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Yesterday's Divided Sixth Circuit Decisions:

Yesterday, in Hartman v. Bagley, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied capital defendant Brett Hartman's appeal of the denial of his habeas corpus petition. Hartman was convicted for the brutal murder Winda Snipes -- he tied her up, stabbed her over 130 times, and then cut off her hands, ostensibly to help cover his tracks. The jury found him guilty of aggravated murder, in addition to kidnapping and tampering with evidence, and he was sentenced to death.

The three judge panel rejected Hartman's appeal. That's not too unusual, nor is the fact that the panel was divided. What is more interesting was the line up. Judge Gilman wrote the majority opinion joined by Judge Daughtrey. Judge Clay dissented in part, on the grounds that the trial court gave "unconstitutional acquittal-first jury instructions" and Hartman received ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase. All three judges were Clinton nominees, and if Hartman's case was strong enough to convince Judge Clay, I would have thought it would at least have convinced Judge Daughtrey as well.

Yesterday the Court also issued a divided opinion in Brown v. Cassen Transport Co., involving claims that a company violated RICO by conspiring to deny worker's compensation benefits. Judge Gibbons wrote the opinion of the Court upholding dismissal of the case. Judge Moore concurred in part and dissented in part, and Judge Ackerman (sitting by designation) wrote a separate concurrence. Judge Ackerman, for his part, noted he was a "visiting fireman" who had to follow sixth Circuit precedent, even if he believes it is incorrect and should be reviewed en banc.

Armen (mail) (www):
Heh. He's even written an opinion on the matter on his home turf at D.N.J. yet he applies the 6th Circuit precedent that's contrary to his prior holding. What an activist bastard.
7.12.2007 5:38am
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
Just goes to show that even the most useless liberal activist judge is just a "Clinton appointee" when he (or she) upholds a death sentence.

sorry....cheap shot.
7.12.2007 8:01am
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
Just goes to show that even the most useless liberal activist judge is just a "Clinton appointee" when he (or she) upholds a death sentence.

sorry....cheap shot.
7.12.2007 8:02am
lee (mail):
"cut off her hands"
"tampering with evidence"
Are these the same thing?
7.12.2007 10:32am
David Schwartz (mail):
I find the majority opinion in Hartman v. Bagley baffling. How much worse can a jury instruction be and still be upheld?

The judge told the jury that "if you cannot unanimously agree" on a death penalty "you will then proceed" to determine what type of other life sentence to impose.

This absolutely, and unconstitutionally, tells the jury that they *must* reject the death penalty before they can *consider* any other penalty. This is exactly what they rejected in Davis v. Mitchell.
7.12.2007 10:50am
Just Dropping By (mail):
The judge told the jury that "if you cannot unanimously agree" on a death penalty "you will then proceed" to determine what type of other life sentence to impose. This absolutely, and unconstitutionally, tells the jury that they *must* reject the death penalty before they can *consider* any other penalty. This is exactly what they rejected in Davis v. Mitchell.

I'm not understanding how that's a problem. It would seem that sort of instruction would increase the likelihood that the jury would not impose the death penalty.
7.12.2007 11:29am
Anderson (mail) (www):
JDB, the jury could in theory start its deliberations on the premise of, say, a life sentence, agree that's a good idea, and never seriously consider the death penalty.

Telling the jury to *begin* with whether or not to execute the guy is interference with its deliberations. I don't know the Davis case, not being up on this area of the law in general, but the instruction does seem to've been flawed.

Which brings me back to the perennial question: instead of blaming "Clinton appointees" and "liberal judges," why does no one ever blame the prosecutors who can't or won't try someone with uncontroversial, by-the-book jury instructions? How hard is that?

We have a state case in Mississippi where the same guy has been tried, what, I think 3 times now for a horrible multiple-murder, and every time the (none too liberal) Miss. high court has had to reverse due to sloppy prosecution tactics. We hear a lot about incompetent defense counsel; except for the O.J. trial, we hear a lot less about incompetent prosecutors.
7.12.2007 11:53am
Hans Bader (mail):
Hartman "stabbed [Winda Snipes] over 130 times."

Can you imagine the incredible agony the poor woman must have suffered? What a horrible torture. This is the sort of thing that givers you nightmares.

How could anyone with a soul or a conscience view life imprisonment as being an adequate punishment for such an atrocity?

Hartman deserves the death penalty, and an unpleasant death at that. He is a vicious animal.

The law should REQUIRE the death penalty in such cases.

Too bad the Supreme Court's death penalty jurisprudence allows death sentences to be overturned for a legion of reasons having nothing to do with the defendant's innocence.
7.12.2007 1:39pm
KeithK (mail):

Telling the jury to *begin* with whether or not to execute the guy is interference with its deliberations.


Why can't the presumptive sentence be death for a certain class of crimes? Or the only possible sentence? We can certainly disagree on whether this is a good policy or not. But I can't see anything in the words of the Constitution that would seem to prevent this. Now maybe SCOTUS in its infinite wisdom has decided that I am wrong. But my opinion of the constitutionality would still stand.
7.12.2007 2:14pm
David Schwartz (mail):
The problem is that by starting out discussing the death penalty, they may not ever do anything else. The odds that this will result in an unanimous decision of death before the merits of other sentences are considered is high.

Essentially, they will have to agree that a death sentence is inappropriate or deadlock on it before they even consider whether a life sentence is. So for the first hours/days of deliberation, the question will be "can we agree on death as the penalty?"

Now in this case, that's seems perfectly fair to me as this is one of the worst crimes imaginable against a single victim. But this type of instruction has already been found unconstitutional.

Honestly, though, I don't see what's wrong with this. The law requires them to apply the death penalty if, and only if, the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. So how can they not consider the death penalty first. They are not supposed to be asking "what is the appropriate penalty for this conduct" as the Supreme Court ruled that this was an arbitrary/subjective standard that's not appropriate for such decisions.

I'm sort of flipping sides, I guess. Maybe what they meant in Davis v. Mitchell is that you couldn't imply to the jury that they had to *unanimously* agree that death was inappropriate before moving on. But I'm not sure how that makes logical sense, since that would mean that if they can't so agree, they have nothing to do.
7.12.2007 8:33pm