Thursday, August 27, 2015
Might Tennessee soon have its machinery of death up and running?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story headlined "Judge upholds Tennessee lethal injection method." Here are the basics:
A Tennessee judge on Wednesday upheld the state's lethal injection process for executing inmates.
Davidson County Chancery Judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, didn't prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death. She also said the plaintiffs didn't show during a lengthy trial that there have been problems in states where the method has been used. "Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens ... on any of their claims," Bonnyman said.
Plaintiffs' attorney Kelley Henry said they plan to appeal.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement he hoped the families of victims would be comforted by the ruling. "The State of Tennessee has worked very hard to make sure the protocol used is reliable and humane, today the Court recognized that," the statement said. While much of the focus of this case has been on the inmates, we should not forget the victims and the heartache suffered by their families."
Tennessee's protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital mixed to order by a pharmacist, because the only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions. Tennessee has not executed an inmate for more than five years because of legal challenges and problems in obtaining lethal injection drugs.
Lawmakers moved from a three-drug lethal injection method to a one-drug method and to reinstate the electric chair as a backup. Both changes brought challenges, and all previously scheduled executions have been put on hold.
This ruling and the planned appeals by the death row defendants suggests that Tennessee might be a good state to watch to see if the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip can really help states finally get their death penalty machinery back up and running. In the wake of Glossip and absent any evidence of illicit chicanery by Tennessee officials, any appeals in this case ought to be resolved fairly expeditiously (especially if Tennessee were now set execution dates for some condemned murderers). But, of course, the condemned still have every reason, and surely will seek every opportunity, to continue to extend the lethal injection litigation for as long as possible in both state and federal courts. I have thought that Glossip should speed things along in this state and others, but only time will tell.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote
As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016." Here is more:
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.
"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money....
Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol.
The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.
Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.
How did Boston bombing jurors not get informed some victims did not favor death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?
As regular readers may recall from this post back in April, Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year-old Martin who was one of three people killed in the April 2013 explosions at the Boston marathon's finish line, wrote this stirring Boston Globe commentary about their hopes for the outcome in the federal criminal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Richards there expressed disinterest in a death sentence for Tsarnaev because of all the attention and appeals that such a sentence would necessarily bring for the duration of Tsarnaev's life behind bars. As they explained, in order to be able to "turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future," they were calling upon "the Department of Justice [to take] the death penalty off the table in an exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal."
As regular readers know, federal statutory law gives crime victims an inpedendent right to express their views in federal sentencing proceedings. For that reason, and especially because the feelings and desires of all victims seems important, relevant and proper evidence for jurors trying to decide on a life/death capital verdict, I took for granted that anti-death-sentence victim views would get relayed in some way to the jurors deciding on the sentence for Tsarnaev. (Indeed, I had long thought that one of many benefits of the federal Crime Victim Rights Act was to ensure federal court proceedings would regularly incorportate the views and voices of all victims, not just those prosecutors and/or defense attorneys brought forward.)
But this local interview with the first Boston bombing juror to speak publicly suggests that (1) the jurors were unaware of the Richards' perspective on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (2) at least one juror might have reached a different verdict if he knew of what the Richards had said. Here is part of the introduction and transcript of the interview with Kevan Fagan, Juror 83, covering this ground:
Kevan Fagan, “Juror 83″ in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sat down for an interview in our studio with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz and David Boeri, who both covered the trial. The 23-year-old became the first juror to agree to be named, to have his picture taken and to talk about the trial, though he would not discuss the jury’s deliberations.
Fagan told WBUR that he may not have voted for the death penalty had he known that some bombing victims wanted Tsarnaev to get life in prison. He said he likely would have changed his vote had he been aware of opposition to the death penalty by the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim killed in the bombing.
“If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either,” he said in the interview. The jurors were ordered to avoid media coverage of the trial.
He is co-authoring a book about his experience titled “Juror 83 — The Tsarnaev Trial: 34 Days That Changed Me” that is expected to be released at the end of September....
DB: What impressed you? Did you find anything persuasive in the defense case?
KF: I think it was a very hard case, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if there have been harder cases to defend. I think they did the best that they could for their client.
DB: You didn’t know at the time that the Richard family and other families had written to the U.S. Attorney and to the Justice Department saying they were opposed to the death penalty?
KF: Oh sure. No, I had no clue about that.
JL: If you had known that, would you have changed your vote?
KF: If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either.
DB: What do you mean?
KF: If I went out of my way and disrespected the judge and went against his orders about researching things. That wouldn’t have been very fair or judicious of me.
Because this juror is writing a book about his experience as a juror — and especially because this juror will likely benefit personally from the publicity that provocative interviews will generate — I am a bit suspicious of his suggestion that his sentencing vote would have been different if he had full information about all victim perspectives. Nevertheless, I now am wondering a lot about (a) whatever legal or strategic or practical issues surrounded decisions to keep jurors unaware of the Richards' (and other victims'?) perspectives on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (b) whether this jury unawareness, coupled with this juror's comments about the impact such information could have had, will become a key part of direct and collateral appeals of the Tsarnaev death sentence.
I cannot help but note a particular and particularly sad irony here: the commentary authored by the Richards movingly "urge[d] the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close"; but now this commentary, now combined with its failure to get known to the jury during the sentencing proceedings, seems itself likely to continue to generate legal issues and media attention. The commentary not only noted, but now adds the reality that, a death sentence for Tsarnaev is all but certain to ensure this case will not be coming to a close for decades. So sad.
A few prior related posts:
- Parent of Boston bombers' young victims: "To end the anguish, drop the death penalty"
- "Sister of slain MIT officer opposes death penalty for Tsarnaev"
- Varied perspectives on the varied challenges facing varied victims
- Capital jury concludes character of crime matters most in death sentencing of Boston bomber
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Despite Glossip, federal judge orders halt to Mississippi's lethal injection plans
I had thought that the Supreme Court's big Glossip Eighth Amendment ruling a couple of month ago could make it at least somewhat easier for states to get their condemned murderers to execution chambers. But, intriguingly, only two executions have been carried out since Glossip was decided, and the United States thus remains on track in 2015 for the lowest yearly total of executions in a quarter-century.
Moreover, as reported via this (somewhat confusing) AP article, headlined "Federal judge halts executions in Mississippi," even claims that would seem to have been resolved by Glossip are still disrupting state execution efforts in a least one state. Here are the basic details:
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state of Mississippi from using two drugs in executions, shutting down the death penalty in the state for now.
U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order saying Mississippi officials cannot use pentobarbital or midazolam, two drugs used to render prisoners unconscious. Mississippi law requires a three-drug process, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops an inmate's heart.
Jim Craig, a lawyer for two inmates, said Wingate gave the order verbally Tuesday in a phone conference with him and other lawyers. Wingate was supposed to issue a written order, but no written copy was yet available later in the day.
Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the order bars the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate. The state quickly filed notice Tuesday saying it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn Wingate's order.
"We are extremely disappointed that the federal court has frustrated the State of Mississippi's lawful duty to enforce its criminal sentence of capital punishment," Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement. "Just months ago the United States Supreme Court approved Oklahoma's method of lethal injection. Mississippi's method follows that of Oklahoma. We feel strongly that the district court misapplied the law."
Craig expects Wingate to issue a preliminary injunction that could freeze executions until the case is complete. Craig said Wingate told lawyers he would expedite the case.
Mississippi is one of a number of states facing legal challenges to lethal injections. Hood's office asked the state Supreme Court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court never acted.
Prisoners say they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution, and that such pain violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit says there's no guarantee Mississippi can mix a safe and effective anesthetic to knock out prisoners, and even then, prisoners could remain conscious during execution.
As the case was proceeding, Hood's office told Wingate that Mississippi was abandoning its plans to use pentobarbital and instead would use midazolam to knock out prisoners. Mississippi officials have said they've struggled to buy pentobarbital as death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.
Ninth Circuit panel set for California's appeal of its (unconstitutional?) death penalty administration
Readers may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional. That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose." This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and a Ninth Circuit panel is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case next week.
As reported in this local article, headlined "3 judges appointed by Democrats will hear California death penalty appeal," a notable troika of circuit judges will be the first to hear California's appeal:
The constitutionality of California’s death penalty system will be reviewed next week by a panel of three Democratic appointees on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges Susan P. Graber and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, Clinton appointees, and Paul J. Watford, an Obama appointee, were randomly assigned Monday to hear an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s death penalty law as unconstitutional.
Graber is a former Oregon Supreme Court justice. After joining the federal appeals court, she was once asked to recuse herself from a death penalty case out of Arizona because her father was killed in a carjacking nearly 40 years earlier. One of the teenagers sentenced to death for her father's killing later had his sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Graber declined the recusal request in the Arizona case, which also involved a carjacking and killing.
Rawlinson is viewed as one of the most conservative Democratic appointees on the court. A former prosecutor from Las Vegas, Rawlinson was the only member of an 11-judge panel to vote to uphold a felony conviction of Barry Bonds, the former San Francisco Giants baseball player.
Watford, a former federal prosecutor, is viewed as a potential candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court if a seat opens up while President Obama is in office. He is generally described as a moderate.
The three are scheduled to hear arguments in Pasadena on Aug. 31 on last year’s death penalty ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, appointed by former President George W. Bush.
As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling for reasons that go beyond its basic significance of declaring unconstitutional the administration of the state capital punishment system with the most persons serving time on death row. And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision.
In the end, I am inclined to assert that the composition of this panel is relatively inconsequential. Whichever side prevails on appeal, the other side is all-but-certain to appeal to the full en banc Ninth Circuit and/or the Supreme Court. And, especially in the wake of all the dissents in Glossip, I think there is a reasonable likelihood SCOTUS will eventually take up this case no matter how the Ninth Circuit first deals with it.
Prior related posts:
- Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment
- Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty
- Furman and randomness (not just delay) at heart of California capital ruling
- Thoughtful Teague-based criticism of the remarkable California capital ruling in Jones v. Chappell
- California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case
- Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system
Monday, August 24, 2015
Aurora victims present a "parade of pain" at on-going James Holmes sentencing proceedings
One of many benefits I see in giving crime victims certain rights in the criminal justice system is to ensure their voices are heard and their experiences are memoralized in courtroom proceedings even when those voices and experiences may not directly impact sentencing outcomes. In turn, I think it now worth highlighting the on-going proceedings in a Colorado courtroom that are effectively and potently reported in this CNN piece headlined "A parade of pain at James Holmes sentencing." I recommend reading the whole piece, and here are excerpts:
One by one, the wounded and the grieving are telling a Colorado judge how the Aurora movie theater gunman stripped the normal from their lives. Some are sobbing, some are angry. All are shattered by loss. It is a parade of pain that will not change the sentence for the 27-year-old shooter. James Eagan Holmes will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
But the inevitable outcome didn't stop the grieving grandfather of the gunman's youngest victim from making a suggestion: "I would challenge the murderer to do the right thing for once in this trial and petition the court for execution by firing squad," said Robert Sullivan.
