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Justice Sotomayor Says Grisly Detail About Pencil Being Jammed into a Prison Guard’s Eye Was ‘Irrelevant’ to Death Penalty Case

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor sits during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a statement related to an order denying certioari on Monday in a death penalty case involving the courtroom recollection of a grim but ultimately irrelevant story about a pencil that was jammed into a prison guard’s eye.

James Calvert was convicted in Texas of murdering his ex-wife,” the justice’s account of the sentencing begins. “At sentencing, the State called David Logan, a former corrections officer. Logan testified in detail about an incident in which an inmate stabbed him in the eye with a pencil, leaving him blind in that eye. The State introduced a medical scan showing that the pencil traveled four inches into Logan’s brain before coming to rest against an artery. Logan was unsure why the inmate attacked him, but testified that if an inmate ‘has it on his mind to hurt you, there’s nothing you can do.'”

“You may be asking what Calvert had to do with this gruesome incident,” the left-wing justice notes. “The answer is nothing.”

Sotomayor goes on to explain:

The State nonetheless argued that Logan’s testimony and brain scan were admissible because they revealed “an inmate’s opportunity for violence within the penitentiary.” “Do you think they can be controlled in the pen, these inmates?” the State rhetorically asked the jury in its closing argument. “Then you tell me why David Logan got a pencil stabbed into his brain.” “Because of what happened to [Logan],” the State argued, Calvert “should get the death penalty.” At the jury’s recommendation, the trial court sentenced Calvert to death.

The case stylized as Calvert v. Texas asks the court to answer the novel question of whether introducing evidence about another inmate’s attack was in violation of the constitutional right to individualized sentencing guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment.

“In my view, Calvert raises a serious argument that the State’s reliance on a graphic instance of violence by an unrelated inmate to prove that he posed a future danger deprived him of his right to an individualized sentencing,” the justice says.

The court, however, declined to grant Calvert’s petition for writ for certiorari–something Sotomayor says she doesn’t necessarily disagree with because the case doesn’t implicate the procedural and jurisprudential considerations governing review in Rule 10.

“The legal question Calvert presents is complex and would benefit from further percolation in the lower courts prior to this Court granting review,” the left-wing justice argues. “Certainly, the law is not clear enough to warrant this Court summarily reversing the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, as Calvert requests.”

While the jurisprudential reasoning that the nation’s high court uses when selecting cases for review forecloses against taking on Calvert’s case for now, Sotomayor insists, the legal merits of his case appear to be strong and the facts are decidedly appalling.

The justice’s statement notes:

[T]he gruesome attack on Officer Logan “had no connection” to Calvert. Indeed, the State introduced no evidence that Calvert ‘had attempted to attack or physically injure anyone” while incarcerated. The State asked the jury to sentence Calvert to death in part because of a different person’s violent conduct that had nothing to do with Calvert. It succeeded. Although this case does not meet this Court’s traditional criteria for certiorari, it still stands as a grim reminder that courts should rigorously scrutinize how States prove that a person should face the ultimate penalty.

“Juries must have a clear view of the ‘uniquely individual human beings’ they are sentencing to death, not one tainted by irrelevant facts about other people’s crimes,” Sotomayor continues. “The Constitution and basic principles of justice require nothing less.”

And one particularly unsettling detail about the human being at stake looms large in the Calvert case.

Sotomayor notes, in a lengthy footnote:

Calvert raises another claim based on courtroom deputies administering a 50,000-volt electric shock to him because of his failure to follow the court’s rule that he stand when addressing the court. While the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Calvert that the incident violated due process, it denied relief, concluding that the error was not structural because it occurred outside of the presence of the jury and did not affect Calvert’s presumption of innocence or ability to participate in his defense at trial. Although it may be appropriate for this Court to defer to the lower court’s factbound prejudice determination, I underscore how astonishing it is for a court to direct deputies to shock a defendant during trial. If there could ever be an excuse for such violence, enforcing courtroom decorum would not be it.

The justice also looks beyond the three distinct claims raised by Calvert (he also alleged the initial introduction was in violation of Texas law; the Texas court agreed with him but said the error didn’t actually harm him) and suggested that there may be a valid due process claim as well.

“The Court’s decision today should not be viewed as a rejection of the merits of that potential claim,” Sotomayor noted, well aware that Calvert’s defense attorneys are likely to take her advice under consideration.

[Image via Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images]

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