Nance v. Ward (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

The Federal Docket

July 14, 2022

Michael Nance was sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a bystander during a bank robbery, and that sentence was affirmed on both direct and collateral appeal. Lethal injection is the only manner of execution authorized by Georgia law. However, Nance has certain medical conditions that, he argued, would make death by lethal injection incredibly painful.

He filed a §1983 suit, alleging that execution by lethal injection, as applied to him, would violate his Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Nance specifically requested death by firing squad instead, pointing to the 4 other States that authorize the practice.

The majority recognized that State prisoners’ claims are excepted from §1983 actions when they lie within the “core” of habeas corpus law—i.e., where the relief sought challenges (or necessitates a challenge to) the validity of a conviction or sentence. The Eleventh Circuit and the dissent would treat Nance’s manner-of-death claim which, if successful, would require Georgia to legislatively amend its capital punishment statute to carry out his execution (or decide not to execute him it all), as necessitating the invalidation of his death sentence.

However, the majority noted that the Court’s prior precedent required any prisoner challenging the manner of his execution to show an available alternative, actually capable of being carried out by the State. Thus, for a State prisoner to succeed on the merits of his manner-of-death claim, it could only be upon sufficient proof of the State’s ability to execute the execution. Thus, the majority held, Nance’s claim did not necessitate the invalidation of a State sentence and was properly brought as a §1983 claim.

Certiorari to the Eleventh Circuit
Opinion by Kagan, joined by Roberts, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh
Dissent by Barrett, joined by Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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