Monday, June 21, 2010

Court Decision: Hill v Schofield (GA, 2010): "Beyond reasonable doubt" in doubt in GA ID/MR Atkins ruling

As noted in a brief post yesterday, with a link to the Sentencing and Law Policy blog, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision (Hill v Schofield; GA, 2010) that potentially could have wide-ranging consequences for many Atkins cases. The court declared Georgia's intellectual disability/death penalty statute was unconstitutional insofar as it placed the burden of proof on the defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt" (the highest standard required in court).  The court stated,

By imposing the overwhelming majority of the risk of error on the defendant in its application of the most stringent standard possible, Georgia holds that it is far better to erroneously execute a mentally retarded person than to erroneously impose a life sentence on one not mentally retarded. Requiring a defendant to prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt is appropriate only if the interests of a state in maximizing the number of death sentences outweigh the constitutional right of mentally retarded offenders not to be executed. This state interest, however, is not constitutionally permissible at the cost of violating the constitutional right of a  mentally retarded offender not to be executed.

Hill v. Schofield, __ F. 3d __ , Case No. 08-15444 (11th Cir., June 18, 2010), slip op. at pgs. 14-15.

However, the decision was not without strong dissent.  I am no lawyer, but a few folks I know withknowledge of these matters suggest that it is likely that the state will ask for a a rehearing in front of the entire array of the 11th circuit's judges, a procedure known as motion for rehearing en banc. A motion for rehearing is (according to my sources) a prerequisite for seeking review by the SCOTUS.

Although the case is limited to the 11th Circuit (Fla, Ala, Ga) it could potentially have impact elsewhere. The concept of limited powers to define and apply Atkins could possibly be extended beyond just the burden of proof (e.g., one could argue bright line cutoff scores, SEM, and courts claiming to know the types of behaviors the define the AB prong of the Dx--Briseno AB standards in Texas). 

Clearly this case warrants close monitoring.

I have added the case to the ICDP Court Decisions blogroll with a link to the decision.

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1 comment:

  1. It's kind of a stretch from invalidating a Burden of Proof issue, beyond a reasonable doubt, into an attack on state standards. There's a long history of litigation and case law on the placement of the burden of proof. Not so much with Atkins' cases.

    At the risk of oversimplification, assignment of the burden of proof in any litigation in criminal cases goes back to at least In Re Winship, which the 11th Circuit panel repeatedly cited, and Winship was decided in 1970. It's a bedrock principle.

    Applying standards to Atkins cases is, almost by definition, relatively novel. the Supreme Court in Atkins relied heavily on a trend against executing persons with ID that started right after the Penry decision in 1987. The better principle in this context is that States, while they have a right to rely on their state statutes and state constitutions to accord a citizen more rights than that given by the US Constitution, they cannot accord fewer rights or make existing rights more restrictive.

    Again, in this context,the 11th Circuit ruled that SCOTUS did not define mental retardation in Atkins and that's arguably wrong. SCOTUS did define it under the definitions of the APA and AAMR, now AAIDD. what SCOTUS said was that it was leaving it to the states to define the procedures by which these claims were to be litigated which is a far different question. A lot of courts have chosen to misconstrue Atkins in this fashion. Doing so allowed Texas, in Briseno, for example, to decide for itself that TExas would be allowed to execute persons with ID that were higher functioning and exempt from the death penalty only those, in their words, that looked like Lennie, from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Briseno in that context is simply an effort to carve out higher functioning persons with ID from the protections of Atkins. So far, it's withstood challenge