He was the doting grandfather of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who had innocent, shining brown eyes. Her pregnant mother, Ashley Moser, was shot and paralyzed.
Moser said she was looking forward to being a mother of two, but now she's nobody's mommy. She needs constant nursing care. She said she wished Holmes could be sentenced to life as a quadriplegic, just as she and two other shooting victims are.
More than 40 people gave victim impact statements on Monday, and at least 40 more are expected on Tuesday....
[M]any of the victims say they feel cheated, and they appeared to seek comfort in demonizing a defendant who took so much from them. A man whose son was gunned down in the theater referred to Holmes' schizophrenia as "a mental hangnail" and said he was disgusted during the trial by his "smirk." He called Holmes' attorneys "horrible people" and said they "fabricated a defense" to pad their resumes.
Beth Craft, whose brother John Larimer was killed, said, "The defendant may be mentally ill, but he is more evil than anything else."...
The trial, Kathleen Pourciau said, was like watching someone get away with something. It felt out of whack, unbalanced. It didn't feel like justice.
"When justice isn't served, there's a brutal message delivered to the victims," she said. "When the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the message to the victims is that your loss, your pain isn't important. The message was that the state of Colorado values the life of a mass murderer more than the people he murdered.
"How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?" Pourciau asked. "Why do you even have a death penalty if you don't use it? What signal does this sentence send to Bonnie Kate and others? We care, but not that much?"
A sentence of 12 life terms topped by hundreds of additional years behind bars is "absurd," she added, "the judicial equivalent of beating a dead horse."
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Connecticut Supreme Court retroactive abolition of death sentences prompting prosepctive perspectives
Because I find a lot of state supreme court sentencing rulings quite interesting and important, I am sometimes troubled that such rulings rarely too garner much media or academic attention. But, as with many stories in the sentencing unverse, these dyanmics change dramatically when the issue is death penalty abolition. So, I am not too surprised that last week's ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which followed up the state's legislature's prospective death penalty repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition (basics here), has got lots of folks talking a lot. Two recent commentaries especially have caught my attention this morning:
From LawProf Kevin Barry in the Los Angeles Times here, "State by state, the death penalty is losing ground."
A key passage: "Although the State of Connecticut vs. Eduardo Santiago ruling definitively bans capital punishment in Connecticut, it raises three key questions about the death penalty nationally. The first question is for the U.S. Supreme Court: How many states must abolish the death penalty before the high court will strike it down for good?"
From Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times here, "Talking About the Death Penalty, Court to Court."
A key passage: "In the breadth of its perspective on the history and current problematic state of the death penalty, in its cleareyed dissection of the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of modern deathpenalty jurisprudence, the Connecticut Supreme Court not only produced an important decision for its own jurisdiction; but it addressed the United States Supreme Court frankly and directly. The decision engages the Supreme Court at a crucial moment of mounting unease, within the court and outside it, with the death penalty’s trajectory over the nearly four decades since the court permitted states to resume executions."
Meanwhile, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences also continues to ruminate on what the Connecticut Supreme Court did in these follow-up posts: "Breathtaking Hypocrisy" and "Death-penalty Deception"
Prior related post:
- Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
"FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article in my own Columbus Dispatch. The piece provides both the latest news and effective background on the difficulties Ohio has been facing of late in the operation of its death machinery:
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration official wrote June 26 to Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Correction, saying the agency learned the state “intends to obtain bulk and finished dosage forms of sodium thiopental. Since sodium thiopental is not available in the United States, we assume the product would be obtained from an overseas source.”
“Please note that there is no FDA approved application for sodium thiopental,” wrote Domenic Veneziano, the federal agency’s director of import operations, “and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States.”
Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith confirmed receipt of the letter, but she would not say if the state followed through with an overseas purchase of the drug used in executions. “DRC continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions. This process has included multiple options,” Smith said. The agency does not yet have drugs for the next execution, she said....
The latest development comes less than five months before Ohio’s scheduled execution of Ronald Phillips of Summit County on Jan. 21, 2016. Another 20 executions have been set through May 2019.
Ohio’s last execution was Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for several minutes before succumbing to a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative. The drugs had never been used in combination for an execution anywhere in the U.S. Prison officials subsequently abandoned using those drugs, and turned to the General Assembly for help. The legislature passed a law permitting the agency to buy drugs under a secret contract with a “compounding pharmacy,” typically smaller businesses which mix ingredients to user specifications.
Sodium thiopental is no longer available for purchase in the U.S. The last domestic manufacturer stopped production in 2011, largely because states were using it for executions. Ohio’s revised execution policy calls for using large doses of sedatives, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Three months after jury's death verdict, Tsarnaev lawyers move for new penalty trial
As reported in this AP article, headlined "Lawyers ask for new trial outside Boston for marathon bomber," the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's attorneys have now moved in federal district court for a new penalty phase trial based mostly their claim that "due to continuous and unrelenting publicity combined with pervasive connections between jurors and the events surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing that precluded impartial adjudication in both appearance and fact." (This last phrase comes from the start of the papers filed yesterday, which can be accessed at this link thanks to The Marshall Project.)
Here is a partial summary of the filing via the AP piece (including an extra legal twist thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling):
They argued that, because of widespread outrage in Boston after the deadly 2013 attack, jurors in the city couldn't be objective before finding him guilty and recommending a death sentence. As evidence of "continuous and unrelenting publicity," they provided a long list of public events held in honor of the victims, including a new city holiday and several races.
Widespread media coverage featured stories about survivors, including one "powerfully emotional" moment during the 2015 marathon when amputee Rebekah Gregory ran the last 3.5 miles on a prosthetic leg before falling to her knees at the finish line, crying, the filing said. Banners posted around the city urged solidarity. Even on social media, the lawyers wrote, jurors were inundated with posts from relatives and friends.
"Put simply, prejudicial media coverage, events and environment saturated greater Boston, including the social networks of actual trial jurors, and made it an improper venue for the trial of this case," the filing said.
The filing concludes that the atmosphere tainted Tsarnaev's constitutional right to an impartial trial. It asks that his guilty verdict be overturned and that the court provide a new trial to determine his guilt and his penalty....
The defense tried unsuccessfully during the trial to have it moved elsewhere, warning that too many people had personal ties to the marathon or the attack and that anguish in Boston was too powerful to provide a fair trial.
The filing Monday reiterated that request and added new legal arguments, including that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling throws many convictions into question. That ruling centered on the legal definition of a "crime of violence," a distinction that can carry heavier penalties. The court ruled that part of the federal definition was unconstitutionally vague and struck it down.
In the Tsarnaev case, jurors were told that 15 of his convictions were for crimes of violence, but the trial court didn't explain which part of the definition they met, according to the filing. Therefore, Tsarnaev should be acquitted for all of those charges, his attorneys wrote. Tsarnaev was charged with placing and discharging an explosive in public, for example, but his lawyers said "the 'delivery' and 'placement' of an explosive do not involve violent force."
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition
The Connecticut Supreme Court today finally resolved, via a split vote, what is to become of the other capital murderers on te state's death row in the aftermath of the legislative repeal of death penalty back in 2012. Here is the lengthy paragraph that starts the lengthy marjority opinion in Connecticut v. Santiago, No. SC 17413 (Conn. Aug 13, 2015) (available here):
Although the death penalty has been a fixture of Connecticut’s criminal law since early colonial times, public opinion concerning it has long been divided. In 2009, growing opposition to capital punishment led the legislature to enact Public Acts 2009, No. 09-107 (P.A. 09-107), which would have repealed the death penalty for all crimes committed on or after the date of enactment but retained the death penalty for capital felonies committed prior to that date. Then Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed P.A. 09-107, however, and it did not become law. Three years later, in 2012, the legislature passed a materially identical act that prospectively repealed the death penalty; see Public Acts 2012, No. 12-5 (P.A. 12-5); and, this time, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed it into law. During the public hearings on both P.A. 09-107 and P.A. 12-5, supporters argued that the proposed legislation represented a measured and lawful approach to the issue. Others raised serious concerns, however, as to whether, following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Perhaps most notably, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who serves as this state’s chief law enforcement officer and represents the state in the present case, testified before the legislature that such a statute could not pass constitutional muster. Additionally, the Division of Criminal Justice submitted written testimony, in which it advised the legislature that a prospective only repeal would be a "fiction" and that, "[i]n reality, it would effectively abolish the death penalty for anyone who has not yet been executed because it would be untenable as a matter of constitutional law . . . . [A]ny death penalty that has been imposed and not carried out would effectively be nullified." In the present appeal, the defendant, Eduardo Santiago, raises similar claims, contending that, following the decision by the elected branches to abolish capital punishment for all crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012, it would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to execute offenders who committed capital crimes before that date. Upon careful consideration ofthe defendant’s claims in light ofthe governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose. For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent has this post in reaction to the Santiago ruling titled "A Broken Promise In Connecticut."
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Lots of great reads via The Marshall Project
I really enjoy all the work being done by The Marshall Project, and this collection of recent items from the site highlights why sentencing fans should be making regular visits there:
Monday, August 10, 2015
Taking stock of what Glossip now means for executions throughout the US
The most important practical question in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip upholding Oklahoma's execution protocol — not only for the roughly 3000 murderers currently on death row throughout the United States, but also for all those eager to see death sentences carried out — is whether Glossip will increase the chances and speed with which the condemned get taken to a death chamber for a execution. This new AP article, headlined "Justices Speak out About Death Penalty, but Executions Go On," speaks somewhat to this reality (while also highlighting that court challenges to death sentences are not going to decline anytime soon). Here are excerpts:
Wherever their summer travels have taken them, Supreme Court justices probably will weigh in over the next few days on Texas' plans to execute two death row inmates in the week ahead. If past practice is any guide, the court is much more likely to allow the lethal-injection executions to proceed than to halt them.
Opponents of the death penalty took heart when Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the case against capital punishment in late June as arbitrary, prone to mistakes and time-consuming. Even if death penalty opponents eventually succeed, the timeline for abolition probably will be measured in years, not months.
That's because Breyer, joined by Ginsburg, was writing in dissent in a case involving death row inmates in Oklahoma, and five sitting justices, a majority of the court, believe "it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional," as Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court in that same case.
Texas has scheduled back-to-back executions Wednesday and Thursday for Daniel Lee Lopez and Tracy Lane Beatty. Lopez was convicted of running over a Texas police officer with his car during a high-speed chase. Lopez' lawyer already has asked the court to stop the execution. Beatty strangled his 62-year-old mother, then stole her car and drained her bank accounts. He has an appeal pending in lower courts and could also end up at the Supreme Court.
