SCOTUS Rules for Inmates in Method-of-Execution Case

In Nance v. Ward the U.S. Supreme Court held 5-4 that a capital inmate may bring a method-of-execution case under 42 USC §1983 rather than federal habeas even  when the alternative method proposed isn’t allowed under state law. The holding of this case benefits inmates because the habeas statute contains procedural requirements §1983 lacks which may require dismissal of a claim.

Supreme Court precedent allows death row inmates to challenge a state’s proposed method of execution under the Eighth Amendment. The inmate must “identify a readily available alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain.” He or she may propose a method used in other states. If the alternative method proposed is already authorized under state law the Court has held the inmate may bring his or her claim under §1983.

Michael Nance was sentenced to death for shooting and killing a bystander while fleeing from a bank robbery. He claims that lethal injection will create a substantial risk of severe pain for him and has proposed that he be executed by firing squad. Georgia only allows capital inmates to be executed by lethal injection; four other states allow execution by firing squad.

The Supreme Court has previously held that an inmate must proceed to habeas and may not bring a §1983 case when the relief sought would “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” According to Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, Nance may bring his case under §1983 even though Georgia law doesn’t allow the firing squad because he isn’t seeking to invalidate his sentence.

In Nelson v. Campbell (2004) and Hill v. McDonough (2006) the Court held that method-of-execution claims could be brought under §1983 where inmates requested that the state use a different lethal injection protocol (not a different execution method). Except for the Georgia statute, the Court reasoned, “this case would even more clearly than Nelson and Hill be fit for §1983” since when those cases were decided the Court had not yet required those challenging the method of execution to identify alternative methods.

The Court reasoned: “The substance of the [method-of-execution] claim, now more than ever, thus points toward §1983. The prisoner is not challenging the death sentence itself; he is taking the validity of that sentence as a given. And he is providing the State with a veritable blueprint for carrying the death sentence out. If the inmate obtains his requested relief, it is because he has persuaded a court that the State could readily use his proposal to execute him. The court’s order therefore does not, as required for habeas, ‘necessarily prevent’ the State from carrying out its execution.”  
This is true even if Georgia must change its law to allow death by firing squad the Court opined. It did admit “amending a statute may require some more time and effort than changing an agency protocol, of the sort involved in Nelson and Hill.”

Justice Barrett dissented joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch. She opined that Nance is seeking to invalidate his death sentence by proposing a method of execution Georgia doesn’t currently allow. “The Court is looking too far down the road. In my view, the consequence of the relief that a prisoner seeks depends on state law as it currently exists. And under existing state law, there is no question that Nance’s challenge necessarily implies the invalidity of his lethal injection sentence: He seeks to prevent the State from executing him in the only way it lawfully can.”

SCOTUS to Decide Post-Conviction DNA Testing Statute of Limitations Case

In Reed v. Goertz the U.S. Supreme Court will decide when the statute of limitations begins to run on a claim seeking post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence. All fifty states and the District of Columbia allow postconviction DNA testing in some circumstances.

Rodney Reed was convicted of capital murder in 1998. Stacey Stites’ body and some personal items were found in one location; the truck she shared with her fiancé and other personal items were found at another location. The medical examiner concluded Stites had likely been sexually assaulted prior to being killed. A DNA profile of the sperm found matched with Reed. Reed claims he and Stites were having a consensual affair and that he is innocent.

In 2014 Reed asked the state court to test Stites’ personal items found at both locations pursuant to Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. In November 2014 the trial court denied the order. Reed’s unsuccessful appeals ended in October 2017.

In Skinner v. Switzer (2011) the Supreme Court held that state prisoners denied post-conviction DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may bring 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuits seeking “to show that the governing state law denies [them] procedural due process.” Section 1983 is a federal statute which allows government officials and entities to be sued for money damages for constitutional violations.

In August 2019 Reed brought a Section 1983 claim challenging the constitutionality of Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law. The Fifth Circuit held it was barred by the statute of limitations which began running as soon as the state trial court denied the DNA testing in November 2014.

Texas has a 2-year statute of limitations that applies to Section 1983 cases so filing the Section 1983 action in August 2019 was too late. 

Per Fifth Circuit precedent the statute of limitations begins to run on Section 1983 cases “the moment the plaintiff becomes aware . . . he has suffered an injury or has sufficient information to know that he has been injured.”

According to the Fifth Circuit: “Here, Reed first became aware that his right to access that evidence was allegedly being violated when the trial court denied his . . . .motion [for post-conviction DNA testing] in November 2014. Reed had the necessary information to know that his rights were allegedly being violated as soon as the trial court denied his motion for post-conviction relief.”

In his petition asking the Court to hear his case Reed argues that the statute of limitations to bring challenges to post-conviction DNA statutes shouldn’t begin running until the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals. According to Reed: “Before the state appellate court interprets the statute, a movant cannot know definitively what the statute means and whether it is adequate to protect his constitutional rights.”

Supreme Court to Decide Significant Spending Clause Case

In Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County, Indiana v. Talevski the U.S. Supreme may decide two questions. First, it may review its holding that Spending Clause legislation allows private parties to bring lawsuits for money damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983). Assuming the Court doesn’t overturn this holding it will decide whether such claims may be brought under the Federal Nursing Home Amendments Act (FNHRA) transfer and medication rules.

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SCOTUS Issues Unfavorable Ruling for States and Local Governments in Malicious Prosecution Case

In a 6-3 decision in Thompson v. Clark the U.S. Supreme Court held that to demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution in order to bring a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution case a plaintiff need only show that his or her prosecution ended without a conviction.

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