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Supreme Court hears arguments in death penalty jury instruction cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Wednesday in Smith v. Texas [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 05-11304, where the court must decide whether the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was correct to apply a "daunting standard of harm ('egregious harm')" in correcting the constitutional violation found by the Supreme Court in an earlier decision in the same case. LaRoyce Lathair Smith was sentenced to death when the trial judge refused to issue a special jury instruction allowing the jury to consider evidence of Smith's low IQ and special education class attendance to mitigate his sentence. In 2004, the Supreme Court reversed Smith's death sentence [JURIST report; Duke Law backgrounder] and remanded the case in a 2004 per curiam opinion [text, PDF] holding that the jury should have received the instruction. On remand, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held [decision text] that the trial judge's failure to issue the special jury instruction was harmless error not affecting the constitutionality of Smith's conviction. At least four justices seemed to agree with the "egregious harm' standard used by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide whether Smith had a fair trial, including Chief Justice John Roberts. AP has more.

The Court also heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in the consolidated cases of Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], where the Court considered jury instructions used in two Texas death penalty cases. The "special issue" instructions, not currently used in Texas courts, ask jurors to answer "yes" or "no" to two questions - whether a defendant killed "deliberately" and whether the defendant would likely pose a "continuing threat to society."

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