Tennessee attorneys are citing Obergefell v. Hodges in an effort to spare their clients
A motion filed last month by the Federal Public Defender's office argues that post-conviction proceedings in the case of death row inmate Charles Wright should be reopened because Wright's death sentence violates his constitutional rights.
In service of that argument, the motion cites 2 recent Supreme Court cases. The 1st seems obvious enough. It is Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in last year's Glossip v. Gross, which strayed from the specific issue at hand - Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol - to address the death penalty more broadly, concluding that its imposition is cruel and unusual and, thus, unconstitutional. The 2nd case cited in the motion comes, on the surface at least, as more of a surprise - it is Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide last year.
The motion in Wright's case is 1 of 8 the Federal Public Defender's office has filed in the Middle District citing Obergefell, and more have been filed elsewhere in the state on behalf of death row inmates. Kelley Henry, a supervising assistant federal public defender, tells the Scene she worried observers might think that, by citing Obergefell, the office was trying to be too cute by half. But that's not it, she says. The motions, she says, bring together the issues raised in the dissents to the Glossip decision with the test used in Obergefell to determine if a state is violating a person's fundamental constitutional right. "Their paradigm for analyzing fundamental, constitutional rights in Obergefell, for us, highlighted the fact that the Supreme Court really hasn't taken a look at the death penalty, which impinges on a fundamental right to life," she says. "And when you use the paradigm of Obergefell and you apply it to our client and you look at that in light of Glossip, you see the unconstitutionality of the death penalty."
Wright was sentenced to death in 1985 after he was convicted of killing two men during the course of a drug deal in North Nashville. The motion to reopen post-conviction proceedings in his case details, among other things, a troubled childhood that neither the sentencing jury nor the post-conviction judge were made aware of. Wright, the motion says, was 1 of 10 children born to a severely alcoholic mother by six different fathers. The children would regularly be left to beg for food in the streets and Wright would miss more than 50 days in three of his first four school years. Later, the motion says, he would fall into chronic drug addiction and a psychologist who evaluated him before his trial found that he had an IQ between 75 and 85.
With repeated reference to Glossip, the motion argues that Wright's death sentence is unreliable and that it violates his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It goes on to cite Obergefell which "holds that no state may deny a fundamental right, may not deny human dignity, may not impose stigma and demean persons by denying the exercise of a fundamental right, and may not diminish the personhood of individuals."
Later on, the motion argues that the death penalty does each of those things:
The very principles and holding identified and applied by the Supreme Court in Obergefell make perfectly clear that the death penalty is unconstitutional here. Even more than the right to marry, the right to life is a fundamental right - as it is the very foundation of human personhood. It is the very foundation of human dignity. Just as no state can deny the fundamental right to marry, a fortiori, no state can deny the fundamental right to life, which is the fundamental human right and provides the predicate for the exercise of all other rights. Under Obergefell and the Fourteenth Amendment, the death sentence must be struck down here. In fact, every single factor identified by the Supreme Court in Obergefell applies to Charles Wright's right to life, making denial of his fundamental right to life through the death penalty unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and Tennessee Constitution:
(1) Mr. Wright's right to life is a right "so fundamental that the State must accord [it] respect." Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2598.
(2) His right to life "is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy" (id. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2599), for without the right to life, there is no personal autonomy whatsoever.
(3) His right to life thus must be accorded fundamental "dignity." Id.
(4) The state law designed to take Charles Wright's life serves to "harm and humiliate" him and his child. Id., 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2601.
(5) The state law which seeks to take his life also teaches not simply that he is "unequal in important respects" but that he is unequal in all respects to all other persons: He has no right to live, while others do. Id., 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2602.
(6) Needless to say, a law that tells and demonstrates that Mr. Wright is not worthy of life itself serves to "demean" him in the eyes of all.. Id.
(7) No less than the states' laws regarding marriage, the death penalty law which Tennessee seeks to apply to Charles Wright "impose[s] stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter." Id.
(8) It would not simply "diminish the personhood" of Mr. Wright to take his life, but it would completely deny him his "personhood" to take his life, and therefore it is unconstitutional to deny him his very personhood. Id.
(9) The death penalty "burdens a right of fundamental importance" - the right to life - and therefore cannot stand. Id., 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2603.
(10) Because, under the Tennessee death penalty law which the state seeks to apply here, Charles Wright would absolutely be "barred from exercising a fundamental right" and "abridge[s] fundamental rights" (id., 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2604) - namely the fundamental right to life - the Tennessee death penalty statute and the death penalty here should be struck down, exactly as occurred in Obergefell.
In sum, Mr. Wright "ask[s] for equal dignity in the eyes of the law," and the "Constitution grants [him] that right." Id., 576 U.S. at ___, 135 S.Ct. at 2608. Just as numerous state laws were struck down in Obergefell because they barred individuals from the exercise of a fundamental right, the death penalty here must likewise be struck down, as it unconstitutionally denies Charles Wright the exercise of the fundamental right protected by our Constitution - the fundamental right to life.
Wright is one of 64 people - 63 men and 1 woman - currently on Tennessee's death row. In February of 2014, the state set execution dates for 10 men, including Wright, but the has since put all executions on hold amid legal challenges to its death penalty protocols.
Source: nashvillescene.com, July 25, 2016
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