Justices decline to block Florida execution (UPDATED)

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Justices decline to block Florida execution (UPDATED)

The Supreme Court today rejected pleas by Florida death-row inmate Gary Bowles to block his execution. The execution was originally scheduled for 6 p.m. EDT tonight, but – in the wake of two late filings – the justices did not act on Bowles’ requests until after 10 p.m. EDT. There was no indication that any justice had dissented from the orders, although Justice Sonia Sotomayor did issue a statement regarding the court’s decision not to intervene. Sotomayor described the Florida Supreme Court’s requirement that Bowles should have raised his claim that he cannot be executed because he is intellectually disabled earlier as “Kafkaesque,” but she ultimately did “not disagree with” the court’s decision to deny review. The Associated Press reported that Bowles was executed by lethal injection shortly before 11 p.m. EDT. 

Bowles was sentenced to death in 1999 for the 1994 murder of Walter Hinton. Bowles was living in Hinton’s house in exchange for helping Hinton with a move when Bowles dropped a concrete block on Hinton’s head. Bowles then strangled Hinton – who was still conscious – and stuffed toilet paper and a rag into his mouth and throat. Bowles was nicknamed the “I-95 killer” after killing Hinton and five other victims, between Maryland and Florida, during the same year.

In 2002, three years after Bowles was sentenced, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Atkins v. Virginia, holding that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities. But the Supreme Court did not define what constitutes an intellectual disability, instead leaving that issue for the states.

Under Florida law, only inmates who could show that they had an IQ of 70 or lower were allowed to offer other evidence of an an intellectual disability, which meant that Bowles – who has an IQ of 74 – did not qualify. But in 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s fixed cutoff for an intellectual disability; two years later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the justices’ ruling in Hall applied retroactively.

Based on those two decisions, Bowles went back to court to argue that he was intellectually disabled. To support his argument, he included not only his IQ score of 74, but also expert reports from three mental-health professionals diagnosing him with an intellectual disability, as well as statements from more than a dozen people describing his deficits. However, the Florida Supreme Court dismissed Bowles’ claim as too late under Florida law.

Bowles first came to the U.S. Supreme Court last Friday, asking the justices to put his execution on hold to give them time to review the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. First, he contended, the procedural rules applied by the Florida Supreme Court cannot override the Eighth Amendment, which he says categorically bars the execution of the intellectually disabled. But even if a procedural rule could override the categorical ban in a hypothetical scenario, this is not such a case, because Bowles could not have brought his intellectual-disability claim until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s fixed IQ cutoff was unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court’s insistence that Bowles should have filed his Eighth Amendment claim earlier is, he stressed, “a matter of life and death” not just “for Mr. Bowles, an intellectually disabled man who is scheduled to be executed on August 22, 2019, without any court having reviewed the compelling evidence of intellectual disability that he has been trying to present for two years,” but also for other inmates.

Bowles returned to the court on Tuesday to raise another issue. In 2009, in a case called Harbison v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruled that when – as required by federal law – a federal court appoints a lawyer to represent a death-row inmate who cannot otherwise afford one, that appointment extends to representing the inmate in state clemency proceedings. In Bowles’ case, Florida would not allow his court-appointed lawyer to represent him during his bid for clemency. Instead, the state paid a different lawyer, who had never represented a death-row inmate or litigated intellectual-disability claims, to represent Bowles. The new lawyer submitted an eight-page clemency petition, much of which was copied from another inmate; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis denied Bowles’ request for clemency in June. In his second round of briefs, Bowles urged the justices to block his execution and grant review to weigh in on both whether the state can prohibit an inmate’s court-appointed lawyer from representing him in state clemency proceedings and, if not, whether the inmate can bring a federal civil rights lawsuit to challenge that decision.

Bowles filed a third petition for review this morning, asking the justices to decide whether his claim that he cannot be executed because he is intellectually disabled was an argument that he should have raised in his first petition for federal post-conviction relief, or whether it was instead one that only became viable when the governor signed his death warrant in June. Bowles contended that his intellectual-disability claim should be treated like a claim made under Ford v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution bars the execution of an inmate who is mentally ill, and that the inmate is entitled to a hearing on his competency to be executed.

This afternoon Bowles submitted a fourth filing seeking to stave off his execution: a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, asking the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of his death sentence. Bowles stressed the “exceptional circumstances” of his case – most notably, he argued, the fact that the “state and federal courts have refused to address” his “substantial” intellectual-disability claim. Granting a writ of habeas corpus, he added, would allow the justices to address questions that they might not be able to reach through the normal avenues.

Shortly after 10 p.m. EDT, the justices issued their orders (here, here, here and here) denying relief. In her separate statement, Sotomayor explained that Bowles’ case involved “important questions related to this Court’s decision in Hall v. Florida.” In particular, she suggested, the Florida Supreme Court’s requirement that Bowles have raised his intellectual-disability claim much earlier was hard to reconcile with another Florida rule that requires lawyers to have a “good faith” reason to believe that their clients are intellectually disabled before bringing such a claim. However, Sotomayor continued, because she did “not believe that the questions as presented” merit the Supreme Court’s review right now, “I do not disagree with the denial of certiorari.” She left open the possibility that, in a future case, she “would be prepared to revisit a challenge to Florida’s procedural rule.”

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