Supreme Court to Reconsider Death Penalty in Two Texas Cases

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

The Supreme Court said Monday it will reconsider two Texas death penalty cases, in a sign that liberal justices may try to rein in the use of capital punishment.

In one case, a man convicted of a 1980 shooting during a store robbery in Houston says he suffers from a mild mental disability. The justices agreed to hear his claim that prosecutors and judges in Texas have ignored earlier rulings that barred executing inmates with a mental impairment.

The other case involves an African-American defendant who was sentenced to death after the jury was told he may be especially dangerous in the future because of his race. The justices agreed to hear his claim that such racial bias is cause to set aside his death sentence.

The two cases will be heard in the next term. Neither asks the high court to strike down the death penalty, but they have the potential to set stricter limits on executions and the use of capital punishment.

Last year, liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they now believe the death penalty system is so badly flawed as to be unconstitutional. There has been no sign a majority agrees with them.

But if a liberal justice were to join the court in the next term, there might well be a five-member majority to enforce stronger limits on the use of capital punishment. The February death of Justice Antonin Scalia has left the court with a vacancy, and the GOP-controlled Senate is refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, saying the decision should be left to the next president.

Lawyers for Bobby J. Moore, the inmate who suffers from a mental impairment, also complained to the court that he has spent 15 years in solitary confinement, which they contend represents cruel and unusual punishment.

The court initially issued an order Monday morning saying it would decide both questions, about mental impairment and solitary confinement. But after several hours, the court said it would rule only on the issue of his mental impairment.

Last year, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four more liberal justices to forbid executions of defendants with a mental impairment.

In the second case, lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund urged the justices to set aside the death sentence for Duane Buck because of trial testimony suggesting that black people are more dangerous.

“Trial counsel’s knowing reliance on false, inflammatory and deeply prejudicial evidence explicitly linking Mr. Buck’s race to his likelihood of future dangerousness is plainly extraordinary,” they said in the case of Buck v. Stephens. “We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will correct this egregious error, and that Texas will acknowledge Mr. Buck’s right to a new sentencing hearing free of racial bias.”