Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another account of the massiveness and messy process behind Prez clemency initiative

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "U.S. clemency effort, slow to start, will rely on an army of pro bono lawyers," reports on the extraordinary scope and process behind the clemency initiative started seemingly long ago and still awaiting major action by Prez Obama. Here are excerpts:

A massive influx of applications from prisoners and a complicated review process have slowed the Obama administration’s highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, shifting the burden to an army of pro bono lawyers and specialists willing to help.

Just over a year after the administration unveiled its initiative, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, all of whose applications had already been submitted at the time of the announcement.  In the meantime, more than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led initiative.

In an unusual arrangement, the department has sought to deal with the deluge by encouraging outside lawyers to help identify candidates for earlier release and to represent them. Prisoner applications are being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide.

“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the four groups that make up what is known as the Clemency Project 2014.  Reimer, detailing the group’s efforts for the first time, said it spent all of 2014 “gearing up” and was hopeful the process would be accelerated soon....

Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Even given those criteria, however, the universe of inmates who might qualify is huge, lawyers say.  “We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”...

[T]he Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent the petitions of only 14 inmates to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered for clemency....

Lawyers with the Clemency Project say the pace is partly a symptom of dealing with clients whose cases are complex and whose ability to communicate is limited because they’re incarcerated.  Every lawyer participating in the project had to be trained to sift through the applications to identify candidates who met the Justice Department criteria.  In many cases, they had to try to locate old legal documents and contact prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences for answers.

Most of the inmates who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but several thousand who didn’t have access to computers sent paper applications that had to be manually entered into an enormous database the attorneys have built.  Prisoner applications are still trickling in. “Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years. Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right,” Peerce said.

Although the Clemency Project is facilitating the process for inmates, it is not working directly with the Justice Department.  Inmates can contact the Clemency Project, which will research and prepare petitions for qualified candidates and send them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, or, as 5,333 inmates have done since the spring, apply directly to that office. From there, petitions with recommendations go to the office of acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Yates then sends the petitions with her recommendations to the White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who sends them with his recommendations to Obama. Some advocates view that process as overly cumbersome. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the agency “remains committed to the President’s Clemency Initiative, consistent with our overall efforts to modernize outdated sentencing laws.”

“The Clemency Initiative is just one prong of the tools we are using to accomplish that goal, including pushing sentencing reform in Congress and through the Sentencing Commission,” Pierce said. “We also are committed to ensuring that each individual who applies is treated fairly and equally and that public safety is a consideration in each and every petition under consideration.”

Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that now that the Clemency Project has put in place a process for sorting out clemency applications, it plans to review and submit them to the Justice Department more quickly. “We’ve got a lot of work this year, but we’re determined to do it,” he said. “We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”

Some prior related posts:

March 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here notable posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere). Here are a bunch of new posts from CCRC from recent weeks:

February 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"

Images (1)As reported in this local article, "Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has sued Gov. Tom Wolf over the death penalty moratorium he imposed last week." Here the basics:

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Williams asks the state Supreme Court to rule Wolf's move a "lawless act," claiming the governor had no legal right to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Terrance Williams....

The lawsuit filed by the city's Democratic district attorney is the second one the Democratic governor has faced since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court over his decision to fire the executive director of the Open Records Office, which the Legislature created when it updated the state's Right-to-Know Law in 2008.

Wolf's death penalty moratorium, announced Friday, fulfilled a campaign promise. It was criticized by district attorneys, law enforcement and some lawmakers. Some religious leaders and other lawmakers praised it....

Wolf said he will grant a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution but keep the inmates' death sentences intact, which was what he did in the case of Terrance Williams. Williams was scheduled to be executed March 4 for the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia.

"The governor took the action to place a moratorium on the death penalty because Pennsylvania's capital punishment system is flawed — it's ineffective, expensive, and many times unjust," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Wednesday. "As he stated Friday, the governor will wait for the report being produced by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the state Senate, and the recommendations within the report are addressed satisfactorily."

Wolf was within his legal right to grant a reprieve under Article 4, Section 9 of the state constitution, Sheridan added. That section also gives the governor the power to commute sentences and issue pardons.

In his lawsuit, Williams says the governor can grant reprieves only as a temporary measure to allow a defendant to pursue "an available legal remedy." The governor cannot grant open-ended reprieves in cases where there are no legal questions surrounding guilt, the suit states. "Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so," Williams wrote, citing a successful 1994 lawsuit Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli filed against Gov. Robert P. Casey to enforce the death penalty against Martin D. Appel and Josoph Henry....

