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Court declines death penalty case on jury selection

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Over a written dissent by two justices, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a death penalty case asking them to weigh in on when jury selection begins and the defendant has a right to be present. The order in Sandoval v. Texas came as part of a list of orders from the justices’ private conference last week. The justices did not add any new cases to their docket for the 2024-25 term.

The denial of review came in the case of a Texas man, Gustavo Sandoval, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the killing of an off-duty border patrol officer during an attempted robbery. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the state’s highest court for criminal cases, concluded that Sandoval did not have a constitutional right to attend special proceedings at which a judge conducted preliminary interviews of potential jurors who had been called specifically for his case, and who were given information about Sandoval and the charges against him.

Sandoval went to the Supreme Court, but the justices turned down his request without explanation on Monday morning. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented from that decision, in a six-page opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Jackson contended that the special proceedings at which the trial judge interviewed potential jurors in Sandoval’s case closely resembled regular “voir dire” proceedings – the process used to determine the suitability of potential jurors. Because the Supreme Court has already recognized that a defendant has a right to be present during voir dire, she wrote, “it seems to me self-evident that a defendant’s presence for the first court appearance of prospective jurors assembled specifically for his case likewise bears on ‘the fulness of his opportunity to defend against the charge.’”

Because the Texas court’s decision to the contrary conflicts with the decision of other state and federal courts that would have allowed Sandoval to attend, she concluded, his case presents “an issue of clear constitutional and practical significance that this Court should have granted” review to resolve.

The justices denied review without comment in the case of another Texas inmate, Jose Gamboa, who was sentenced to death for two murders at a San Antonio bar in 2005 but has maintained his innocence since then. Gamboa’s petition for review centered on whether he could reopen a federal district court’s denial of his request for post-conviction relief when his request to do so rested on the allegation that the lawyer who represented him in that proceeding effectively abandoned him.

Gamboa’s court-appointed lawyer, John Ritenour, met with him only once, and did not conduct any additional investigation into Gamboa’s case before filing a petition for post-conviction relief. The claims in the petition that Ritenour eventually filed were essentially duplicates – including the typographical errors and grammatical mistakes – of the claims that Ritenour had filed in an earlier case.

Gamboa asked the court to appoint a new lawyer, but the district court denied both that request and, eventually, his petition for post-conviction relief. When Gamboa filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to reopen the judgment in light of Ritenour’s abandonment, the district court rejected that request as well.

Gamboa then sought to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, but the court of appeals turned down his request. It reasoned that a motion under Rule 60(b) alleging that an attorney abandoned a criminal client, depriving that client of his right to counsel, is the kind of successive claim for post-conviction relief that federal law prohibits, because its purpose is to reopen the earlier proceedings to add new claims.

Gamboa came to the Supreme Court last fall, asking the justices to take up his case. But after requesting the record in his case from the lower courts – a sign that the court is likely looking closely at the case – the justices on Monday turned him down without any explanation.

The justices’ next private conference is scheduled for Thursday, May 16. Orders from that conference are likely to follow on Monday, May 20, at 9:30 a.m.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Court declines death penalty case on jury selection, SCOTUSblog (May. 13, 2024, 1:10 PM),