The justices rarely issue last-minute reprieves to death-row inmates. Even after Breyer's opinion calling for a re-examination of capital punishment by the Supreme Court, no justice publicly backed a Missouri inmate's plea to halt his execution to allow the court to take up the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Similarly, the three Oklahoma inmates who lost their high court case now face execution in September and October and want the justices to reconsider the decision from June in light of Breyer's dissent. The court almost never does that....
The 18 executions that have taken place so far this year have been carried out in just five states — Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma. Nine of those were in Texas. Twelve states with the death penalty have not had an execution in more than five years. That list includes California and Pennsylvania, which between them have more than 900 death row inmates....
Geographic disparity was among several defects Breyer and Ginsburg identified in June. Another is the length of time many inmates spend living under a sentence of death, which Breyer had previously suggested also might be a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Six of the 18 men who have been executed in 2015 spent at least 20 years on death row, including one who served 31 years before his execution....
Among the questions surrounding the possibility that the Supreme Court would take up the constitutionality of the death penalty is the makeup of the court itself. With four justices in their late 70s or early 80s, the next president might have the chance to fill several vacancies and could change the court's direction.
"Obviously, the composition of the court matters greatly and the biggest unknown variable about the life of the American death penalty is the presidential election of 2016. My expected time frame for constitutional abolition varies greatly based on the result," said Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas law professor....
Steiker said he thinks Breyer's dissent will serve as a road map for death penalty lawyers and future justices who may not feel constrained to wait before grappling with executions. "It was invigorating to those who'd like to see constitutional abolition," he said. "The arguments not new, but they had not been marshaled as effectively by a justice until this opinion."
Critically, Glossip does not preclude Eighth Amendment challenges to various execution protocols, it just makes it somewhat harder for these challenges to prevail. In addition, states continue to face practical challenges in acquiring execution drugs and often have to deal with with state-level execution administration difficulties. For those reasons, I am not surprised we have not yet seen a significant post-Glossip up-tick in executions.
More broadly, unless and until a handful of recently execution-dormant states with sizeable death rows get back in the execution business — states like Alabama, Arizona, California, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — it remains likely that more condemned murderers on death rows in the US will die of natural causes than will have their capital punishments actually carried out.
Friday, August 07, 2015
Aurora Shooter gets LWOP, not death, from Colorado jury
In a notable (but maybe not too surprising?) outcome, the Colorado jury previously quick to convict Aurora shooter James Holmes of capital murder today returned a sentencing verdict of life instead of death. More details and discussion of this verdict's significance will follow as time allows.
UPDATE: This FoxNews report's headline provides the basic reason for the outcome: "1 juror firmly opposed death penalty for theater shooter James Holmes." Here is more:
Nine of the 12 jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial wanted to execute James Holmes, but one was steadfastly against the death penalty and two others wavering, a juror told reporters after the verdict was announced.
Because the 12 jurors failed to unanimously agree that Holmes should be executed, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 attack on a midnight screening of a Batman movie in Aurora that also left 70 injured.
"Mental illness played into the decision more than anything else," said the woman, who would not give her name. "All the jurors feel so much empathy for the victims. It's a tragedy."
A juror told The New York Times that a fellow juror was solidly opposed to a death sentence. The juror said nine were in favor of the punishment, two were apparently on the fence about the decision. "There was nothing further to discuss at that point," the juror said. "It only takes one."
The verdict came as a surprise. The same jury rejected Holmes' insanity defense, finding him capable of understanding right from wrong when he carried out the attack. It also quickly determined the heinousness of Holmes' crimes outweighed his mental illness in a prior step that brought them closer to the death penalty. There were gasps and tears in the courtroom as the verdict was read. One man from the victim side got up and stormed out after the first one....
Holmes himself stood staring straight ahead as the verdicts were read, showing little emotion, but when he returned to his seat he leaned over to defense attorney Tamara Brady, grabbed her hand with a smile, and said "thank you." Loud sobbing could be heard from the family section, where some sat with their heads in their hands.
The courtroom was also full of first responders, including Aurora police department officers -- some of whom cried along with the families as the verdicts were read. Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed by Holmes, shook her head no and then held it in her hands. Ashley Moser, whose 6-year-old daughter died in the attack and who was herself paralyzed by Holmes' bullets, also shook her head and then slowly leaned it against the wheelchair of another paralyzed victim, Caleb Medley....
The defense had argued that Holmes' schizophrenia led to a psychotic break, and that powerful delusions drove him to carry out one of the nation's deadliest mass shootings. At least one juror agreed — a verdict of death must be unanimous. Jurors deliberated for about six and a half hours over two days before deciding on Holmes' sentence.
They reached their decision after the judge granted their request earlier Friday to re-watch a graphic crime scene video taken immediately after the massacre. The 45 minutes of footage, played during the trial, shows 10 bodies lying amid spent shell casings, popcorn and blood.... The jury's final decision came after days of tearful testimony from relatives of the slain.
The case could have ended the same way more than two years ago, when Holmes offered to plead guilty if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors rejected the offer. But the victims and the public might not have ever learned in detail what was behind the shootings had the plea deal been accepted....
Four mental health experts testified that the shooting wouldn't have happened if Holmes weren't severely mentally ill. He was having increasingly palpable delusions that killing others would increase his own self-worth, forensic psychiatrist Jeffrey Metzner said.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
"Disquieting Discretion: Race, Geography & the Colorado Death Penalty in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century"
The title of this post is the headline of this new paper just now appearing on SSRN and authored by Meg Beardsley, Sam Kamin, Justin F. Marceau and Scott Phillips. Here is the abstract:
This Article demonstrates through original statistical research that prosecutors in Colorado were more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants. Moreover, defendants in Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District were more likely to face a death prosecution than defendants elsewhere in the state.
Our empirical analysis demonstrates that even when one controls for the differential rates at which different groups commit statutorily death-eligible murders, non-white defendants and defendants in the Eighteenth Judicial District were still more likely than others to face a death penalty prosecution. Even when the heinousness of the crime is accounted for, the race of the accused and the place of the crime are statistically significant predictors of whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty. We discuss the implications of this disparate impact on the constitutionality of Colorado’s death penalty regime, concluding that the Colorado statute does not meet the dictates of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Wednesday, August 05, 2015
Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system
Reader may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional. That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose." This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case on the last day of this month.
As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling that go beyond its basic significance of deeming unconstitutional the state capital system with the most persons serving time on death row. And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision.
This preview post now (with perhaps more to follow) was by this new Washington Post piece, headlined "The death penalty is about to go on trial in California. Here’s why it might lose." The piece is authored by Prof Frank Baumgartner, and here are excerpts:
Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death. His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional. As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works. But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have....
Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty. Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month. California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences.... Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions. It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.
Prior related posts:
- Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment
- Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty
- Furman and randomness (not just delay) at heart of California capital ruling
- Thoughtful Teague-based criticism of the remarkable California capital ruling in Jones v. Chappell
- California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Recent capital developments prompts query: "Is the death penalty dead in Washington?"
The question and quote in the title of this post is from the headline of this new notable local article reporting on a notable new death penalty developments in Washington state. Here are the details:
Some believe prosecutor Dan Satterberg's announcement Wednesday will have far reaching implications. "Today I am announcing my decision to with withdraw the notice of intent to seek the death penalty in the case of the State vs. Michele Anderson.
"These sorts of the decisions reverberate all over the state," said criminal defense attorney Todd Maybrown.
Maybrown believes Wednesday's announcement about Anderson, along with the jury's decision to spare Joseph McEnroe's life for the Carnation killings, and another jury who last week sentenced cop killer Christopher Monfort to life in prison, point to a turning of a tide.
"There have been many points along the way here when it seemed clear that the time has come that we as a community say we don't need the death penalty," Maybrown said. "We get no benefit from the death penalty, and resources are so scarce that we have to be more thoughtful."
"I pretty much reject the 'It's too expensive argument,'" said Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe. "The reason I reject it is because the same people who are making (the argument) are the same people who are pursuing a strategy to make it expensive."
Roe is reluctant to generalize about the death penalty because every case is different. Out of more than 30 aggravated murder cases, he was in favor of seeking the death penalty on only three of them. "I think what it really shows is prosecutors and jurors in the state of Washington are really careful. And thoughtful about when they seek the death penalty and jurors, and when they vote to carry it out," Roe said.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Are "deep red states" really "rethinking the death penalty"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new American Prospect piece headlined "Why Deep Red States Are Rethinking the Death Penalty." Here are excerpts:
[Marc] Hyden, 31, [is] one of the nation’s leading conservative anti-death-penalty activists, a small but growing group that sees the death penalty as antithetical to conservative values and the cause of limited government. Expensive, inefficient, and lethal, execution has come to represent much that’s wrong with big government today in many conservatives’ minds — particularly millennials.
And Hyden is one of their most visible spokesmen. As the national advocacy coordinator at Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), a project at Equal Justice USA, Hyden speaks at Republican conferences and clubs, liaises with the media, attends Tea Party rallies, and is, more generally, part of an insurgency of conservative activists seeking to end capital punishment in deep red states.
That movement has been most visible in Nebraska, where a campaign to ban the death penalty has inspired fierce debate among the state’s deep red electorate. This past May, Nebraska’s heavily Republican legislature voted both to pass LB268, a repeal of the state’s death penalty, and override a veto from Republican Governor Pete Ricketts. But death penalty advocates like Ricketts have vowed not to go down without a fight. On June 1, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a recently formed group of the governor’s political allies, filed an initial petition with the Secretary of State to put a repeal of LB268 on the state’s ballot in 2016....
The mere concept of the state putting someone to death is antithetical to the principle of limited government. “There’s no greater power than the power to take a life, and our government currently retains that authority,” says Hyden, “If you don’t trust a government to deliver a piece of mail or launch a healthcare website, why would you trust them to take a life?”...
These conservative arguments against the death penalty aren’t just taking hold in Nebraska. They seem to be having an effect in other deeply conservative states, as well.
One state south, in Kansas, a repeal bill was introduced in the House this year, but it failed to advance. According to Mary Sloan, the executive director of the non-partisan Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the bill will carry over into the 2016 legislative session and is expected to have Democratic, moderate Republican, and conservative Republicans sponsors. Sloan is optimistic about the bill’s chances, citing a need to focus on more immediate issues like the budget, and not a lack of support, as the reason for its failure to advance this year.
Tennessee, another conservative state, is not, as Kansas appears to be, on the brink of abolition, but it’s still closer to getting rid of the death penalty than you may think. Stacy Rector, the executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says a few years ago she would have said her state was a decade or so away from passing a repeal — now her best guess is three to five years. “It feels like the speed at which things are changing has kicked into high gear,” she says.