"The scope of the reprieve power is not mysterious or vague, and it is limited," Williams' lawsuit states. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor an unlimited at-will power of clemency, without which it is not even possible to posit an arguable ability to impose a moratorium."

The filing by Philadelphia DA Williams, which is styled an&"Emergency Commonwealth Petition For Extraordinary Relief Under King's Bench Jurisdiction," was filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and is available at this link.  I find the filing quite effective and compelling, and I thought these passages were especially notable:

On February 13, 2015, the Governor issued a purported reprieve in connection with his publicly-announced assumption of a constitutionally-nonexistent power to declare a “moratorium” on death sentences in Pennsylvania.

This lawless act by the Governor, improperly and inaccurately characterized as a reprieve — for the act issued in this case is not, in fact, a reprieve — is not within the constitutional powers of the Governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2. It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this Court....

The alleged reprieve, which is not a reprieve at all, violates the constitutional separation of powers.  The constitution requires due process, not the Governor’s personal standard of absolute perfection; and the task of assuring that criminal judgments meet that correct standard is assigned to the judiciary, not the executive.Exercise, by another branch, of an extra-constitutional attempt to disturb settled judgments in criminal cases is an impermissible usurpation of the exclusive function of the judiciary....

In law and in reality, therefore, the Governor seeks to nullify valid, final judgments of sentence in usurpation of the judicial function, and seeks to subject the law governing capital sentencing to the test of his personal standard of satisfaction,which in this instance happens to be a test of infallibility that is impossible for mere mortals to satisfy. This is not permissible in a government that is founded on the principle that the people are to be ruled by laws enacted by their representatives in the legislative process, and not the personal whims of a king or dictator. The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it.

February 20, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Gov. Tom Wolf declares moratorium on death penalty in Pa.," there is some headline-making news about capital punishment administration emerging from the Keystone State: 

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium Friday on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, potentially halting the process for 186 prisoners who've received a death sentence. Since 1693, the commonwealth has executed 1,043 prisoners, the last of which was Philadelphia torture killer Gary Heidnik in 1999. That execution took place, in large part, because Heidnik gave up his right to appeal.

In a statement released Friday, Wolf said the state's current death penalty is "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive."...

Wolf's first action was a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Williams was convicted of two murders he committed as a teenager in 1984. "Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," Wolf said. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes."

Shortly after Wolf's announcement, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he reintroduced his bill Friday to abolish the death penalty altogether. "I am extremely grateful that our governor will stop spending our tax dollars to, in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, tinker with the machinery of death," he said, in a written statement.

Gov. Wolf's detailed four-page statement justifying his decision today is a fascinating read (which I am going to make my sentencing students read and re-read). The full statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

Pursuant to authority granted in Article IV, § 9 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, I am today exercising my power as Governor to grant a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrence Williams. A death warrant for this case was signed on January 13, 2015 by my predecessor, acting pursuant to Section 4302 of the Pennsylvania Prisons and Parole Code. The execution was scheduled for March 4, 2015.

The reprieve announced today shall remain in effect until I have received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment (established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011), and any recommendations contained therein are satisfactorily addressed. In addition, it is my intention to grant a reprieve in each future instance in which an execution is scheduled, until this condition is met....

There are currently 186 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row. Despite having the fifth largest death row in the nation, the death penalty has rarely been imposed in modern times. In the nearly forty years since the Pennsylvania General Assembly reinstated the death penalty, the Commonwealth has executed three people, all of whom voluntarily abandoned their right to further due process.

In that same period, Governors have signed 434 death warrants. All but the three noted above have subsequently been stayed by a court. One inmate has been scheduled for execution six times, each of which has been cancelled due to a state or federal appeal. Two inmates have remained on death row for more than three decades. This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.

While the pace of the process frustrates some, the fail-safes of appellate review are essential in avoiding a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Since reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania....

If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s sy stem is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible....

[A]administering the death penalty, with all the necessary legal appeals and safeguards as well as extra security and individual cells on death row, is extremely expensive. A recent analysis conducted by the Reading Eagle estimates that the capital justice apparatus has cost taxpayers at least $315 million, but noted that this figure was very likely low. Other estimates have suggested the cost to be $600 million or more. The Commonwealth has received very little, if any, benefit from this massive expenditure.

February 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.

Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:

An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.

At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative.  The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice.  The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency.  Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.

Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:

  • Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;

  • Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;

  • Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);

  • Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;

  • Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;

  • Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;

  • Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;

  • Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....

  • Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;

  • Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;

  • Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and

  • Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....

This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.

Some prior related posts:

January 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Are Pardons Becoming More Politically Acceptable?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Governing article. The piece has the subheadline, "Gubernatorial pardons have been in decline since the 1980s, but that appears to be changing as views evolve on rehabilitation and drug offenses." And here are excerpts:

Last Friday, on his last full business day in office, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned 232 ex-offenders. That same day, in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence issued three pardons -- the first during his two years in office.

Which governor’s actions were standard? Until recently, it would have been easy to pick Pence. For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes.

But gubernatorial pardons may be about ready to start making a comeback. As part of the broader rethinking of criminal justice strategies, in which concerns about rehabilitation, exonerations and expungement of records have become part of the mix, more governors seem willing to embrace their historic role of offering clemency to those who have earned it.

Quinn offered 43 additional offenders clemency during his last minutes in office on Monday, bringing his career total well above 1,000. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued nearly 50 pardons during his first year in office, while California’s Jerry Brown gave out more than 100 on Christmas Eve.

Those sorts of numbers still stand out. The number of gubernatorial pardons has dropped dramatically in recent decades, according to legal experts. Plenty of governors these days only offer a few pardons a year, if that many. But governors offering a regular flow of pardons are no longer the outliers that they would have been just a few years ago. "I do have a sense that people like Quinn represent the future," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois and editor of the Power Pardon blog. "There is kind of a different mindset."

One telltale sign of that, Ruckman points out, is that some new governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland and Bruce Rauner of Illinois, talked during the campaign last year about the importance of taking the pardon power seriously in office. "That wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s,” Ruckman said....

States that have either independent pardoning boards or entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon, such as Connecticut and Georgia, have been more active on the clemency front than governors acting alone. A number of those states routinely grant upwards of 200 pardons per year.

Still, governors from both parties, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin have offered either few or no pardons. There’s still a “political fear quotient” involved in pardoning someone who might go on to commit a heinous crime, noted former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

That’s why governors need to be careful, Ehrlich said, putting regular review processes in place and not bunching up all their decisions at holidays or as they leave office. That's the approach outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has taken, reviewing applications on a monthly basis throughout his tenure. Ehrlich has made pardons something of a personal cause, speaking frequently about the responsibility governors have regarding clemency. He runs a program to delineate best practices at Catholic University and offers advice to incoming governors....

“One thing that will be interesting to watch is that President Obama” -- who has issued the fewest pardons of any president since Dwight Eisenhower -- “has a clemency project that may or may not result in hundreds of sentences being commuted,” said Osler. “Maybe that will embolden some of these more liberal governors as well.”

January 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014

Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.

"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."

Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.

"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...

Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.

The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.

The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.

The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push.  The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."    

Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.  

January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story headlined "Vietnam veteran in Georgia pleads to be spared the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for a decorated Vietnam War veteran due to be executed in Georgia next week say his life should be spared because he was suffering from a combat-related mental disorder when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998.

Andrew Brannan's guilt is not disputed. He shot Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller, 22, nine times during a traffic stop, a scene caught on tape by the deputy's patrol car camera.

Defense attorneys argue Brannan, 66, should not be put to death for behavior they say is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his combat service. On Monday, they will ask the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Brannan's sentence to life in prison without parole. “Commuting his sentence would honor his very meritorious service to this country,” said Brian Kammer, one of Brannan’s lawyers. “We should not be executing those we sent into harm’s way and who were deeply wounded, physically and mentally.”...

Brannan received Army commendations and a Bronze Star for his service as an officer, Kammer said. He was on full Army disability for PTSD and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before killing Dinkheller, the lawyer said.

Brannan, who had no prior criminal record, was driving 98 miles per hour on a Georgia highway when Dinkheller pulled him over in January 1998, according to court records. The video recording showed Brannan stepping out of his truck, cursing and telling the deputy to shoot him....

Brannan pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. Some experts testified that during the shooting he suffered a flashback from combat, but a court-appointed psychiatrist said Brannan was sane and may have killed the deputy because he believed the officer was being disrespectful.

Brannan's execution is scheduled for Tuesday. He would be the first person put the death in the United States this year.

I am inclined to assert that this offender's decorated service on behalf of our nation as well as his undisputed mental problems indisputably means that Brannan is not one of the "worst of the worst" killers. For that reason, I would be inclined to support this defendant's commutation request.

