DLA Piper files amicus brief with US Supreme Court in Missouri capital case

On May 24, DLA Piper filed a pro bono amicus brief on behalf of six former Missouri state court judges and a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, urging the United States Supreme Court to grant a petition for certiorari filed by death row inmate Lance Shockley.

After a jury deadlocked on the question of whether Mr. Shockley should be sentenced to death in 2009, the judge overseeing his case unilaterally sentenced Mr. Shockley to death, as allowed by Missouri law. Mr. Shockley appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and DLA Piper submitted its amicus in support. The amicus argues that under the US Constitution, only a unanimous jury – and not a single judge – can carry the weighty responsibility of deciding life or death. The brief highlights several problematic aspects of Missouri's sentencing scheme, including the fact that elected judges are far more likely to bend to political pressure and to hand down death sentences than juries.

"Missouri's capital sentencing scheme, which usurps the jury's constitutional role in determining whether a defendant lives or dies, violates the Sixth Amendment," the brief reads, arguing that "judicially-imposed capital punishment is so exceedingly and increasingly rare as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment."

"The risk of significant and irreversible injustices in the administration of those [capital] sentences is high, given the inherently problematic nature of a death sentence being imposed by a single person – and particularly after a jury did not unanimously do so," the brief states.

The brief is one of several recent efforts by the firm to ensure that individuals facing the death penalty in the United States receive the constitutional protections they deserve. For example, the firm recently filed an amicus brief in support of a Florida death row inmate who had been sentenced by a judge, not a jury, based on only an advisory recommendation of a bare majority of jurors. The firm also provides direct representation to individuals on death row in Florida and Mississippi.

The brief was filed by Ilana Eisenstein (Philadelphia), Ardith Bronson and Maia Sevilla-Sharon (both of Miami), Paul Schmitt (Washington, DC), and Ethan Townsend (Wilmington).