The obvious question to ask is, of course, Why now? There’s an argument to be made that it’s, at least in some part, a product of generational change. The more libertarian-leanings of young Republicans are well documented. Sixty-eight percent of millennial Republicans, for example, support the legalization of marijuana, compared to just 47 percent and 38 percent of their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, respectively. The death penalty seems to be another one of those issues in which young Republicans are choosing limited government over the traditional party line.
When he goes out and talks to young people, Hyden definitely notices how receptive they are to his arguments about government overreach. “I love talking to young people,” he says, “They tend to be much more skeptical of government power, in general.”
Monday, July 27, 2015
"On the Argument That Execution Protocol Reform is Biomedical Research"
The title of this is the title of this notable and timely new piece by Paul Litton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Regardless of whether the Supreme Court rightly upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in Glossip, Oklahoma officials had inadequate reason to choose midazolam as the anesthetizing agent in its procedure. Their decision is one example illustrating Seema Shah’s point that death penalty states are engaged in “poorly designed experimentation that is not based on evidence.” Shah argues that “an important factor” causing the high rate of botched executions is that lethal injection reform is a type of human subjects research that is going unregulated. Shah argues that research requirements, such as informed consent and IRB review, are necessary to render the research permissible.
Part I of this essay grants Shah’s conclusion that death penalty states are engaged in human subjects research. However, it argues that if protocol reform amounts to research, it is unethical for lacking social value, even if capital punishment is justified. The purpose of this “research” is to make executions palatable to the public and, thereby, maintain support for the death penalty. (Its purpose is not to find a painless means of killing; we already have that knowledge). However, the state disrespects its citizens by attempting to influence public opinion by a means that has nothing to do with reasons to support its policies.
Part II provides reasons to doubt that the law and ethics of research should govern protocol reform. Contrary to Shah’s hopes, the application of the law and ethics of research to executions will not help ensure less suffering for the condemned. Finally, Part III argues that describing lethal injection reform as human subjects research fails to add moral or legal reasons to condemn the way in which states have conducted recent executions. The basic problem is not that protocols represent “poorly designed experimentation,” but rather that they are poorly designed.
Sunday, July 26, 2015
Could brain implants "make the death penalty obsolete"?
The technocorrections question in the title of this post is drawn from this intriguing Motherboard article authored by futurist Zoltan Istvan, headlined "How Brain Implants (and Other Technology) Could Make the Death Penalty Obsolete." For those who believe (as I do) that technology could well become the most important (and mist disruptive) force in how we look at crime and punishment, this full piece is a must-read (and I am very grateful to the reader who sent this my way). Here are excerpts:
The death penalty is one of America’s most contentious issues. Critics complain that capital punishment is inhumane, pointing out how some executions have failed to quickly kill criminals (and instead tortured them). Supporters of the death penalty fire back saying capital punishment deters violent crime in society and serves justice to wronged victims....
Regardless of the debate — which shows no signs of easing as we head into the 2016 elections — I think technology will change the entire conversation in the next 10 to 20 years, rendering many of the most potent issues obsolete.
For example, it’s likely we will have cranial implants in two decades time that will be able to send signals to our brains that manipulate our behaviors. Those implants will be able to control out-of-control tempers and violent actions — and maybe even unsavory thoughts. This type of tech raises the obvious question: Instead of killing someone who has committed a terrible crime, should we instead alter their brain and the way it functions to make them a better person?
Recently, the commercially available Thync device made headlines for being able to alter our moods. Additionally, nearly a half million people already have implants in their heads, most to overcome deafness, but some to help with Alzheimer’s or epilepsy. So the technology to change behavior and alter the brain isn’t science fiction. The science, in some ways, is already here — and certainly poised to grow, especially with Obama’s $3 billion dollar BRAIN initiative, of which $70 million went to DARPA, partially for cranial implant research.
Some people may complain that implants are too invasive and extreme. But similar outcomes — especially in altering criminal’s minds to better fit society’s goals — may be accomplished by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or even super drugs. In fact, many criminals are already given powerful drugs, which make them quite different that they might be without them. After all, some people — including myself — believe much violent crime is a version of mental disease.
With so much scientific possibility on the near-term horizon of changing someone’s criminal behavior and attitudes, the real debate society may end up having soon is not whether to execute people, but whether society should advocate for cerebral reconditioning of criminals — in other words, a lobotomy. Because I want to believe in the good of human beings, and I also think all human existence has some value, I’m on the lookout for ways to preserve life and maximize its usefulness in society....
Speaking of extreme surveillance — that rapidly growing field of technology also presents near-term alternatives for criminals on death row that might be considered sufficient punishment. We could permanently track and monitor death row criminals. And we could have an ankle brace (or implant) that releases a powerful tranquilizer if violent behavior is reported or attempted.
Surveillance and tracking of criminals would be expensive to monitor, but perhaps in five to 10 years time basic computer recognition programs in charge of drones might be able to do the surveillance affordably. In fact, it might be cheapest just to have a robot follow a violent criminal around all the time, another technology that also should be here in less than a decade’s time. Violent criminals could, for example, only travel in driverless cars approved and monitored by local police, and they’d always be accompanied by some drone or robot caretaker.
Regardless, in the future, it’s going to be hard to do anything wrong anyway without being caught. Satellites, street cameras, drones, and the public with their smartphone cameras (and in 20 years time their bionic eyes) will capture everything. Simply put, physical crimes will be much harder to commit. And if people knew they were going to be caught, crime would drop noticeably. In fact, I surmise in the future, violent criminals will be caught far more frequently than now, especially if we have some type of trauma alert implant in people — a device that alerts authorities when someone’s brain is signaling great trouble or trauma (such as a victim of a mugging).
Inevitably, the future of crime will change because of technology. Therefore, we should also consider changing our views on the death penalty. The rehabilitation of criminals via coming radical technology, as well as my optimism for finding the good in people, has swayed me to gently come out publicly against the death penalty.
Whatever happens, we shouldn’t continue to spend billions of dollars of tax payer money to keep so many criminals in jail. The US prison system costs four times the entire public education system in America. To me, this financial fact is one of the greatest ongoing tragedies of American economics and society. We should use science and technology to rehabilitate and make criminals contribute positively to American life — then they may not be criminals anymore, but citizens adding to a brighter future for all of us.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
One aspect of the modern death penalty that always irks me is the all-too-common reality that some of the very worst-of-the-worst murderers often get the help of some of the very best-of-the-best defense lawyers (and almost always at taxpayer expense). As I write this post, there are literally tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners desparate to get the help of any lawyer to help them prepare a decent clemency petition. But, as this local article highlights, white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof now is going to be represented in federal court by one of the very best defense lawyer in nation:
Legendary death penalty lawyer David Bruck, who has more than 35 years of experience in South Carolina and around the nation representing people accused of heinous killings, has been appointed lead defense lawyer for alleged white supremacist killer Dylann Roof, according to federal court records....
Roof, 21, of the Columbia area, is charged with killing nine African-Americans in June during a prayer meeting at a historic downtown Charleston church, “Mother” Emanuel AME. Evidence against him includes a purported confession, an alleged online manifesto in which he announced his intention to start a race war by going to Charleston and Internet photos on his alleged website of him and his gun.
A federal grand jury in Columbia indicted Roof on Wednesday on 12 counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, 12 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion and nine counts of the use of a firearm to commit murder....
Bruck, 66, has the kind of experience Roof needs, lawyers familiar with death penalty cases said Thursday. “He’s the total package, versed in the law and quick on his feet at trial. He never screams or yells — he’s a methodical, intentional kind of guy,” recalled Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who as 5th Circuit prosecutor won a death penalty case over Bruck in a 1990s trial, only to lose to Bruck in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the same case.
Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, who has tried a dozen death penalty cases, said he has consulted Bruck on most of them. “He’s my go-to guy,” said Swerling, known as one of South Carolina’s best criminal defense lawyers. “He’s formidable, brilliant, and he is a passionate advocate against the death penalty. He truly believes it’s not appropriate in any case. That is his heart and soul.”
The Canadian-born Bruck, who graduated from the University of South Carolina law school and got his start defending S.C. death penalty cases in the early 1980s, helped win a life sentence in the nationally publicized 1995 case of child killer Susan Smith, now in state prison for drowning her children in a Union County lake. He recently helped defend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber who was sentenced to death in May....
But his record shows that few of his clients are acquitted by juries. Instead, Bruck concentrates on either getting life sentences during the punishment phase of a capital case, or getting a death penalty overturned on appeal. Over the years, Bruck has been involved in hundreds of death penalty cases across the country, either as a lawyer or adviser.
Since 2004, Bruck has been director of Washington & Lee University’s death penalty defense clinic, the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse. Before that, Bruck practiced criminal law in South Carolina for 28 years, specializing in death penalty cases....
Most of the crimes Roof has been charged with in both state and federal arenas are death penalty eligible. However, a formal decision to seek the death penalty has not been announced by either state or federal prosecutors. Death penalty cases are so complex that federal judges appoint defense lawyers knowledgeable in capital punishment law and trials well before a case has been formally declared a death penalty case.
“Judges don’t want to wait on the Justice Department,” said Columbia attorney Johnny Gasser who has prosecuted the only three federal death penalty cases in South Carolina’s modern era. “Judges want to go ahead ... to ensure that the accused is appointed the best legal representation possible.”
Of course, as critics of modern death penalty are right to highlight, not every capital defendant gets great (or even competent) defense representation. In fact, the sad reality in most state capital prosecutions is that poor representation has historically been much more common than top-flight lawyering. But, as we have now seen due to the mass murders committed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, when federal prosecutors get involved in a capital case, it is far more likely for some of the best lawyers in the country to be involved on the defense side. (This reality is one reason I quite seriously contend that capital punishment should be the (almost) exclusive province of federal prosecutors, and also a reason I half-jokingly suggest murderers should be sure to kill in a way that garners federal attention and triggers federal jurisdiction.)
Friday, July 24, 2015
Looking ahead to SCOTUS 2015 Term's sentencing cases on its criminal docket
Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this terrific new post highlighting that 11 of the 35 cases already on the Supreme Court's docket for its next Term involve criminal law cases. Here is an except from the start of this post, along with the description of a few of the coming SCOTUS cases that have at least one sentencing fan especially revved up:
Eleven of the cases in which review has already been granted for the next Term are criminal-law or related (under my generous standards). The Eighth Amendment portends to be a particular focus: four cases involve the death penalty, and a fifth involves juvenile life without parole. The other interesting note is that, so far, not a single case granted for next Term involves the Fourth Amendment. I can’t recall a prior Term where that was true at the end of the prior Term.
