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In June, the Supreme Court issued per curiam opinions in two habeas cases: Jenkins v. Hutton and Virginia v. LeBlanc. In today’s episode, we will be discussing the opinions in both cases. 

Jenkins v. Hutton

More than thirty years ago, an Ohio jury convicted Percy Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnaping. The jury findings included aggravating circumstances that permitted imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment. During the penalty phase of the proceedings, the jury was instructed that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the State had “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which [Hutton] was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].”  The jury recommended death, the trial court accepted that recommendation, and Hutton’s death sentence was affirmed on direct appeal. He eventually filed a habeas petition, arguing that the trial court denied him due process because it failed to tell the penalty phase jurors that, when weighing aggravating mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase of the trial. As Hutton had not objected to the jury instructions at trial or raised this issue on direct appeal, the district court dismissed his habeas petition on grounds of procedural default. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, however, concluding that it could excuse the procedural default in the interests of avoiding a miscarriage of justice. Hutton, the Sixth Circuit argued, had “show[n] by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found [him] eligible for the death penalty under the applicable state law.” 

In a per curiam opinion issued on June 19, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case. The Sixth Circuit erred in reaching the merits of Hutton’s claim, the Court concluded, because to overcome a procedural default on fundamental miscarriage of justice grounds the focus should be on whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death, not simply whether any alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict.

Virginia v. LeBlanc

In 1999, Dennis LeBlanc, who was then 16, raped a 62-year-old woman and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003 by a Virginia court. Although Virginia had abolished parole, the state had replaced it with a “geriatric release” program for the conditional release of older inmates under some circumstances. In 2010, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole. Although states would not be required to guarantee eventual freedom to nonhomicide juvenile inmates, the Court explained, they must still offer juvenile offenders “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Invoking the Graham decision, LeBlanc filed a motion in Virginia state court to vacate his sentence. The state court denied relief, relying upon the Virginia Supreme Court’s prior decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, which had concluded that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfied Graham’s parole requirement for juvenile nonhomicide offenders. The Virginia Supreme Court declined review of LeBlanc’s case and he then filed a federal habeas petition arguing that the Virginia courts’ position regarding geriatric release and Graham had fundamentally misapplied federal law. The district court agreed and granted relief. A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, and Virginia sought certiorari.

In a per curiam opinion issued on June 12, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit, concluding that the Virginia courts had not applied the Graham rule unreasonably. To satisfy the habeas standard, the Supreme Court noted, the ruling in question must be “objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice.” And it was not objectively unreasonable, the Court indicated, for the state courts to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion.
And now, to discuss the cases, we have Ron Eisenberg, Deputy District Attorney for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. 

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