Dead Right: A Cautionary Capital Punishment Tale

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Joseph Margulies, Professor of the Practice of Law and Government, Cornell University;

John Blume, Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques and Director, Cornell Death Penalty Project, Cornell Law School;

Sheri Johnson, James and Mark Flanagan Professor of Law, Cornell Law School.

At least 228 people executed in the modern era—or more than one in every seven—were right too soon. That is, they had claims in their case that today would render their execution unconstitutional, but were killed because of a legal regime that arrived too late. Roughly 30% of our total include the children and persons with intellectual disability who were executed prior to Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia, respectively. But the great majority of the people identified in our study raised claims based on doctrine that had already been clearly established by the Supreme Court. If the lower courts had applied Supreme Court caselaw correctly, these people would have gotten relief. Yet the lower courts resisted the doctrine and for years the Supreme Court did nothing to correct them. This resistance was particularly egregious in Texas and Florida. In Texas, at least 108 people were executed after the Supreme Court had already established the relevant basis for relief, and in Florida, the total is at least 36. At least when it comes to the death penalty, the lower courts seem especially unwilling to follow Supreme Court doctrine that would save a person from execution. The result is a system that routinely kills people even when they are right.

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