High Court Reinstates Neo-Nazi Death Sentence
(CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated the death sentence of an Ohio neo-Nazi convicted of killing three people and trying to kill two others at Cleveland State University in 1982.
The justices rejected Frank G. Spisak Jr.'s claim that his case had been tainted by faulty jury instructions and his lawyer's ineffective closing argument.
At the penalty phase, Spisak's attorney had described the killings in detail, hoping to establish his client's insanity as a defense. He mentioned Spisak's admiration of Hitler, and portrayed Spisak as "sick," "twisted," "demented" and someone who was "never going to be any different." At his trial in 1983, Spisak sported a Hitler-style mustache, carried a copy of "Mein Kampf" and gave the Nazi salute to the jury.
Spisak said this approach overly emphasized the gruesome nature of his crimes, understated the facts of his mental illness and all but ignored mitigating factors.
Even if this closing argument was inadequate, the Supreme Court ruled, it was unlikely that "a better closing argument without these defects would have made a significant difference."
The high court also rejected Spisak's jury instruction challenge. He argued that the instructions unconstitutionally required the jury to consider only the mitigating factors that the jury unanimously found to be mitigating.
The justices found no such requirement.
"[T]he instructions did not say that the jury must determine the existence of each individual mitigating factor unanimously," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the unanimous court. "Neither the instructions nor the forms said anything about how - or even whether - the jury should make individual determinations that each particular mitigating circumstance existed. They focused only on the overall balancing question. And the instructions repeatedly told the jury to 'conside[r] all of the relevant evidence.'"
The Supreme Court reversed the 6th Circuit's decision to vacate Spisak's death sentence.
Supreme Court Delays Broadcast of Prop. 8 Trial
(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday blocked a federal court in San Francisco from broadcasting the first few days of a closely watched trial over Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
Justice Anthony Kennedy issued his ruling in response to an emergency petition filed by Prop. 8 supporters, who worried that witnesses wouldn't testify for fear of public scrutiny.
"All proponents' witnesses have expressed concern over the potential public broadcast of trial proceedings, and some have stated that they will refuse to testify," attorney Andrew Pugno wrote in his 48-page petition.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, presiding, had decided to allow the trial to be broadcast on YouTube.
Justice Kennedy limited the broadcast to "other rooms within the confines of the courthouse" and blocked outside broadcasts "pending further order of this Court." He said the order will be in place until Wednesday.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said Prop. 8 supporters hadn't met the court's standard for a temporary stay. Specifically, he said they failed to show "irreparable harm."
Prop. 8, passed in November 2009, defines marriage in California as being between a man and a woman.
Two gay couples sued, challenging the measure as unconstitutional.
Opening arguments began this morning.
High Court Turns Down Dress Code Challenge
(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a student's challenge of a Texas school district's dress code banning shirts with words on them.
Administrators in the Waxahachie Independent School District told then-sophomore Paul Palmer that his "San Diego" shirt violated the district's dress code.
Palmer called his parents, who brought him a "John Edwards for President '08" T-shirt to wear instead. That shirt wasn't allowed, either.
Palmer sued in April 1008 and again after the school district adopted a new, more restrictive dress code for the upcoming year.
He argued that the Supreme Court had established a "bright-line rule that schools cannot restrict speech that is not disruptive, lewd, school-sponsored or drug-related."
The district court sided with the school, and the 5th Circuit affirmed.
The New Orleans-based appeals court called Palmer's argument "flawed, because it fails to include another type of student speech restriction that schools can institute: content-neutral regulations."
Without comment, the Supreme Court denied Palmer's petition for a writ of certiorari.
Rape Conviction Should Stand, High Court Rules
(CN) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the lower courts "clearly" erred in overturning a man's rape conviction, despite "DNA evidence and other convincing evidence of guilt."
A Nevada jury convicted Troy Don Brown of brutally raping a 9-year-old neighbor in 1994. The trial court and the Nevada Supreme Court rejected his appeals, in which he argued that the evidence did not prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
He then filed a federal habeas petition, claiming the lower courts' decision to uphold his conviction went against the Supreme Court's ruling in Jackson v. Virginia (1979), which required jurors to find proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
He introduced a DNA expert's opinion that the expert testimony at trial was inaccurate and unreliable, partly because it underestimated the likelihood that one of Brown's brothers would also match the DNA left at the crime scene.
The district court granted his petition and the 9th Circuit affirmed, saying the state high court had unreasonably applied Jackson.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case to decide two questions: the proper standard of review for a Jackson claim, and whether such a claim may rely on evidence outside the trial record.
Brown has since conceded that courts can't exclude the allegedly flawed trial evidence in deciding whether to overturn his conviction. A reviewing court must consider all of the evidence at trial when considering a Jackson claim, he acknowledged.
"[Brown's] concession thus disposes of his Jackson claim," the high court wrote.
The justices reversed the 9th Circuit's ruling for Brown, even though new evidence revealed that some of the trial evidence had likely been misleading, according to the report Brown presented.
"Regardless, ample DNA and non-DNA evidence in the record adduced at trial supported the jury's guilty verdict under Jackson, and we reject [Brown's] last-minute attempt to recast his claim," the justices ruled in the per curiam opinion.
The high court directed the 9th Circuit to also consider Brown's ineffective-assistance claims.