AUSTIN, Texas—The Capital Punishment Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law won punishment-phase relief from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a capital case on Wed., March 1.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that Robert Tennard's death sentence could not stand because of the failure of the sentencing instructions to permit consideration of his 67 I.Q. The Clinic had previously taken Tennard's case to the U.S. Supreme Court when the Fifth Circuit had ruled that Tennard's claim did not merit an appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the denial of the appeal, and Wednesday's decision was a ruling on the merits of that appeal.
Professors Rob Owen and Jordan Steiker from the University's Capital Punishment Clinic, along with co-counsel Dick Burr, litigated the case both in the U.S. Supreme Court and in the Fifth Circuit. Many students had assisted in this effort, and several had traveled to the U.S. Supreme Court with Owen and Steiker in the earlier litigation. Owen had argued the case in the U.S. Supreme Court and Steiker argued the case when it returned to the Fifth Circuit.
Although Steiker and Owen were pleased with the result, they were disappointed that many other defendants (including other clinic clients) raising similar claims have recently lost in the Fifth Circuit. Steiker stated that "the Court of Appeals continues to read the recent interventions by the U.S. Supreme Court quite narrowly."
In an odd coincidence, the Clinic's other recent Supreme Court victory was also addressed on remand Wednesday. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief to Laroyce Smith, holding that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision finding error in his case did not warrant relief because Smith had not shown sufficient harm resulting from the error. In Smith's case, the Supreme Court had found that the sentencing instructions prevented jurors from considering Smith's difficult background, low I.Q., and learning disabilities.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision on Wednesday appeared to take issue with the Supreme Court's holding, stating that jurors could in fact give effect to Smith's evidence. Steiker indicated that Smith's case will be again presented to the Supreme Court in light of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' ruling.