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Supreme Court rules in Texas death penalty jury instruction cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] handed down opinions in two cases Wednesday, including Smith v. Texas [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], where the Court held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals incorrectly required Smith to show "egregious harm" before 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 [PDF text] 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. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that "the requirement that Smith show egregious harm was predicated ... on a misunderstanding of the federal right Smith asserts." Read the Court's 5-4 opinion [text] per Justice Kennedy, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Souter, and a dissent [text] from Justice Alito.

In the consolidated cases of Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report] the Court held that Texas' "special issue" jury instructions in death penalty cases, no longer in use, prevented Abdul-Kabir and Brewer's juries from "giving meaningful consideration and effect to constitutionally relevant mitigating evidence." Read the Court's 5-4 opinion in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman [text] per Justice Stevens, the Court's 5-4 opinion in Brewer v. Quarterman [text] per Justice Stevens, along with a dissent [text] from Chief Justice Roberts and a dissent [text] from Justice Scalia. The dissents are consolidated for both Abdul-Kabir and Brewer. AP has more.

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