Do others agree?

Some older related posts:

January 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push

Josh Gerstein has this extraordinary Politico piece which provides a terrific (and disconcerting) review of the Obama Administration's recent clemency activities.  The lengthy piece is a must-read for lots of reasons. It is headlined "Obama's drug-sentencing quagmire: Justice Department turns to ACLU, others to prepare thousands of commutation requests," and here is how it starts:

President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual decision to invite advocacy groups like the ACLU to help screen applications, according to lawyers close to the process.

In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply to cut short their sentences, more than 25,000 prisoners have come forward.  But when Obama announced his annual commutations last month, only eight were given.  That reflects deeper problems in the government’s process for reviewing sentences and determining which ones are, indeed, overly long because of the crack-powder distinction, according to those familiar with the system.

The piece includes lots of interesting and notable comments by various unnamed lawyers discussing how the President, the Justice Department, and the Clemency Project 2014 are handling matters. Here are excerpts with some of these quotes:

With so many thousands of petitions pending, the tiny number of commutations announced during the Christmas season prompted a new round of skepticism about the administration’s capacity to ease onerous drug sentencing.

“This is paltry,” said one lawyer familiar with the process. “It is very disappointing.”

“I’d be shocked if it skyrockets to 100 before [Obama] leaves office,” another added....

[DOJ] officials encouraged the groups forming the Clemency Project to recruit and train private attorneys to prepare applications. The organizations have instituted their own screening effort to try to determine if prisoners meet the criteria and to make sure the private lawyers spend time on meritorious cases....

Some liberal-leaning lawyers and clemency advocates ... say the private consortium has taken on an outsize, quasi-official role in the process and has an inherent conflict of interest: Project organizers want to get the strongest possible applications to the Justice Department, which may mean abandoning prisoners whose cases fall into a gray area.

“It bothers me that you have a group of private citizens who have an under-the-table deal with the deputy attorney general to help him do his job and the promise is, ‘We’re going to put your guys at the front of the list,’” one lawyer involved said.  “Instead of dealing with a process that’s already opaque and bureaucratic and too slow, they’ve added this additional layer that’s even more opaque and bureaucratic and too slow.”...

One benefit to the administration of its current approach of working with outside groups is that it could mute criticism from advocates wrapped up in the effort — at least as long as there seems to be a prospect of a meaningful wave of commutations.  “They’ve co-opted all the people who would usually be critics,” said one lawyer close to the project.  “You have that dynamic in play, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

The Clemency Project groups insist their involvement hasn’t silenced them.

Though I am not too concerned about clemency critics being co-opted through the Clemency Project, I am concerned about what will be a poor allocation of pro bono lawyering efforts if 1,500 lawyers spend months and years working on clemency applications for thousands of offenders if Prez Obama ends up granting commutations to only a few hundred prisoners. I genuinely believe that an army of 1,500 lawyers working on aggressive for months and years on federal sentencing litigation — perhaps in marijuana cases or attacking some extreme mandatory minimums through habeas actions or other means — could produce jurisprudential development that could end up helping many more than a few hundred defendants.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Outgoing Maryland Gov commutes final four state death sentences to life

As reported in this CNN article, "Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took the state's last four inmates off death row Wednesday, commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole in one of his final acts in office."  Here is more:

The move comes as the Democrat considers a run for president — a long-shot bid that many Democrats only expect to gain steam if Hillary Clinton opts not to run.

O'Malley's office announced the move in a release Wednesday morning, noting that the state's legislature had abolished the death penalty with a law that took effect in May 2013 and that the state's courts and attorney general have questioned whether the state has legal authority to carry out death sentences that were already imposed.

"In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us," O'Malley said in a statement.  "That truth is this — few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland."

The four inmates whose sentences were commuted are Vernon Lee Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison Sr., who were convicted of the 1983 contract killing of two witnesses scheduled to testify in a federal drug trial; Heath William Burch, convicted of killing an elderly neighbor couple in 1995; and Jody Lee Miles, convicted of robbing and shooting a theater manager in 1997.

O'Malley said in the statement that he'd met with the families of the victims of the four convicted killers whose sentences he commuted, and said they would suffer through "the additional torment of an un-ending legal process."

"In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future," O'Malley said.

Prior relates posts:

December 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

Because topics covered at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center are so interesting and get little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere), I plan to continue noting in this space all the the notable posts regularly appearing at CCRC.  Here are a bunch more posts of notes from CCRC of as 2014 is winding down:

December 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack