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Jenkins v. Hutton: Supreme Court Reaffirms Sawyer Standard for Reviewing Defaulted Habeas Claims

In deciding whether a federal habeas petitioner can pursue a procedurally defaulted claim of improper jury instructions in a death penalty case, the question is whether, given proper instructions about aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 19 in Jenkins v. Hutton.
In deciding whether a federal habeas petitioner can pursue a procedurally defaulted claim of improper jury instructions in a death penalty case, the question is whether, given proper instructions about aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 19 in Jenkins v. Hutton.
 
The Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed a Sixth Circuit ruling which allowed the petitioner's claim to proceed.  The Sixth Circuit had considered “whether, given the (alleged) improper instructions, the jury might have been relying on invalid aggravating circumstances when it recommended in a death sentence.”
 
This standard was wrong under Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333 (1992), the Court held, because it asked whether the alleged error might have affected the jury's verdict, not whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death.
 
In Sawyer, the Court held that a habeas petitioner may obtain review of a defaulted claim by showing by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found him eligible for the death penalty.
 
The Sixth Circuit's approach is “incompatible with Sawyer” because it “would justify excusing default whenever an instructional error could have been relevant a jury's decision,” the Court said.
 
All state courts which had reviewed the petitioner's case had independently weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and concluded that the death penalty was justified, the Court noted.  “On the facts of this case, the Sixth Circuit was wrong to hold that it could review [petitioner's] claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default,” the Court concluded.    

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July 1, 2017: NAPD announces Save the Date for 2017 Workloads Institute, to be held at SLU Law School (St. Louis, MO) on November 17-18, 2017. Click HERE for a brochure with details and faculty!
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April 16, 2017: 60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper features the Orleans Public Defenders and NAPD General Counsel in a substantive segment about public defenders' excessive workloads, pervasive injustice, and the obligation of defenders to resist the "conveyer belt" of mass-incarceration. You can watch the compelling segment HERE 

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On March 18, 2017 - the 54th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainright decision - NAPD published its Foundational Principles, which are recommended to NAPD members and other persons and organizations interested in advancing the cause of equal justice for accused persons.