Supreme Court Criminal Law News - U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Recently in Criminal Law Category

Lawrence Shaw was convicted of federal bank fraud after he stole $300,000 from the checking account of Stanley Hsu. Shaw doesn't deny that he took the cash, but he does object to the bank fraud conviction. He can't, Shaw argues, have defrauded a bank, since he had no specific intent to cheat the bank itself. He just wanted Hsu's cash.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument on Monday, ruling unanimously that Shaw's contention that he wasn't cheating the bank, only the bank's customer, didn't save him from the reach of the bank fraud law.

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear four cases from death row inmates facing execution, resulting in a rare dissent from a denial of certiorari by Justice Breyer. In one case, an inmate had spent 40 years on Florida's death row, awaiting an execution that has yet to come. The Berlin Wall was still standing when the man was sentenced to death, Justice Breyer noted. Saigon had just fallen. Over half of all Americans alive today had yet to be born.

In another denied case, an inmate in Ohio had already evaded execution once -- because the executioner could not find a vein through which to lethally inject him. To try again now, after one botched attempt, would be unconstitutional, he argued.

The eight-justice Supreme Court has deadlocked several times since Justice Scalia's passing last February. Four-four ties have left important cases undecided (last term's Friedrichs and U.S. v. Texas opinions), seen urgent issues returned to lower courts (the remand of Zubik), and prompted litigants to settle, rather than pursue their cases.

Now, the Court's deadlock has its first actual, human victim. Yesterday, the Court split four-four over a last-minute request for a stay of execution by Ronald Smith, a convicted murderer in Alabama whose jury rejected the death penalty -- only to be overridden by the judge. The Court's deadlock allowed Smith's execution to go ahead, and he was put to death last night.

In its first merits opinion of the term, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prevent the retrial of a Puerto Rican lawmaker and a businessman who were convicted of bribery. Those convictions were later overturned because of faulty jury instructions. And they were paired with inconsistent acquittals, on two uncontested counts.

At issue before the Court was whether those inconsistent verdicts, following the vacatur of the bribery convictions, prevented the government from trying the men once again. It did not, the Supreme Court ruled, since inconsistent verdicts were not to be afforded preclusive effect.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the case of Moore v. Texas, a challenge to the standards Texas uses to determine whether inmates are too mentally disabled to be executed. In this case, Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder of a grocery store clerk. A court later ruled that Moore was too mentally disabled to be executed, based on modern medical standards. Texas's highest criminal court, however, reversed that determination.

Questions of intellectual disability and eligibility for capital punishment, Texas ruled, must be determined on the state's judicial precedent, which references an outdated medical definition of disability from 1992 and Lennie Small. Yes, that Lennie, the kindhearted but dim-witted character from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

About a year and a half ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. United States that the so-called residual clause in the Armed Career Criminals Act was unconstitutionally vague. That clause, which covered any crime involving "a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," was too vague to put the public on notice of what conduct was prohibited, the Court found. And that ruling has had legs, upending many sentences under the federal three strikes law.

Now, the Supreme Court is considering whether an identical phrase in the federal sentencing guidelines is similarly invalid.

Sergio Hernandez died in Mexico, but the bullet that killed him was fired from the United States. The 15-year-old boy was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent in 2010. The agent, Jesus Mesa, initially said Hernandez was throwing rocks in order to distract agents from a smuggling operation; his parents say he was simply playing with friends along the unmarked border that separates El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico.

The Hernandez family sued, alleging that Mesa violated the Constitution when he killed their son, but an en banc Fifth Circuit tossed the suit. Now, the Supreme Court will take up Hernandez's case, ruling later this term on how far constitutional protections against excessive force can reach.

Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was guilty because 'he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want,' a juror in Pena-Rodriguez's misdemeanor sexual harassment trial declared during deliberations. Then that jury convicted Pena-Rodriguez, a conviction that requires him to register as a sex offender.

Yet when two jurors came forward to reveal the openly racist comments, there was little Pena-Rodriguez could do. Colorado, where he was convicted, prohibits the use of juror testimony during an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment. This "no impeachment" rule, which can be found in virtually every jurisdiction, shouldn't be allowed to trump Pena-Rodriguez's right to a fair trial, he argued in the Supreme Court today. From the looks of it, he may have a few justices on his side.

When Duane Edward Buck was tried for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and a man he suspected of being her lover, the jury did not struggle to convict him. But they were more hesitant over whether he should be sentenced to death, focusing, according to NPR's Nina Totenberg, on whether Buck would pose a danger in the future. Buck's own defense may have tipped the scales, sending him to death row, when it introduced testimony that Buck posed a greater risk in the future simply because he was black.

Today, the Supreme Court took up Buck's case, hearing oral arguments over whether that prejudiced testimony was enough to entitle Buck to appeal his conviction. And, if today's arguments are any indication, things are starting to look promising for Buck.

The Supreme Court ushered in the new term with its first two oral arguments today, hearing a pair of criminal law cases dealing with double jeopardy and bank fraud. And those arguments featured an unexpected pop culture reference, as Kim Kardashian briefly became the subject of a justice's hypothetical.

Though the short-staffed Court has declined to hear many high-profile, controversial cases this year, possibly to avoid 4-4 splits, the first oral arguments of the term are a reminder that even the less controversial cases can be plenty interesting -- as long as you throw in a Kardashian or two.