Finally, five of the eleven cases in which review has been granted are from state supreme courts, suggesting that at least some of the Justices realize that waiting for a criminal case to come to them via a later federal habeas petition can obscure the legal question presented, due to the highly deferential standards now embodied in the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the 1996 AEDPA amendments).
Here are brief descriptions of the criminal-law questions presented in the cases granted so far:
1. Hurst v. Florida: Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme, which permits a judge to find aggravating factors to impose death (and which does not require a jury to determine mental disability or to be unanimous in their findings or sentence) violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona. (Florida Supreme Court)...
3. Montgomery v. Louisiana: Whether Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively. (Louisiana Supreme Court)
4 & 5. Kansas v. Carr (along with another case with the same caption but a different case number) and Kansas v. Gleason: (1) Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled; and (2) whether the trial court’s decision not to sever co-defendants for sentencing in a capital case violates an Eighth Amendment right to “individualized sentencing.” (Kansas Supreme Court)....
8. Lockhart v. United States: Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?
The question in the title of this post is raised by the start of the capital phase of the death penalty trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and is discussed in this interesting Los Angeles Times article. The article is headlined "Death penalty is sought against James Holmes, but governor stands in the way," and here are excerpts:
When the jury found James E. Holmes guilty, Marcus Weaver cried. For his friend Rebecca Wingo, who died beside him in the Aurora, Colo., multiplex. For the dozens of victims in the 2012 rampage during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." For the families of the dead and wounded. Then he cautioned that last week's verdict "is just a stepping stone" on the path to justice.
The next step, Weaver hoped, would be the death penalty. But even if the jury decides to sentence Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins Wednesday, there are some questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has made it his policy that no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office....
Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. But the effective moratorium in Colorado — no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant — is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum. The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries.
Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries' willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. "What's the role of these reprieves? I don't think there's an independent effect, but it's part of an overall drift away from the death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.
Although a gubernatorial moratorium will undoubtedly spur debate about a critically important issue, death penalty critics worry that the policies ultimately could end up changing nothing. Once the governors leave office, their replacements could decide to go back to signing death warrants. Anyone whose execution was on hold could again be sent to the death chamber....
In Washington state, 15 months after Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a death penalty moratorium, a Seattle jury in May refused to sentence Joseph McEnroe to death for killing six of his then-girlfriend's relatives on Christmas Eve 2007. The victims spanned three generations of Michele Anderson's family, including a 5-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother. Anderson, also charged in the killings, goes on trial in September.
The Holmes case is the first death penalty trial in Colorado since Hickenlooper announced in 2013 that he would grant an "indefinite reprieve" to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a suburban Denver Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death three years later.
The reprieve was granted as Dunlap's execution date neared and will last as long as the Democrat remains in office. Hickenlooper, who campaigned in 2010 as a death penalty supporter, has since said he is against capital punishment.
The political pushback was swift. Moments after the governor announced Dunlap's reprieve from the rotunda of the Capitol in Denver, Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George Brauchler denounced Hickenlooper from the Capitol steps. Brauchler called Dunlap's execution "a no-brainer," according to the Denver Post, and said the governor refused "to make any hard decision today.... This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."
Brauchler is the same district attorney who said he would seek the death penalty against Holmes. He also turned down Holmes' offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without a chance of parole, and he is leading the prosecution case against the gunman.
Still, a sitting governor's ability to veto a death penalty appears to be absolute in Colorado. And though many argue that such moratoriums are political posturing with no lasting effect, others say such gubernatorial declarations are a force for change.
"I think it's impactful when the governor of your state says your state should never be involved in killing anyone," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. "However, in the Holmes case we have jurors who are all death qualified, meaning they have committed to following Colorado law, which includes capital punishment, but we have a governor who is not."
Monday, July 20, 2015
Local coverage of compelling realities to be at heart of Aurora shooter penalty phase
Not suprisingly, the Denver Post now has especially fullsome coverage of the key issues to surround the upcoming penalty phase following the capital conviction of James Holmes last week. Here are two pieces (and their extended headlined) that caught my eye:
"Mental health will loom large in Aurora theater shooting death penalty debate: Quick verdict doesn't necessarily lead to a death sentence"
"Death penalty a complex issue for theater shooting victims' families: While some shooting survivors and relatives of victims support capital punishment for James Holmes, others are more ambivalent."
Sunday, July 19, 2015
Notable talk of bringing back the death penalty in two nearby US states
Two states that recently repealed their death penalty are now having folks discussing, as detailed in these two new media pieces, bringing back the ultimate punishment:
While the capital reform story in Nebraska has received broad coverage, I have not seen too much discussion on this topic from New Mexico. Here are excerpts from the capital story from the Land of Enchantment:
State leaders, including Governor Susana Martinez, discussed possible solutions to New Mexico's beleaguered justice system in the wake of an investigation about the state's 'boomerang thugs.'
KOB revealed how there are only 12 officers tasked with locating roughly 1,700 absconders and learned many criminals charged with child sex crimes have mastered the art of receiving sweetheart plea deals.
Commit a violent crime, there should be expectations -- courtrooms, fines and handcuffs. However, the system that's supposed to uphold those expectations, and keep the worst of the worst criminals locked up, has fallen apart. "So, the problem isn't throwing people in jail, or sending people to prison, it's who we send to prison," Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said....
Maestas said the system is backwards when it comes to prosecuting drug crimes versus violent crimes. He said drug users are demonized, in need of help, as violent criminals go free. "To prosecute violent crimes, it is very labor intensive," Maestas said. "You have to build a relationship with the alleged victim, and that's just not being done."...
Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel is just as frustrated as the 12 people on his fugitive task force unit responsible for trying to round up the absconders. "It's a never-ending game, a revolving door," one of them said. That comes as Secretary Marcantel struggles to keep people working in the state's prisons. "I hate to admit this, but I compete with McDonald's in Santa Fe for my staff," he said. Marcantel said some prospective employees to corrections facilities in Santa Fe would prefer to flip burgers for the city's minimum wage of $10.84 rather than earn slightly more, $12.35, to be a corrections officer cadet.
KOB approached Governor Martinez, a longtime prosecutor, to hear her thoughts on a justice system that seems badly broken. Last year, she supported a pay raise for some corrections officers, which helped reduce job vacancies in one office from 50 percent to five percent. Her office said it improved the career ladder and offered promotion opportunities for probation and parole officers. Martinez also wants to beef up the fugitive task force unit to send a message to absconders....
She said lawmakers should step in for once to make laws and penalties tougher while allocating more resources to the Corrections Department on the whole. Martinez also said she wants lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty in New Mexico, which was abolished in 2009. She said, in her experience, criminal offenders feel more compelled to cooperate with investigators when confronted with it.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
Is Prez Obama truly "close" to opposing the death penalty?
The question in the title of this of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post Wonkblog posting, which gets started this way:
A long-time associate and mentor to President Obama says the president is "close" to opposing the death penalty but not quite there yet -- and needs to be pushed to do it.
"He's not there yet, but he's close, and needs some help," said Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a law professor at Harvard University and prominent death penalty opponent who taught the president and First Lady Michelle Obama when both were students there. The legal scholar said he was planning on meeting with his former student next month and would confront him about the issue then.
As Obama has increasingly confronted racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in American society in in his second term -- including on Tuesday before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- Obama has committed to doing more to address these issues in his final year-and-a-half. This week alone, he commuted the sentences of more than 40 low-level offenders, and is visiting a prison in Oklahoma today, becoming the first president to visit a federal penitentiary.
Obama, who has said he supports executions in some circumstances but raised concerns about the application of capital punishment, has not yet focused in this new push on racial disparities in capital trials -- the most serious cases before any criminal court. Now, just as he publicly changed his opinions on other major social issues in which public opinion changed, like gay marriage, some have wondered whether the president will change his perspective. As the charts below show, support for the death penalty, for decades strong in the United States, has been declining in recent years, just as support for gay marriage has increased.
Ogletree predicted that the president will eventually have no choice but to oppose the death penalty, confronted with the data on racial disparities in capital punishment, as well as on the costs of litigating capital cases and on the number of defendants who are eventually exonerated. "Even if he doesn't change his mind in the next year and a half, I think the public's point of view is going to influence him," Ogletree said. "As a citizen, he can have an enormous amount of influence."
Friday, July 17, 2015
Previewing the penalty phase after James Holmes found guilty on all charges
This article, headlined "After the guilty verdict: What happens next in theater shooting case to decide James Holmes' fate?," provides a preview of what will define the penalty phase for the Colorado mass shooter after his conviction on multiple murder counts on Thursday. Here are the basics:
Now that the gunman has been found guilty on all 165 counts, the court is preparing to move to the part of the trial where a sentence will be determined. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for James Holmes, who on Thursday was found guilty of murdering 12 people, injuring 70 others and assembling incendiary booby-traps inside his Aurora apartment....
In the first portion of the penalty process, the prosecution must prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the crimes included at least one statutory aggravating factor. There are several such factors in Colorado, but these are the ones that might apply to this case:
- The defendant committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner
- In the commission of the offense, the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense
- The defendant intentionally killed a child who has not yet attained twelve
- The defendant unlawfully and intentionally, knowingly, or with universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, killed two or more persons during the commission of the same criminal episode
Based on the defense team's statements in court Thursday evening, that phase of the case is only expected to last a few hours but the jury does have to deliberate and agree to move on.
If they do move to the next phase, jurors will be asked to hear mitigating factors presented by the defense. At this point, they're likely to hear from family and friends of the convicted shooter who could testify about his life. They are also likely to present information about his mental illness. Mitigating factors under Colorado law that could be included in this case are:
- The defendant's capacity to appreciate wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct or to conform the defendant's conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, but not so impaired as to constitute a defense to prosecution
- The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, although not such duress as to constitute a defense to prosecution; or
- The emotional state of the defendant at the time the crime was committed
- The absence of any significant prior conviction
- The extent of the defendant's cooperation with law enforcement officers or agencies and with the office of the prosecuting district attorney
- The good faith, although mistaken, belief by the defendant that circumstances existed which constituted a moral justification for the defendant's conduct
- The defendant is not a continuing threat to society
- Any other evidence which in the court's opinion bears on the question of mitigation.
After hearing those presentations, the jury needs to deliberate again to decide if the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors. If they do, the case will move to the third phase.
In that third and final phase, the jury will be asked to judge the defendant's character against his crime. They need to decide if the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt if the death penalty is the appropriate penalty.
If at any point in the process the jury decides not to move to the next phase, the gunman would be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Also, the vote must be unanimous to deliver a death sentence.
