Supreme Court Rulings on Death Penalty Appeals Reveal Impatience

Supreme Court Rulings on Death Penalty Appeals Reveal Impatience The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C. (Daniel SLIM / AFP via Getty Images)

By Sandy Fitzgerald | Monday, 15 November 2021 08:26 AM

The Supreme Court, through several recent rulings, is showing its impatience with arguments being made by death row inmates by rejecting their petitions for relief from their sentences.

Just a week ago, the court had a mixed reaction over an argument about whether an inmate's pastor would be able to touch him and pray with him in the death chamber, reports The New York Times.

Further, two weeks ago, the court rejected an appeal from inmate Wesley Paul Coonce Jr., who was sentenced to death when he helped to murder a fellow prisoner in a mental health ward at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

He had been serving a life sentence on charges of kidnapping and carjacking at the time of the murder, and his attorneys argued he couldn't be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

The federal government executed 13 inmates during the final six months of former President Donald Trump's administration, after having not executed anyone in the past 17 years.

In the case of Texas death row inmate John H. Ramirez, who wanted to pray with his minister, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, wrote that "throughout this expedited spree of executions, this court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief."

However, the conservative justices ruling against Ramirez referred to the appeal as last-minute litigation gamemanship, reports The Times.

In the Coonce case, Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that the court's conservative majority had taken the court in an unusual direction.

"To my knowledge, the court has never before denied" relief "in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt," she said.

The prosecution in Coonce's case also supported his request, saying that a new look "would be appropriate in light of a significant intervening factual change that affects a central predicate of the court of appeals’ Eighth Amendment analysis," Elizabeth Prelogar, who has since been confirmed as the U.S. solicitor general, wrote.

Meanwhile, a few days before rejecting Coonce's appeal, the court lifted a stay of execution in two Oklahoma cases, despite dissents from Justices Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, all three of whom had also dissented in the other death penalty cases.

Oklahoma ended up executing one of the men, John Marion Grant, who was convicted of murdering a prison cafeteria worker.

Eric Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra, warned that the court's growing impatience with death row cases may lead to undermining the public acceptance it may need in cases including "such controversial areas as abortion and religious freedom in the spring of 2022 and beyond."