Election 2020 Politics

Supreme Court rules for death row inmate asking to die by firing squad

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The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled for a Georgia death row inmate who wants to be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection, and said that a Los Angeles County officer could not be sued for failing to advise a suspect he interviewed of his Miranda rights.

The decisions came the same day as the court’s landmark ruling that a New York law was too restrictive of the Constitution’s right to bear arms.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote for an ideologically mixed majority in the Georgia case. The case involved legal procedure, but she acknowledged that it might mean the state needs to change its law to authorize firing squads if it wants to execute Michael Nance, who killed a man after robbing a bank in 1993.

Nance’s circuitous path through the courts has already seen him resentenced once, after Georgia dropped electrocution as a method of execution and adopted lethal injection. But in 2020, he filed suit saying that method in his circumstance would violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

He said that because of his compromised veins, he would be subjected to excruciating pain before his death if lethal injection was used. He also alleged that his years-long use of a drug for back pain would diminish the effect of a sedative.

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The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that inmates may propose another method of execution if they could show such outcomes, even if the method is not currently authorized by the state carrying out their sentences.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said Nance’s complaint, filed under a civil rights law, had to be treated as a habeas petition challenging his sentence, and rejected it as untimely. But Kagan said the civil rights suit, filed against state officials for the deprivation of constitutional rights, was proper and could go forward.

Nance “is not challenging the death sentence itself; he is taking the validity of that sentence as a given,” Kagan wrote. “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.”

Several states authorize firing squads, Kagan wrote, and Georgia could do so as well if lower courts agree with Nance.

She was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett dissented, saying the state was owed greater deference than that.

“The Court is looking too far down the road,” Barrett wrote. “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.”

She was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Kagan disputed Barrett’s contention that the court must take state law as it finds it. “Why must it be so taken — when as a matter of fact Georgia could change its law and execute Nance?” Kagan asked. “And when Nance accepts the validity of the State’s taking that course?”

Nance robbed a back in Gwinnett County, Ga. When dye packs in the money exploded, he abandoned his car and saw Gabor Balogh backing his car out of a parking space. Nance opened the car door, and shot and killed Balogh.

The case is Nance v. Ward.

Miranda rights case

The court also ruled Thursday that law enforcement officers cannot be sued for failing to inform criminal suspects about their right against self-incrimination.

The 6-to-3 ruling does not alter the landmark Miranda v. Arizona but refers to civil lawsuits against officials who fail to apply it.

Alito, writing for the conservative majority, said “a violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution.” Allowing such lawsuits, he wrote, would have “little additional deterrent value” while causing “many problems” for the court system.

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In dissent, Kagan said the majority was denying individual rights by closing off the possibility of legal challenges if, for instance, a coerced statement is submitted at trial and a defendant is wrongly convicted. If the protections granted to suspects in Miranda are “secured by the Constitution,” then individuals must be able to sue government officials who deprive them of those rights.

“Today, the Court strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda,” wrote Kagan, who was joined by Breyer and Sotomayor. “The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy.”

Kagan said the majority’s opinion means the only remedy for a Miranda violation is for defendants to seek at trial to suppress information wrongly obtained.

Under the well-known 1966 Miranda opinion, individuals questioned while in police custody must be told of their rights to remain silent, to have an attorney present and to know that their statements may be used against them.

In 2014, Terence Tekoh was accused of sexually assaulting a patient at a Los Angeles Medical Center where he worked as a nursing assistant. He was questioned at work by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, but the deputy, Carlos Vega, did not give him a Miranda warning. Tekoh’s confession was submitted at trial, but he was acquitted. Tekoh then filed a lawsuit seeking damages for alleged violations of his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with Tekoh and said the use of his statement to the deputy, obtained without a Miranda warning, was a valid basis to sue.

Alito said any benefit to permitting claims against police officers is outweighed by potential problems, including what he said would be a waste of judicial resources and procedural issues, such as whether civil damages are available in instances where the unwarned statement had no impact on the outcome of the criminal case.

Civil rights advocates said the majority had significantly weakened Miranda rights by shielding police officers from legal liability and that Thursday’s ruling was part of a pattern by the court’s conservative majority.

The court “took a battering ram to one of the most cherished constitutional rights in America,” Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said in a statement. “The Roberts court does again what it has done far too often: rewrites the law in a way that facilitates police abuse by putting accountability out of reach.”

The case is Vega v. Tekoh.


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