Posted May 27, 2014, by Edmund R. Folsom.


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two criminal cases, summarized below.

Death Penalty/Eighth Amendment.

In Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. __ (May 27, 2014), the Court dealt with the constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty law.  The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The Supreme Court has interpreted this prohibition to bar the execution of those with an intellectual disability.  Florida law establishes a bright line rule that a person with an I.Q. higher than 70 does not have an intellectual disability that bars his or her execution.  In Hall, the U.S. Supreme Court held Florida’s bright-line rule unconstitutional, in no small part because the imprecision in I.Q. testing requires results to be understood to represent a range versus a hard-and-fast number.  Because Florida’s death penalty scheme does not allow consideration of factors scientifically understood to be relevant to the question of intellectual disability for those with a measured I.Q above 70, it does not pass constitutional scrutiny.

Double Jeopardy/Fifth Amendment.

In Martinez v. Illinois, 572 U.S. __ (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Illinois Court of Appeals and Illinois Supreme Court rulings threatened to violate the defendant’s right against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment, which provides that “[n]o person shall be…subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Martinez was indicted in August of 2006 for aggravated battery and mob action.  His case was first set for trial in July of 2009, and was subsequently continued to September of 2009, then November of 2009, then March of 2010, then May of 2010; each time because the State was unable to secure the attendance of two apparently essential witnesses despite having repeatedly subpoenaed those witnesses.  In May of 2010, a jury was selected for trial, but the elusive witnesses once again failed to show up at the courthouse.  The State requested another continuance.  The trial judge invited the D.A. to move for dismissal, and when the D.A. declined the court delayed swearing-in the jury until after the court had dealt with other pending business.  When the judge finally swore the jury, the D.A. informed the court that the State would not participate in the trial.  When the court instructed the D.A. to call the first witness, the D.A. declined, again stating that the State would not participate.  Absent the presentation of any evidence, defense counsel asked the court to grant a judgment of acquittal and the court complied.  The State appealed claiming: (1) the trial judge should have granted yet another continuance, and (2) re-prosecution was not barred because Martinez had never actually been placed in jeopardy, given the State’s refusal from the outset to present any evidence or otherwise participate in the trial.  The Illinois Supreme  Court ruled that jeopardy did not attach because, in the particular circumstances, Martinez  did not face any actual risk of conviction.  The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that retrial would violate the double jeopardy clause.  First, the rule for determining when jeopardy attaches is entirely clear.  The Court stated: “There are few if any rules of criminal procedure clearer than the rule that ‘jeopardy attaches when the jury is empaneled and sworn.'”  When the jury was sworn, jeopardy attached.  Next, the Court analyzed whether the jeopardy Martinez faced ended in a way that barred a retrial.  The trial court acquitted Martinez because of a total absence of evidence.  The Supreme Court pointed out that there is no rule of double jeopardy jurisprudence more fundamental than the rule that a person who is acquitted may not be retried without violating the double jeopardy clause.  The Martinez decision is per curiam, which demonstrates the Supreme Court’s united front on this one.  In other words, this was the Supreme Court’s way of telling the Illinois courts “You clearly wish the law of double jeopardy allowed a different outcome, but be serious.”