Thursday, July 16, 2015
New talk of abolishing the death penalty in Ohio spurred by pro-life conservative
As reported in this local piece, headlined "Renewed Effort Underway To Abolish Ohio's Death Penalty," talk of death penalty abolition is afoot again in the Buckeye State. Here are the details:
One state lawmaker is finding new allies in her fight to get rid of the death penalty. State Rep. Nickie Antonio has been down this road before. The Democratic lawmaker from Lakewood has tried several times to pass a bill that would eliminate the death penalty. “The state of Ohio needs to take the compassionate pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish capital punishment,” Antonio said.
But while Antonio’s bill has stalled every session, this time she has picked up some support — from freshman legislator Niraj Antani, a Republican from Miamisburg. He says capital punishment is too expensive and represents the epitome of big government. “To me there can be no bigger government with no bigger power than the right to execute its own citizens,” said Antani.
Antani is alarmed that about a dozen people on death row in Ohio have had their sentences commuted or exonerated. He calls on his fellow pro-life conservatives to side with him in getting rid of the death penalty. “I believe that — just the chance that an innocent individual could be put to death is reason enough to repeal it,” Antani added.
But other Republicans disagree. State Rep. John Becker who represents a portion of Clermont County says there are criminals such as mass murderers and serial killers who deserve execution. “So part of it is the inability to rehabilitate and part of it is simply punishment and it would be reserved for the most heinous of crimes,” said Becker.
There’s another issue at play when it comes to capital punishment in Ohio. The state has delayed executions until next year due to questions over the drugs used for lethal injections. Last year, death row inmate Dennis McGuire took an unusually long time to die during his execution and was reportedly seen struggling for air.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s okay for states to use certain combinations of drugs, but Ohio must still find suppliers and manufacturers. And Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Gary Mohr has said the state is having problems getting those drugs because international companies don’t want to sell them for lethal injections and pharmacists don’t want to create them for executions.
Antonio and Antani use this as a reason to steer clear of executions but State Rep. John Becker makes a different argument and says it doesn’t have to be death by injection. “Frankly I like the idea of giving people choices they can have death by firing squad—death by hanging—death by guillotine," Becker said. "I’m not really sure I care how they die and they can choose their own method for all I care.”
Becker and other death penalty supporters have used another argument is support of capital punishment. They say prosecutors can use the threat of execution as a bargaining chip for plea deals.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Missouri completes first post-Glossip execution
As reported in this National Law Journal article, headlined "Supreme Court Rejects Plea to Strike Down Death Penalty," not a single US Supreme Court Justice seemed at all interested in re-considering the basic consitutionality of the death penalty as Missouri moved forward with the first US execution since the Supreme Court's Glossip ruling upheld the basic consitutionality of the death penalty. Here are the details:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday night turned away a full-scale challenge to capital punishment in the case of a convicted murderer in Missouri set for execution at 6 p.m. Without comment or dissent, the court rejected multiple appeals from David Zink’s lawyers. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also denied clemency for Zink, who was found guilty in the brutal 2001 murder of a 19-year-old woman.
Lawyers for Zink had earlier invoked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s recent death penalty dissent in seeking a stay. Some commentators saw Zink's case as an opportunity for the full court to reexamine the constitutionality of the death penalty, as Breyer urged in the dissent. But the court’s action late Tuesday dashed those hopes.
Zink’s execution by lethal injection was the first since the high court issued Glossip v. Gross on June 29. In Glossip, a 5-4 majority upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal injections. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a lengthy dissent questioning whether capital punishment, as it is now carried out, is constitutional....
Richard Sindel of Sindel, Sindel & Noble in Clayton, Missouri, another of Zink’s lawyers, said in an interview Tuesday that the legal team decided to cite Breyer’s dissent because it reflected his and Ginsburg’s long experience in dealing with the death penalty. “They’ve been at it a long while,” Sindel said. Unlike the late justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan Jr. who dissented from the death penalty “as a matter of course,” Sindel said Breyer’s dissent was “a different animal,” full of detailed analysis and detail on why capital punishment is not working.
Late Tuesday morning, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging it to reject Zink's appeal as "meritless" and procedurally flawed. Addressing the Glossip dissent, the brief stated, "A two-justice dissent does not establish a new rule of constitutional law made retroactive to cases on collateral review."...
On Monday, a federal judge considering Zink’s appeal also made short shrift of the Breyer dissent. U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips in the Western District of Missouri wrote: “The court is not inclined to rely on the dissenting opinion in Glossip to declare the death penalty unconstitutional when the majority opinion clearly states that the death penalty is constitutional.”
Monday, July 13, 2015
"Some major U.S. religious groups differ from their members on the death penalty"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new piece via the Fact Tank blog from the Pew Research Center. Here are excerpts:
When the Nebraska Legislature voted in May to ban the death penalty in the state – overriding the governor’s veto – supporters of the ban shared some of the credit with religious leaders who had spoken out on the issue, including several Catholic bishops. In fact, many large religious groups have taken positions in opposition to the death penalty even though that stance is sometimes at odds with the opinions of their adherents.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the death penalty is acceptable if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives.” In recent years, however, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis have spoken firmly against capital punishment.
They are not the only religious leaders to take this position; when it comes to the official teachings of large U.S. religious groups, opposition to the death penalty is more common than support for capital punishment. This is in contrast with public opinion: A majority of U.S. adults (56%) still favor the death penalty, although support has been dropping in recent years.
There also is a disparity between religious groups’ positions and the views of their adherents, particularly among mainline Protestants. Two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (66%) favor the death penalty, but several of the biggest mainline churches are against it. This includes the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and many others. Roughly half of U.S. Catholics (53%) – including a majority of white Catholics (63%) – also favor the death penalty, in contrast with church leaders’ stance.
Seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. (71%) support the death penalty, a position held by many of their churches. Two of the largest U.S. evangelical denominations – the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod – teach that the death penalty is acceptable. The Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination, does not have an official stance on the issue, although the church’s website cites a “common interpretation that the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) also does not take an official position on the death penalty. Neither does the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black Protestant denomination, although most black Protestants (58%) oppose the death penalty (in contrast with the U.S. public overall)....
Among non-Christian faiths, teachings on the death penalty vary. The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements have advocated against the death penalty, while the Orthodox Union has called for a moratorium. Similarly, Buddhism is generally against capital punishment, although there is no official policy.
Hinduism also does not have a clear stance on the issue. In Islam, the death penalty is widely seen as acceptable (based on the Quran), and Islamic courts in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran routinely hand down death sentences. Some U.S. Muslim groups, however, have spoken out against the death penalty; for example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for a moratorium.
Religiously unaffiliated Americans – atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – are split on the death penalty, with 48% in favor and 45% opposed.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Would a Prez Hillary Clinton lead to the judicial abolition of the death penalty in the US?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new opinion piece by Scott Lemieux headlined "How a President Hillary Clinton could help end the death penalty." The whole piece is worth a full read, and here are excerpts:
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate dissent [in the Supreme Court's recent Glossip ruling] concluded: "I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment." Breyer's dissent is important, leading some to even conclude that the Supreme Court might actually rule that way in the near future. But this probably won't happen unless a Democratic president replaces one of the Republican-appointed justices on the court, which is another reason the Supreme Court will be a top issue in the 2016 presidential race.
A majority of the Supreme Court has never held that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional — indeed, there have never been more than two justices at any one time who supported this view. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court suspended executions, but three of the five justices in the majority held that the death penalty would be constitutional if applied fairly. Only two justices — William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall — held that the death penalty was always unconstitutional, a position they held for the rest of their tenures.
Two other justices, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, wrote opinions shortly before their retirement suggesting that the death penalty might be unconstitutional. But otherwise every justice has supported the compromise the court reached in 1976: The death penalty is constitutional if applied in a more fair and rational manner. It is possible that Breyer's opinion will be seen as a fraying of this compromise and a crucial step towards a ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But if so, it is likely to be a process that plays out over a fairly long period.
At Slate, Robert J. Smith gives the most optimistic reading of Breyer's dissent from the perspective of death penalty opponents, suggesting that there might be five votes on the current court to abolish the death penalty. His argument is superficially persuasive ...[but] fails to withstand scrutiny.... Glossip itself provides powerful evidence against this possibility. Among other things, Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion represents a sort of obscene gesture to death penalty opponents: "If you use legal methods to prevent states from carrying out a particular form of execution, it therefore has the right to carry out less humane ones." This is nothing less than a justification for torture. It is very hard to imagine someone who opposes the death penalty in principle joining this opinion, which is exactly what Kennedy did.
It is thus vanishingly unlikely that this court will hold the death penalty unconstitutional. The interesting question is what might happen should a justice nominated by a Democrat become the median vote of the court. In a recent paper, the University of Maryland legal scholar Mark Graber suggests that we are about to see a much more polarized Supreme Court that, rather than hewing towards centrist opinions, swings well to the left or right depending on who has the fifth vote.
The death penalty is one area where this may be most evident. Unless popular opinion shifts strongly in favor of the death penalty, Breyer's opinion may very well reflect the default position of Democratic nominees, even the most conservative ones. If President Hillary Clinton can replace one of the Republican nominees on the court, we could ultimately see a decision declaring that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments.
But there's a dark side to the polarized court from the perspective of death penalty opponents. If President Scott Walker or Marco Rubio replaces Justice Ginsburg and/or Breyer, states might aggressively expand the death penalty to encompass homicides committed by minors or the sexual assault of children — and these laws would likely be upheld.
Breyer's dissent does not reflect a court that is going to rule the death penalty unconstitutional in the short term. But it does suggest that it is a medium-term possibility — and that the stakes of future presidential elections are about to get even higher, with control of the median vote of the Supreme Court accruing a greater policy impact than it's ever had.
Prior related post:
Friday, July 10, 2015
Pennsylvania Attorney General calls Governor's execution moratorium an "egregious violation" of the state constitution
As reported in this local article, headlined "Kane asks court to end Wolf's death-penalty ban," the top lawyer and prosecutor in Pennsylvania does not think much of her Governor's decision earlier this year to declare a moratorium on executions. Here are the details on the latest chapter concerning the continuing constitutional commotion over capital punishment in the Keystone state:
Calling Gov. Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty "an egregious violation" of the state constitution, Pennsylvania's top prosecutor is asking its Supreme Court to clear the path for the state's first execution in more than a decade.
In a filing Wednesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane asked the court to allow the execution of Hubert L. Michael Jr., who confessed to murdering a York County teenager two decades ago. Kane argued that it is "blatantly unconstitutional" for Wolf to stay all death sentences, and that allowing Wolf's moratorium to stand would effectively grant him the authority to ignore any laws with which he does not agree.
"In this case, it would allow him to negate a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subjected to exhaustive judicial review . . . based on nothing more than personal disapproval and personal public policy beliefs," said the 25-page brief, filed by the attorney general and two of her top deputies. It added: "The governor must execute laws, not sabotage them."...
Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor had no immediate comment but would soon be "responding to the filing." Wolf in February imposed a moratorium on executions until he receives the report of a task force studying the future of capital punishment, unleashing a new round of praise and criticism. At the time, 183 men and women were on death row, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. Michael, of Lemoyne, Cumberland County, was awaiting execution for the 1993 kidnapping of Krista Eng, 16. His death warrant has been signed four times. Another convict spared by Wolf's moratorium is Terrance Williams, 48, a former star quarterback at Germantown High School sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer. He was to be executed in March.
Kane's brief asked the high court for "extraordinary relief," arguing Wolf only has constitutional power to issue reprieves of specific sentences - not an entire class of sentences - and under certain circumstances can grant a commutation or pardon. Reprieves, she argued, are meant to be temporary - usually to allow inmates to pursue legal remedies. When Wolf announced his moratorium, he wrote that he would lift it after seeing the report's recommendations and after "all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."
"What constitutes the point at which 'all concerns are addressed satisfactorily?' What are the concerns? Who is going to determine whether and when they are satisfactorily addressed?" said the filing, signed by Lawrence M. Cherba, who heads the office's criminal division, and Amy Zapp, who oversees the appeals section. "In law and in reality, the governor . . . seeks to replace judicial review of capital sentencing with his own review based on his own personal standard of satisfaction, namely an infallible judicial process that can never be attained," it argued. "Such a roadblock to death-sentence executions is impermissible."
Some prior related posts:
- Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty
- Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium
- Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania House seizes political opportunity to complain about Gov doing something (sort of) about state's dsyfunctional death penalty
Thursday, July 09, 2015
Richard Glossip and SCOTUS co-petitioners get new Oklahoma execution dates
As reported in this local piece, headlined "Oklahoma to execute 3 men in September, October," the condemned murderer whose surname will surely conctinue to play a lively role is constitutional capital punishment debates for many years is himself now scheduled to play a lively role on death row for only a few more months. Here are the details why:
Three Oklahoma inmates who lost a legal challenge over a drug used in lethal injections now know when they are to be executed. The state Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday ordered a Sept. 16 lethal injection for Richard Eugene Glossip, 52. Benjamin Robert Cole, 50, is to be put to death Oct. 7. John Marion Grant is to be executed Oct. 28.
“The families of the victims in these three heinous crimes have waited a combined 48 years for justice,” Attorney General Scott Pruitt said. “With the setting of execution dates, these families now have certainty that justice will finally be served for their loved ones.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, last month that the state’s planned use of the sedative midazolam would not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Another drug paralyzes the condemned man, and a third stops his heart.
“Despite what a thin majority of the Supreme Court said, midazolam cannot maintain anesthesia throughout the execution procedures,” said Dale Baich, an attorney for the men. “That’s clear from both the scientific information about the drug and the botched executions that have resulted from the use of midazolam. Because Oklahoma plans to use a paralytic as part of the drug formula, we will never know if prisoners will suffer during the execution process.”
Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the state has access to the drugs needed to carry out all three executions and will move forward with the dates set by the court....
Glossip was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1997 beating death of Barry Alan Van Treese at a west Oklahoma City motel. A co-defendant confessed to beating Van Treese, but said he did so at Glossip’s direction. Glossip has maintained his innocence.
Grant was sentenced to die for the 1998 stabbing death of Gay Carter, a prison worker at the Dick Connor Correctional Center in Hominy. Prosecutors say Grant dragged Carter into a mop closet and stabbed her 16 times. Cole was convicted of first-degree murder in Rogers County for the December 2002 beating death of his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna Cole.
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
"Retribution is a valid societal interest" says local DA in advocacy for death penalty
The quote in the title of this post is from Louisiana District Attorney Dale Cox, who is profiled in this interesting front-page New York Times article. The piece is headlined "The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should ‘Kill More People’," and here are excerpts:
Within Louisiana, where capital punishment has declined steeply, Caddo [Parish] has become an outlier, accounting for fewer than 5 percent of the state’s death sentences in the early 1980s but nearly half over the past five years. Even on a national level Caddo stands apart. From 2010 to 2014, more people were sentenced to death per capita here than in any other county in the United States, among counties with four or more death sentences in that time period.
Caddo ... has bucked the national trend in large part because of one man: Dale Cox. Mr. Cox, 67, who is the acting district attorney and who secured more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences over the last five years, has lately become one of the country’s bluntest spokesmen for the death penalty. He has readily accepted invitations from reporters to explain whether he really meant what he said to The Shreveport Times in March: that capital punishment is primarily and rightly about revenge and that the state needs to “kill more people.” Yes, he really meant it.
And he has been willing to recount his personal transformation from an opponent of capital punishment, a belief grounded in his Catholic faith, to one of the more prolific seekers of the death penalty in the nation. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” Mr. Cox said on a recent afternoon, in a manner as calm and considered as the hypothetical he would propose was macabre. “What kind of society would say that it’s O.K. to kill babies and eat them, and in fact we can have parties where we kill them and eat them, and you’re not going to forfeit your life for that? If you’ve gotten to that point, you’re no longer a society.”
Mr. Cox later clarified that he had not seen any case involving cannibalism, though he described it as the next logical step given what he at several points called an “increase in savagery.”...
Mr. Cox’s personality has been under scrutiny here since he returned to being a prosecutor after two decades in insurance law. Lawyers who knew him as a congenial and adroit trial lawyer said that in recent years he had become sullen and solitary. They also have described him as becoming increasingly aggressive in the courtroom, in some cases even threatening defense lawyers with criminal contempt for filing opposing motions.
“It’s such a dramatic change,” said Ross Owen, a former Caddo prosecutor and assistant United States attorney who now practices defense law in Shreveport. “The behavior in and of itself might not be a big deal,” he said. But given Mr. Cox’s position, and the fact that the defendants in most of these capital cases are poor and black in a part of the state with a deep history of racism, Mr. Owen added, “He’s got a loaded gun and he’s pointing it at a lot of people.”
Several said this was not so much Mr. Cox as the culture of the office. They point to a historical racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in Caddo. Or they cite an incident in 2012, when two senior assistant district attorneys, both of whom continue to prosecute capital cases elsewhere in the state, were forced to resign from the office after they obtained machine guns from a military surplus program through what an inspector general found to be falsified applications. The men had belonged to a group of prosecutors who participated in firearms exercises as part of a unit known as the Caddo Parish Zombie Response Team, sporting arm patches around the office and specialty license plates on their trucks.
Mr. Cox, who rose from first assistant to acting district attorney after his boss died unexpectedly in April, was never part of that group and disapproved of it. But he did not dispute that the work he does had changed him and left him more withdrawn.
He describes this as a natural result of exposure to so many heinous crimes, saying that “the nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you.” He went on to describe violent child abuse, murders and dismemberments in extended detail, pointing to a box on his desk that he said contained autopsy photographs of an infant who was beaten to death. He volunteered that he took medication for depression.
“The courts always say, ‘Evolving standards of decency tell us we can’t do this or that,’ ” he said in an interview at his office, where he had been considering whether to seek death in one case and preparing to seek it in two others. “My empirical experience tells me it’s not evolving decently. We’ve become a jungle.”
The number of murders in Shreveport has decreased by more than 67 percent since the early 1990s. But Mr. Cox insisted that if the numbers were down, the nature of crimes had become more depraved and that it demanded a different approach.
Defense lawyers conceded that the approach was different. Mr. Cox had refused even to entertain pleas of life without parole in homicide cases for which he deemed death the only fitting remedy. In other cases, the office has prosecuted people for ancillary crimes even after they had made plea agreements. After a man was convicted in 2014 of smothering his infant son, a case that hinged almost entirely on differing interpretations of complicated forensic evidence, Mr. Cox wrote that the man “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies.”
Alluding to Rousseau and Shakespeare, Mr. Cox remained unapologetic, insisting that he believed what he was doing was right. But he was not entirely untroubled. “I am humble enough and fearful enough,” he said, considering the biblical commandment not to kill and his own place in the afterlife, “that my God may say to me, ‘I meant what I said, and you’re out.’ ”
Sixth Circuit holds Ohio condemned must have his Atkins claim properly considered
As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Death row inmate wins appeal in Warren murder case," a Sixth Circuit panel yesterday issued a notable federal capital habeas rulin in Williams v. Mitchell, Nos. 03-3626/12-4269 (6th Cir. July 7, 2015) (available here). Here are the basics via the press report:
A Warren man on death row for the brutal beating of an elderly couple may get his chance to escape the death penalty. An appeals court ruled that Andre Williams can continue to appeal his sentence claiming he was mentally disabled at the time of the 1988 crime.
George Melnick was killed and his wife Katherine was blinded in the attack.
The U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that state courts failed to properly apply federal law governing claims of mental disability in capital punishment cases. The federal court said a lower court ruled improperly when it refused to recognize evidence of the 48-year-old Williams’ disabilities dating to when he was a teenager.
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
Still more interesting discussion of Glossip a week later
I have previously highlighted here and here and elsewhere a lot of the notable commentary that the Supreme Court's big Glossip death penalty ruling quickly generated. I have now seen a few more pieces that seemed worth flagging here:
Sunday, July 05, 2015
"A Reassessment of Common Law Protections for 'Idiots'"
The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Michael Clemente recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When the Eighth Amendment was ratified, common law protections categorically prohibited the execution of “idiots.” On two occasions, the Supreme Court considered whether these protections proscribe executing people with intellectual disabilities; however, the Court concluded that idiocy protections shielded only the “profoundly or severely mentally retarded.”
This Note argues that the Court’s historical analysis of idiocy protections was unduly narrow. It then proceeds to reassess common law insanity protections for idiots and finds strong evidence that these protections included people with a relatively wide range of intellectual disabilities. Based on this new historical account, this Note argues that there are people with intellectual disabilities on death row today who likely would have been protected from execution in 1791.
Friday, July 03, 2015
If you want to go on gorging on Glossip gossip...
here is still more of the copious commentary one can find as the work week closes on the biggest death penalty ruling of the SCOTUS Term just concluded (listed here only by title/headline as with this prior review, sources and authors varied):
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
Despite Glossip, hope for judicial abolition of the death penalty endures
This new Slate commentary by Robert J. Smith highlights that, despite the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip upholding Oklahoma's execution protocol, at least some still believe there could soon be five SCOTUS votes to do away with the death penalty altogether. The lengthy piece is headlined "The End of the Death Penalty?: Recent Supreme Court opinions suggest there are five votes to abolish capital punishment." And here is how it starts and ends:
On the surface, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Glossip v. Gross appears to give death penalty proponents something to celebrate. After all, the court allowed states to continue to use the sedative midazolam as part of a multidrug formula for lethal injections, despite Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s warning that such executions “may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.” But the bitterly divided 5–4 opinion has implications that extend far beyond the narrow question. This case may become an example of winning a battle while losing the war.
