death.
In yet another bleak example of modern American capital punishment, Cone spent the next 27 years filing appeal after appeal, up to the Supreme Court and back again.
This morning, the Supreme Court ruled on his federal habeas claim. Cone was arguing that the government violated his Brady rights, by withholding evidence material to his mental state.
On direct review in state court, the Tennessee Supreme Court had affirmed the conviction and the death sentence. Cone then filed a petition claiming various violations, including Brady violations. While the petition was pending, he got to see the prosecutor’s case file, and amended his petition to add more detailed Brady claims. He claimed that his thin evidence at trial would have been bolstered by this stuff, had he seen it at the time.
The reviewing court denied the petition, on the grounds that the Brady claims had already been considered and denied. Cone then sought a writ of habeas corpus, seeking relief for the alleged Brady violation. The Sixth Circuit said no to the Brady claim, because the state decision was based on grounds that weren’t applicable in federal court.
Appeals then went back and forth on other matters. In 2001, the Circuit granted relief for ineffective assistance of counsel, but the Supreme Court reversed that in 2002. In 2004, the Circuit granted relief for the use of an unconstitutional aggravating factor, but the Supreme Court reversed that one also.
Back in the Sixth Circuit in 2007 on remand, Cone once again raised the Brady claim. The Circuit again said no, that the claim was procedurally barred, because Tennessee had relied on independent state grounds in its determination of the Brady claim. And in any event, the prosecutor’s files weren’t Brady material in the first place, because nothing in them would have “overcome the overwhelming evidence of Cone’s guilt” and “the persuasive testimony that Cone was not under the influence of drugs.”
On cert to the Supreme Court this time around, Cone argued that the prosecutor’s file contained witness statements and police reports that would have corroborated his insanity defense during the guilt phase, and would have mitigated the aggravating factors during the sentencing phase. He argued that the Tennessee court’s decision did not rest on grounds that precluded federal review, contrary to the Circuit’s finding.
In its decision this morning, written for the majority by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court ruled in Cone v. Bell that Cone was right — the Tennessee court’s decision did not rest on grounds that precluded federal review. Nevertheless, Cone was still wrong, because the prosecution’s files were not Brady material — the withheld documents simply were not material to any defense based on his mental state.
If Stevens had stopped there, this would have been a unanimous decision.
Instead, however, Stevens screwed up. “While we agree that the withheld documents were not material to the question whether Cone committed murder with the requisite mental state,” he wrote, “the lower courts failed to adequately consider whether that same evidence was material to Cone’s sentence.”
Say what? It clearly wasn’t material to the issue of guilt, but the appellate courts were too hasty in saying it was not material for sentencing? Stevens is basically saying, the files weren’t Brady, because they weren’t material to the issue of his mental state. But on the other hand, they might have been material to the issue of his mental state, so we’re remanding for a do-over.
So, in all these years of considering this very issue on appeal, the Circuit got it right when it decided that the files simply weren’t material. But in all these years of considering this very issue, the Circuit acted too hastily in deciding that the files weren’t material.
That simply doesn’t make sense, and in his dissent (joined by Scalia), Thomas makes that exact point. Alito felt the same way, and dissented to that extent, but concurred with the rest of the decision.
Chief Justice Roberts felt the same way, but wasn’t moved strongly enough to dissent, so he merely wrote a concurring opinion voicing his concerns. Instead, “this is what we are left with,” he wrote: “a fact-specific determination, under the established legal standard, viewing the unique facts in favor of the defendant, that the Brady claim fails with respect to guilt, but might have merit as to sentencing. In light of all this, I see no reason to quarrel with the Court’s ruling on the Brady claim.
That’s just weak. He and the rest of the majority clearly punted the issue. There is no distinguishing difference between the guilt phase or the sentencing phase, when determining whether something was Brady or not. Either it’s material or it isn’t. The issue in both was whether Cone’s mental state was impaired, and the courts seem to agree that the files were immaterial to that issue.
It’s clear what’s really going on, of course: the majority didn’t want to suck it up and just deny the claim. To do so would be to impose a death sentence, and the Stevens majority doesn’t want to do that unless there’s no way out for them. But they found a way out here. Not a particularly meaningful one, but it was all they needed. So they weaseled out of it, and kicked it back to the Sixth Circuit to do their dirty work for them.
We predict that the Circuit will simply make the same finding again on remand, and spill some more ink to spell out that its finding applies to both the sentencing phase as well as the guilt phase. Then today’s majority will be able to feel a little better about themselves when they affirm, and sentence Cone to death.
But delaying this foregone conclusion is unjust. It’s exactly what’s wrong with capital punishment in this country. There is no deterrent effect, because there is no predictability as to whether capital punishment will be carried out, and any such punishment is too far off in the dim and distant future to be meaningful. There is clearly no rehabilitation or attempt to rehabilitate, as the alternative is just life in prison. There is no just retribution, as society does not gain anything from punishment that neither certain nor contemporaneous.
Until the courts can work out a fair way of resolving death-penalty appeals justly and swiftly, the death penalty will continue to be an inhumane sentence in this country. Inhumane not only to defendants, but to the families of their victims, and to the community at large.