lethal injection

Sotomayor: Florida death penalty rule ‘Kafkaesque’

Franz_Kafka_1917U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor signed off on a recent decision denying a stay of execution for Gary Ray Bowles, a serial killer who targeted gay men, before Bowles was put to death shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday.

But Sotomayor hinted that the state’s rules may need to be revisited.

Here’s an ABA Journal article breaking down Sotomayor’s statement:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed concern last week about a Florida procedural rule that makes it difficult for death-row inmates to assert claims that their mental disability is a constitutional bar to execution.

Sotomayor called the rule “Kafkaesque” in a statement on cert denial for Gary Ray Bowles, a serial killer who targeted gay men, report Bloomberg Law, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and CNN. Bowles was executed Thursday.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that executions of mentally disabled inmates violate the Eighth Amendment.

In Hall v. Florida in 2016, the U.S. SuprU.eme Court struck down Florida’s bright-line IQ threshold for asserting a mental disability that would exempt inmates from execution. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that same year that the Supreme Court decision applied to prisoners sentenced before the 2016 Supreme Court ruling.

But the Florida Supreme Court has also held that inmates claiming retroactive protection under Hall must have asserted an earlier claim of intellectual disability based on Atkins. Bowles didn’t raise his claim of intellectual disability until 2017, according to an Aug. 13 Florida Supreme Court decision denying his claim.

Sotomayor criticized Florida’s requirement for inmates to have asserted an intellectual disability claim before the Supreme Court overturned Florida’s bright-line IQ rule. Under the rule, Florida did not consider an inmate to be mentally disabled unless he or she had an IQ of 70 or below. Bowles had prior IQ test scores of 74, 80 and 83.

“This Kafkaesque procedural rule is at odds with another Florida rule requiring counsel raising an intellectual-disability claim to have a ‘good faith’ basis to believe that a death-sentenced client is intellectually disabled (presumably under the limited definition of intellectual disability that Florida had then imposed),” Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor also said Florida’s procedural rule “creates grave tension with this court’s guidance in Montgomery v. Louisiana,” a 2016 Supreme Court decision giving retroactive effect to an earlier decision barring mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles.

Sotomayor said Bowles’ cert petition raised an Eighth Amendment claim but did not address concerns based on Montgomery.

“Because I do not believe that the questions as presented merit this court’s review at this time, I do not disagree with the denial of certiorari,” she said. “In an appropriate case, however, I would be prepared to revisit a challenge to Florida’s procedural rule.”