Capital Punishment Clinic wins second case this year at U.S. Supreme Court

Nov. 15, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas—The Capital Punishment Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law won its second U.S. Supreme Court case in five months today (Nov. 15). The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion reversing the death sentence of Laroyce Smith in Smith v. Texas. In the opinion, the Court found that Smith’s jury did not have an adequate vehicle for considering Smith’s mitigating evidence, including evidence of organic learning disabilities and low IQ.

“It’s extremely rare for the Court to issue such an opinion without the benefit of argument,” said Professor Jordan Steiker, who represented Smith in the Court and works with Professor Rob Owen as a faculty adviser to the clinic. “The opinion is important because it makes clear that death sentences must reflect a reasoned moral judgment that the defendant deserves to die. Unfortunately, in Smith’s case, the jury was never asked whether death was the appropriate punishment.”

Professor Owen added that “it’s gratifying after so many years of challenging the patent defects of the former Texas scheme for the United States Supreme Court to forcefully insist on fairness in capital sentencing.”

Capital punishment clinic students and professors won their first case at the U.S. Supreme Court this May in Tennard v. Dretke.

In Tennard v. Dretke, the Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that a death-sentenced inmate could continue with his claim that his jury was unable to give effect to evidence of his 67 IQ as a mitigating factor in the penalty phase of a capital trial. Before 1991, Texas juries were not directly asked to consider mitigating evidence in deciding whether a defendant should live or die.

Law Professors Owen and Steiker along with law students took a leading role in that Texas death penalty case, challenging the fairness of Texas death row defendant Robert Tennard’s 1986 trial. Owen, an adjunct professor and director of the Capital Punishment Clinic, argued before the Supreme Court on March 22 that the punishment phase jury instructions prevented the jury from giving meaningful consideration to Tennard’s extremely low IQ of 67. Had the jurors been properly instructed, he and his co-counsel Steiker contended, they might have concluded that Tennard did not deserve to die.

Six law students—Kimberly Carter, Leslie Conant Thorne, Heather Fraley, Haverly Rauen, Amanda Tyler and Mitria Wilson—conducted legal research and drafted arguments for Tennard’s opening brief filed last December in the Supreme Court. Richard Burr, a nationally respected capital defense specialist, joined Steiker and Owen in representing Tennard.

The clinic has been involved in several other Supreme Court cases since Owen and Steiker arrived at the university in 1989 and 1990, respectively.

For more information contact: Laura Castro, 512-232-1229, and Jodi Bart, 512-471-7330, School of Law.