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How the Supreme Court handles death cases

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Supreme Court of the United States decisions to allow inmates to be put to death or to grant a rare reprieve often come at the last minute, and sometimes after the appointed hour of execution has come and gone.

That was the case Tuesday night in Georgia, where Marcus Wellons was pronounced dead just before midnight, nearly five hours after he was scheduled to be executed.

But there is less mystery to the high court process than one might think:

The "death clerk"

The justices and their clerks know well in advance when executions are scheduled and where. A court official informally known as the death clerk sends around a weekly update and is in frequent contact with lawyers for inmates and the states as the date of execution nears.

As lawyers for condemned inmates press the case for delay in state and lower federal courts, the Supreme Court receives information about developments and, eventually, copies of those decisions.

Late filings

Very often those lawyers bring those arguments or similar ones the highest court in the country in a final attempt to save their clients' lives. On Tuesday, for instance, lawyers for Wellons and the state of Georgia were filing legal papers at the Supreme Court well into the evening.

The justices' rejection of Wellons' various appeals was issued roughly an hour after the last filing was submitted. And Wellons was executed just over an hour later.

Fateful decisions

When an emergency appeal reaches the Supreme Court, it is directed to the justice who oversees the state in which the execution is scheduled. But death penalty appeals almost always are referred to the entire court.

The justices typically do not meet in person to discuss these cases, but confer by phone, and sometimes through their law clerks, according to the court's guide to emergency applications.

It takes five justices, a majority of the court, to issue a stay. The overwhelming bulk of last-minute appeals are denied, and often without comment.

Occasionally, one or more justices will dissent from the decision to let the execution take place. Even more rarely, a justice will explain why.

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  1. The is an unsigned editorial masquerading as a news story. Almost everyone quoted was biased in favor of letting all illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. (Ignoring that Obama deported 3.5 million in 8 years). For some reason Obama enforcing part of the immigration laws was O.K. but Trump enforcing additional parts is terrible. I have listed to press conferences and explanations of the Homeland Security memos and I gather from them that less than 1 million will be targeted for deportation, the "dreamers" will be left alone and illegals arriving in the last two years -- especially those arriving very recently -- will be subject to deportation but after the criminals. This will not substantially affect the GDP negatively, especially as it will take place over a number of years. I personally think this is a rational approach to the illegal immigration problem. It may cause Congress to finally pass new immigration laws rationalizing the whole immigration situation.

  2. Mr. Straw, I hope you prevail in the fight. Please show us fellow American's that there is a way to fight the corrupted justice system and make them an example that you and others will not be treated unfairly. I hope you the best and good luck....

  3. @ President Snow - Nah, why try to fix something that ain't broken??? You do make an excellent point. I am sure some Mickey or Minnie Mouse will take Ruckers seat, I wonder how his retirement planning is coming along???

  4. Can someone please explain why Judge Barnes, Judge Mathias and Chief Judge Vaidik thought it was OK to re weigh the evidence blatantly knowing that by doing so was against the rules and went ahead and voted in favor of the father? I would love to ask them WHY??? I would also like to ask the three Supreme Justices why they thought it was OK too.

  5. How nice, on the day of my car accident on the way to work at the Indiana Supreme Court. Unlike the others, I did not steal any money or do ANYTHING unethical whatsoever. I am suing the Indiana Supreme Court and appealed the failure of the district court in SDIN to protect me. I am suing the federal judge because she failed to protect me and her abandonment of jurisdiction leaves her open to lawsuits because she stripped herself of immunity. I am a candidate for Indiana Supreme Court justice, and they imposed just enough sanction so that I am made ineligible. I am asking the 7th Circuit to remove all of them and appoint me as the new Chief Justice of Indiana. That's what they get for dishonoring my sacrifice and and violating the ADA in about 50 different ways.

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