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Sotomayor sounds off on 6 civil rights cases sent to high court dustbin

The Obama appointee is the author of half a dozen opinions related to denied cases that close out the Supreme Court’s term.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the court’s rejection Thursday of a case where a man says his lawyer’s failure to show mitigating evidence sent him to death row.

Anibal Canales Jr. was sentenced to death for killing a fellow inmate while incarcerated for sexual assault. He argued his counsel was deficient and failed to provide significant mitigating evidence at sentencing, but the court declined to hear his case.

Selectivity from the court with regard to the cases it accepts is expected — indeed the court turn down dozens of cases in its final order list of the term Friday — but Sotomayor argued in her dissent that Canales was sentenced to death by a jury “without hearing any meaningful evidence about why life in prison might be punishment enough.”

Canales says this is because his defense attorney failed at trial to tell the jury both of his history of abuse as a child and that a prison gang known as the Texas Syndicate would have killed Canales if he had not participated in a murder alongside members of a rival gang.

But the Fifth Circuit held that his defense attorney’s performance did not prejudice Canales. With the court's refusal to hear his appeal, the decision stands.

“This Court has repeatedly recognized that failing to put exactly that type of evidence before the jury casts irreparable doubt on the integrity of its recommendation of death,” Sotomayor wrote.

Several other justices wrote dissenting opinions or statements Friday about more than half a dozen of the various cases rejected by the Supreme Court on Friday in a final mop-up before the court adjourns for the summer.

The high court also refused this morning to hear the case Danny Hill, who is on death row despite having been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities approximately 10 separate times in his life. Hill was convicted of murder and sentenced to death before the court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability.

In a bid for reconsideration after Atkins, Hill noted that his IQ regularly tested at 70 or below when he was in school and he was never able to sign live independently or ready and write above a third-grade level. This information was also not new. At his trial, three medical professionals testified that he had an intellectual disability.

The Sixth Circuit denied relief, however, and the Supreme Court refused to take up his case. Here, too, Sotomayor dissented Friday.

“There is overwhelming record support for the fact that Hill has intellectual disabilities, as the state courts recognized at his trial and on direct appeal. It was only by discounting extensive past evidence of intellectual disability and focusing myopically on Hill’s structured interactions with law enforcement, prison officials, and the courts that the state post conviction courts came to a different conclusion,” she wrote.

In yet another death penalty case turn down Friday, Paul David Storey says he was prejudiced at trial by a prosecutor’s convincing but ultimately untrue statement that the family of Storey’s victim “and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty is appropriate.”

The victim’s parent’s had actually lobbied prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, a fact that was never disclosed to Storey or his attorneys. When it finally came to light eight years later, Storey’s scheduled execution was mere months away.

By this time, however, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Storey’s appeal would be barred as a second or successive habeas petition.

Sotomayor agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case, but issued a statement warning of the danger the Fifth Circuit’s ruling could create for incarcerated people.

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“Prosecutors not only failed to disclose [the victim’s] parents’ unwavering desire that Storey not be sentenced to death, but also misled the jury in summation to successfully secure a death sentence. The State then ran out the clock by failing to disclose its malfeasance throughout Storey’s initial postconvicition proceedings,” Sotomayor wrote.

The court also declined to hear a case against jail officials who placed a man with two previous suicide attempts in a cell with a 30-inch long phone cord.

Derrek Monroe was in custody ahead of a trial on drug charges when he attempted to strangle himself twice. He was then placed in an isolated cell with a phone cord that was longer than Texas prison policy allowed. Monroe strangled himself with the cord in front of a jail official who did not call 911. He died the next day.

Monroe's mother argued the specifics of Monroe's detention and the failure of the jail officials to provide medical care to Monroe violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

But the Fifth Circuit ruled that qualified immunity protected the jail officials from legal scrutiny.

Sotomayor criticized the Fifth Circuit's decision and the high court's refusal to hear the case.

"No reasonable officer would have stood and watched as a detainee strangled himself to death when a simple, safe, and patently obvious response was available and in fact required by jail policy," she wrote.

The justice also criticized the court for declining to hear another case in which the Fifth Circuit had provided qualified immunity, this time, to police officers.

The case at issue was that of Selina Marie Ramirez who called 911 when her husband threatened to kill himself and burn down their house.

Ramirez said that when police arrived, officers Tased her husband, Gabriel Eduardo Olivas, knowing that he had been doused in gasoline. Olivas caught on fire and died. The family’s house then burned down.

She sued the officers, arguing the police had used excessive force and violated the Fourth Amendment, but the Fifth Circuit ruled the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

“The officers elected to use force knowing that it would directly cause the very outcome they claim to have sought to avoid. That is, to prevent Olivas from lighting himself on fire and burning down the house, the officers tased Olivas just after they were warned that it would light him on fire," Sotomayor wrote, in a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

In a final dissent Friday, Sotomayor challenged the court's rejection of an appeal from Zenon Grzegorczyk, who attempted to commission the murder of six people he blamed for his divorce. Ultimately the hit men whom Grzegorczyk hired to burn his victims alive were undercover law enforcement.

In a plea deal, Grzegorczyk waived the right to challenge his convictions.

He appealed several years later after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal definition of a “crime of violence,” which Grezegorczyk had been convicted of, was unconstitutionally vague. But because he had waived his right to an appeal during his plea agreement, the Seventh Circuit ruled against him.

Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Breyer, said the court should hear Grzegorczyk‘s case.

“Nothing in precedent or history supports such a cramped conception of the Court’s [grant, vacate, remand order] practice, which forces individuals like Grzegorczyk to bear the brutal cost of others’ errors and denies them the benefit of a readily available, and potentially life-altering, procedural mechanism to correct those errors,” she wrote in dissent.

Defending the court's denial, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, said reducing Grzegorczyk's sentence was the job of the executive, not the judiciary.

“The Constitution affords the Executive Branch authority to unilaterally provide relief to the defendant, if the Executive wishes to do so,” Kavanaugh wrote. 

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