Current list of cases pending before the courts in which CJLF has filed a brief.
United States v. Tsarnaev
No. 20-443 (Filed on 6/21/21)
United States Supreme Court
Jury: Voir dire re publicity
U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Boston Marathon Bomber challenges his death sentence. Defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, along with his brother, set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. Three people died and hundreds were gravely injured. Tsarnaev can be seen on camera carrying his homemade bomb, which he intentionally placed near a group of children watching the race. On appeal, Tsarnaev claimed that the trial judge's questioning of potential jurors regarding pretrial publicity violated his rights, even though the judge followed the requirements of the Sixth Amendment as found in a 1991 Supreme Court case from a state court. The Court of Appeals agreed and overturned the sentence, finding that the judge did not comply with its own precedent from 1968 imposing additional requirements. CJLF has entered the case to argue that the constitutional requirements clarified in 1991 apply equally in state and federal courts, and neither the Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals should invent additional requirements for federal courts. Tsarnaev also claims that the trial judge erred in excluding marginally relevant evidence that his brother committed an unrelated murder earlier. CJLF argues that the judge was well within his discretion under the Federal Death Penalty Act, and that provision of the act is constitutional.
Brown v. Davenport
No. 20-826 (Filed on 6/17/21)
United States Supreme Court
Habeas corpus: Harmless error
U.S. Supreme Court case involving the standard of review federal habeas courts must apply when reviewing a state court’s determination of harmless error. Ervine Lee Davenport was partially shackled during his trial for first-degree murder. On direct appeal, the state appellate courts found that his partial shackling was unconstitutional, but was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under the standard announced in Chapman v. California. Davenport subsequently filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Because Davenport’s partial shackling claim had been addressed by the state appellate courts, the federal habeas judge analyzed his petition pursuant to the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The District Court judge denied habeas relief after finding that the state court’s harmless error determination was neither contrary to nor involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law (applying 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the District Court applied the incorrect standard for addressing harmless error. The majority found that Brecht v. Abrahamson, not AEDPA, supplies the correct standard, and based on Brecht alone, the shackling error was not harmless. CJLF joined the case to argue that AEDPA requires federal courts to give great deference to a state court’s resolution of federal law, which includes a finding of harmless error. Because AEDPA was enacted to reduce delay, and is a prerequisite to habeas relief, a federal habeas court must review the state court’s harmless error determination for reasonableness under its provisions first. If a habeas petitioner satisfies the demands of AEDPA, then Brecht is applied. CJLF’s brief argues that if a federal habeas court is going to grant habeas relief, both AEDPA and Brecht must be addressed, and the “Brecht-only” approach taken by the Sixth Circuit was erroneous.
In re Mohammad
No. S259999 (Accepted on 7/23/20)
California Supreme Court
Parole: Prop. 57 & violent offenders
California Supreme Court case to review whether Proposition 57 precludes early parole consideration for inmates currently serving a sentence for both violent and nonviolent felony offenses. Proposition 57 permits early parole eligibility for state prisoners "convicted of a nonviolent felony offense" after completing the full term of their primary offense. The CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promulgated regulations that excluded from early parole consideration inmates currently serving a sentence for a violent felony. Mohammad pled no contest to nine counts of robbery (violent felonies) and six counts of receiving stolen property (nonviolent felonies). The sentencing court designated one of the nonviolent felonies as the principal term and ordered him to serve three years in prison. The court then ordered consecutive one-year terms on each of the nine violent offenses, and consecutive eight-month terms on each of the remaining five nonviolent felonies. After completing the full three-year term for the nonviolent primary offense, Mohammad requested an early parole consideration hearing. CDCR denied his request. On appeal, the Court of Appeal granted relief, finding that because he had completed the full term of his primary offense, he was eligible for early parole consideration even though he was currently incarcerated for the violent offenses. The Court of Appeal interpreted the measure to mean that an inmate who is serving an aggregate sentence for more than one conviction will be eligible for an early parole hearing if only one of those convictions was for “a” nonviolent felony offense. CJLF joined the case to argue that the Court of Appeal's erroneous interpretation of the measure would essentially sweep the entire state prison population into its purview and is contrary to voter understanding and intent. Such an interpretation would also lead to the absurd result that inmates convicted of more crimes would be eligible for early parole consideration whereas inmates convicted of less crimes would not.
In re Alexander
No. 19-70232
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
U. S. Court of Appeals case challenging the stays of execution that have prevented enforcement of the California death penalty since 2006. This case became moot when the state adopted a new execution protocol, yet the Attorney General failed to move for dismissal or appeal the grant of new stays to intervening death row inmates. CJLF filed the petition on behalf of families of murder victims asking that the stays be vacated.