WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 - The Supreme Court overturned a Texas
death sentence on Monday while delivering its latest rebuke
to the way the death penalty is being handled by judges in
the state, which has executed far more people than any
other in the modern era of capital punishment.
The errors committed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
in upholding the death sentence of LaRoyce L. Smith were so
clear to a majority of the Supreme Court that the justices
decided the case in the inmate's favor on the basis of the
briefs, without hearing arguments.
Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented
from the unsigned 12-page opinion. They did not write an
opinion of their own.
Mr. Smith was convicted in 1991 of murdering a co-worker at
a Taco Bell restaurant in Dallas where he had recently
worked. He was 19. With an I.Q. of 78, he had reached the
ninth grade in special education classes.
In the sentencing phase of his trial, the jury sentenced
him to death under a procedure that the Texas Legislature
was then in the process of amending to conform to Supreme
The justices said Monday that the Texas appeals court
ignored problems the Supreme Court had already identified
and that it should have known, when it affirmed the
sentence last April, that the jury instructions made the
death sentence unconstitutional.The state court
"erroneously relied on a test we never countenanced and now
have unequivocally rejected," the justices said.
In the last few years, the Supreme Court has overturned a
number of death sentences in Texas while making evident its
frustration with both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth
Circuit, the federal court that hears habeas corpus
petitions from Texas inmates.
With Texas having the second-biggest death row in the
country, the Supreme Court's increasingly careful
monitoring of death sentences in that state could have a
significant effect on the overall death penalty picture.
Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas
who is Mr. Smith's lawyer, said although dozens of inmates
might be freed from the Texas death row as a result of the
ruling in Smith v. Texas, No. 04-5323, dozens of others in
similar circumstances had been executed.
All were sentenced under a variant of jury instructions
that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in opinions
that began in 1989 and ended on June 24 of this year, when
the court overturned another death sentence in a case,
Tennard v. Dretke.
Although the Tennard case had already been argued and a
decision was imminent, the Texas appeals court rejected Mr.
Smith's appeal without waiting for the Supreme Court's
further clarification. The question the justices dealt with
in all these cases was whether Texas juries had received
instructions that permitted them to give adequate weight to
any mitigating factors offered by the defendant to show why
he should not be executed.
Under the Texas law that the Supreme Court approved when it
permitted capital punishment to resume in 1976, a death
sentence was mandatory if jurors answered yes to two
questions: Was the killing deliberate, and would the
defendant present a continuing danger to society?
There was no room for consideration of mitigating
circumstances that the court found in subsequent decisions
had to be considered by the jury if the defendant offered
After the court ruled in 1989 that Texas had to give jurors
the chance to consider mitigating factors, the state added
new instructions. Jurors who wanted to take mitigating
factors into account should do so by answering no to one of
the two questions, even if they believed that the correct
answer was yes.
In a decision in 2001, the Supreme Court found this
response constitutionally flawed. It then amplified that
decision in the Tennard case in June.
Both in 2001 and in June, the justices said, telling jurors
to answer the questions honestly and while at the same time
instructing them to disregard their own answers placed the
jurors in an untenable position, most likely preventing
them from giving proper weight to the defendant's
The court said Monday that Mr. Smith's mitigating evidence
of a low I.Q. and troubled family background - his father
stole from the family to support a cocaine habit and was
sent to prison - were substantial enough to require the
Of the 943 executions in the country since 1976, Texas has
carried out 335, more than the next six states combined. It
has 457 people on death row, second to the 635 in
California, which has conducted 10 executions.