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Supreme Court considers duress defense, federal question, death penalty cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday considered whether a criminal defendant must prove a duress defense by a preponderance of the evidence or, instead, if the government must prove absence of duress beyond a reasonable doubt. In Dixon v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], Dixon was charged with firearms offenses and at trial raised battered woman's syndrome [Wikipedia backgrounder] as a defense. The trial court instructed the jury that Dixon bore the burden of persuasion and the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed her conviction [opinion, PDF], ruling that duress is an affirmative defense. During arguments Tuesday, the justices noted that the 29 states who put the burden of persuasion on prosecutors have not experienced problems with that scheme. AP has more.

The Court also heard arguments in Empire HealthChoice Assurance v. McVeigh [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], where the Court will decide whether federal question jurisdiction exists over a suit by a federal government contractor to enforce, on behalf of the United States, a provision in a health benefits plan for federal employees that is part of a government contract established pursuant to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act. The Second Circuit found no federal question jurisdiction [opinion, PDF] in the case, where Empire sued for reimbursement of insurance benefits paid under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program [OPM materials].

Finally, the Court heard re-arguments [JURIST report] in Kansas v. Marsh [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], concerning whether a sentencing scheme is constitutional when it imposes the death penalty when jurors found mitigating and aggravating evidence to be equal, in order to allow Justice Alito to participate in consideration of the case. The Court first heard arguments in December [JURIST report], but were unable to reach a decision before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired from the bench. On re-argument, Alito asked several questions, but didn't give any indication of how he might vote. AP has more.

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