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Supreme Court Tosses Out Death Sentence, But Won't Review Death Penalty's Constitutionality

The Supreme Court tossed out one death sentence and asked state courts to review another death sentence. The justices, however, turned down a request to review whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.

Posted on May 31, 2016, at 11:49 a.m. ET

Chris Geidner/BuzzFeed

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning took action in three different death penalty cases with a series of moves that prevent the justices from having to hear any of those cases next term.

The justices rejected a request from a Louisiana death row inmate that the high court review the constitutionality of the death penalty itself, but, in another case, tossed out an Arizona death sentence and, in a third case, asked Alabama to review its death sentencing procedures.

The actions come as the nation's high court has slowed down in its granting of new cases for next term in the wake of its continued status as an eight-justice court. Since Justice Antonin Scalia's death on February 13, the court has only granted certiorari a handful of new cases for next term.

The justices' moves on Tuesday in the pending death penalty cases continued that trajectory.

The court tossed out Shawn Patrick Lynch's death sentence, granting his case and summarily reversing the Arizona Supreme Court's ruling that upheld his death sentence. The court held — in a brief, unsigned decision — that prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions determined that Lynch should have been able to inform the jury in the sentencing portion of his trial that, if not sentenced to death, he would not have been eligible for parole.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented from the decision, writing that the move "perpetuates the Court's error" in the prior cases and calling the decision a "remarkably aggressive use of our power to review the States' highest courts."

In the Alabama case, the justices granted Corey Wimbley's certiorari petition, vacated the judgment of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding his death sentence, and sent the case back to that court to review the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this term declaring Florida's death sentencing procedures to be unconstitutional. In that case, Hurst v. Florida, the justices held that Florida's procedures were unconstitutional because, while juries made a recommendation, the judge was responsible for deciding the sentence in death penalty trials.

Earlier this month, the justices sent another case, that of Bart Johnson, back to Alabama courts for a similar review.

Finally, however, the court declined the request to take on the death penalty itself. In Lamondre Tucker's case, the Louisiana death row inmate asked the justices to hear his case to consider whether the death penalty, at least as to murder convictions, is unconstitutional in all cases.

The justices denied certiorari. In this case, however, the dissent came from the more liberal side of the court. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reiterated the call he made this past June — writing that the court should have heard Tucker's case "to confront the ... question ... whether imposition of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."

Four justices are required to vote to hear a case, however, and that apparently did not happen in Tucker's case. For now, then, Breyer's question will go unanswered.

The court took no action on two other pending capital case petitions, both out of Texas: Duane Buck's case, raising issues of effective assistance of counsel and racism in the capital trial context, and that of Bobby James Moore, raising questions about standards for proving intellectual disability.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.