In a dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concluded that it is “highly likely” that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. While acknowledging that the Supreme Court settled the constitutionality of the death penalty 40 years ago, Breyer wrote that the “circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then.”
They are not the first sitting justices to call capital punishment’s constitutionality into question. Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan routinely dissented from decisions upholding a death sentence on the grounds that capital punishment is always a cruel and unusual punishment. Shortly before his retirement, Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Justice John Paul Stevens similarly concluded that the death penalty is an excessive punishment.
But Glossip feels different. Breyer’s dissent is more of an invitation than a manifesto. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” he wrote, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.” It also feels different because it is no longer unthinkable that there are five votes for ending the death penalty....
[Justice] Kennedy has embraced a view of societal norms that is much more holistic than a simple exercise that counts state legislative decisions. For instance, in Graham v. Florida, the case in which the Supreme Court barred sentences of life without parole for nonhomicide juvenile offenders, Kennedy looked beyond the law on the books to see how the law was used in practice. Even though most states allowed the sentence, Kennedy found that sheer infrequency reflected a consensus against its use, as did the fact that sentences were concentrated in a handful of states. Most recently, in Hall v. Florida, Kennedy counted Oregon, a state that formally retains capital punishment, “on the abolitionist side of the ledger” because it “suspended the death penalty and executed only two individuals in the past 40 years.”
In Glossip, Breyer fine-tuned Kennedy’s approach, looking not only at how infrequently states resort to the punishment but also at how “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.” (It might be particular personalities within counties as much as it is particular counties responsible for most death penalty sentences.)...
After Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell, the flashlight is shining brightly on Kennedy’s death penalty jurisprudence. His road map for considering the evolution of contemporary societal norms, coupled with Breyer’s invitation to challenge the death penalty in its entirety, plausibly heralds the twilight of the death penalty in America.
In a similar vein, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, has this new MSNBC commentary headlined "The death penalty has an innocence problem — and its days are numbered."
"Anti-Death Penalty Activists Are Winning The Fundraising Battle In Nebraska"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new BuzzFeed piece providing a "follow-the-money" update on who is really concerned about reversing or preserving the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska. Here are excerpts:
After the Nebraska legislature successfully abolished the death penalty in the state, an expensive battle has begun to bring it back. But so far, the side against the death penalty is winning the fundraising battle. The money is all about the potential for a statewide vote on the death penalty.
In May, the state’s conservative legislature narrowly overruled Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto of the measure that abolished the death penalty. Ricketts vowed there would be a referendum to give voters the option to bring it back. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will need to collect 57,000 signatures by August to get the vote on the ballot. If they can manage to collect 114,000 signatures, the death penalty will remain on the books until voters weigh in.
The group estimates that it would need to spend about $900,000 to do so.... [So far] Nebraskans for the Death Penalty raised $259,744 — and more than 75% of that came from the governor’s family. Ricketts and his father, the founder of TD Ameritrade, have given $200,000 to the group. Another $10,000 was given to the pro-death penalty organization by an Omaha police union.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has spent almost all of the money it has currently raised in starting the signature collecting process. The group has $26,000 in cash remaining, but has $25,000 in unpaid legal and consulting bills.
On the other side, Nebraskans for Public Safety (an anti-death penalty group) has not yet filed its full campaign finance report as of Tuesday evening. But the group has disclosed receiving a $400,000 contribution from a progressive organization called Proteus Action League. The group is a 501c(4), meaning it does not disclose its donors. This isn’t the first time Proteus Action League has spent money against the death penalty — the group spent more than $3.4 million on anti-death penalty efforts in 2012, according to an IRS filing.
The anti-death penalty group Nebraskans for Public Safety, which is affiliated with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, has spent some of the money on television ads urging voters to not sign the petition.
Regardless of the outcome, Ricketts believes he will still be able to carry out the executions of the 10 men on death row. In pursuit of that, his Department of Correctional Services has spent more than $50,000 on execution drugs from a seller based in India.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
If you are eager to gorge on Glossip gossip...
here is just a smidgen of some of the copious commentary one can find before the ink is really dry on the biggest death penalty ruling of the SCOTUS Term just concluded (listed here only by title/headline, sources and authors varied):
- The Most Dangerous Precedent (or, A Silly Extravagance)
- The Wonderland rules for method-of-execution claims
Monday, June 29, 2015
Providing great reading (and little else of consequences), concurring and dissenting Justices use Glossip to debate death penalty's constitutionality
As noted in this prior post, states eager to move forward with challenged execution protocols got a big win on the merits from the Supreme Court this morning in Glossip v. Gross. And while the substantive ruling from the Court will be of considerable consequence for states eager to move forward with scheduled executions, commentators (and law professors and death-penalty advocates) will likely take more note of the back-and-forth between Justice Breyer and Justices Scalia and Thomas in their separate Glossip opinion.
Justice Breyer uses Glossip as an occassion to write a 40-page dissenting opinion (with Justice Ginsburg along for the ride) explaining why he now believes "it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment" and that "the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question." Unsurprisingly, this disquisition prompts both Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas to author separate (and much shorter) concurring opinions seeking to explain why they think Justice Breyer's constitutional views are all washed up.
The work of these Justices debating the constitutionality of capital punishment as a categorical matter makes for great fun for those who enjoy constitutional debate as blood-sport (and for those eager to read the latest, strongests (policy) arguments against the modern death penalty). But the fact that seven current Justices apparently do not question the death penalty's essential constitutionality, including the five youngest Justices, suggests to me that abolitionists still have a lot more work to do before they can reasonable hope to see a majority of Justices find compelling a categorical constitutional ruling against capital punishment in all cases.
SCOTUS rules 5-4 against capital defendant's challenge to execution protocol in Glossip v. Gross
The Supreme Court handed down this morning the last big opinion of likely interest to sentencing fans via Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7599 (S. Ct. June 29, 2015) (available here). Here is how Justice Alito's opinion for the Court gets started:
Based on a too-quick read, the majority opinion seems like a big win for states seeking to move forward even with new and questionable execution methods. I doubt Glossip will halt all the lower-court litigation on state execution protocols, but it certainly should provide lower court judges a much clearer standard and basis for rejecting Eighth Amendment claims in this setting.
Prisoners sentenced to death in the State of Oklahoma filed an action in federal court under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, contending that the method of execution now used by the State violates the Eighth Amendment because it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain. They argue that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s current three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied four prisoners’ application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed and accepted the District Court’s finding of fact regarding midazolam’s efficacy.
For two independent reasons, we also affirm. First, the prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain, a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-ofexecution claims. See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 61 (2008) (plurality opinion). Second, the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.
Two distinct SCOTUS dissents from the denial of cert in capital federal habeas cases
Though a forthcoming opinion from the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross concerning executions methods is likely to highlight the Justices' distinct views on capital punishment, another example of this reality appears in this morning's SCOTUS order list. At the end, one can find two lengthy dissents from the denial of cert: one, authored by Justice Thomas (and joined by Justice Alito), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fourth Circuit that required further review of a North Carolina death sentence; the other, authored by Justice Sotomayor (and joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fifth Circuit that upheld a Mississippi death sentence.
Based on a quick read of both opinions, I must say I am generally content that the full Court did not bother to take up these cases as a prelude to seemingly inevitable 5-4 split capital decisions. More generally, with so many interesting and important non-capital criminal law and procedure issues churning in lower courts, I hope the majority of Justices persistently resist what I see as a too-common tendency to get too-deeply engaged in what too often ends up as one-case-only, deeply-divided capital case error-correction (as I think we saw this term in Brumfield v. Cain and Davis v. Ayala).
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Gearing up for the next SCOTUS death penalty case while awaiting Glossip ruling
Though the Supreme Court has saved for last its decision in the still-pending Glossip case concerning execution protocols, I still am not expecting that Glossip will prove to be a blockbuster ruling. I am guessing the decision will focus principally on Oklahoma's history with various execution drugs (and, if lower courts are lucky, will provide a clearer script for resolving Eighth Amendment challenges to execution protocols).
Consequently, an especially for those who are even more concerned about the imposition of death sentences than how they get carried out, it is perhaps not too soon to look ahead to future SCOTUS death penalty cases. One such case already on the near horizon comes from Florida, as this new local press article highlights. The article is headlined simply "Fla. death penalty faces scrutiny from Supreme Court," and here are excerpts:
Thirteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide death sentences, Florida stands alone in how its justice system imposes capital punishment.... Now the nation’s highest court is poised to consider in its next term whether Florida needs to change its system for deciding whom to execute. The issue concerns the role of juries in death penalty decisions. It’s an aspect of the state’s system of capital punishment that courts have struggled with for years.
In Florida, as in other states, when defendants are convicted of murder in a death penalty case, juries hear evidence regarding the existence of “aggravating factors,” or aspects of the case that weigh in favor of a death sentence, as well as “mitigating factors,” information that favors a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In recommending a sentence, a jury determines whether aggravating factors in a case outweigh the mitigating circumstances and justify the imposition of a death sentence.
But Florida juries, unlike most other states, are told their decisions are merely advisory, and that the judge will make the ultimate determination over whether to sentence a defendant to death. Trial judges in Florida are required to make their own, independent findings and are permitted to impose sentences different from jury recommendations. Juries in Florida also are not required to reach unanimous decisions on the existence of specific aggravating factors or on whether to recommend a death sentence.
No other state allows the imposition of a death sentence without jurors either finding unanimously that a specific aggravating factor has been established or unanimously finding that capital punishment is appropriate. The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the overall constitutionality of the death penalty, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to direct Florida to make changes and require jurors to specify which aggravating factors they have unanimously found to be present. The association wants the high court to require jurors to unanimously agree on the imposition of death sentences....
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 threw out Arizona’s system of capital punishment, ruling it was unconstitutional because judges, not juries, determined the existence of aggravating factors and sentenced defendants to death. Months later, the Florida Supreme Court left intact the state’s system of capital punishment, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly reviewed it and found it constitutional. The state’s high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of one of the Florida defendants challenging the state system, even after it made the Arizona decision....
The state Supreme Court called in 2005 for the state Legislature to make changes to the state’s death penalty law to require unanimity in jury recommendations. But state lawmakers didn’t act. In the ensuing years, the state Supreme Court continued to hold that the state’s death penalty system is constitutional. One of those rulings came in the Escambia County case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murdering coworker Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at Popeye’s restaurant on May 2, 1998....
At the conclusion of the second sentencing hearing [in Hurst's case], jurors returned a verdict of 7-5 in favor of death. Hurst appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence, rejecting arguments that included assertions the jury should have been required to unanimously find a specific aggravating circumstance and unanimously decide his sentence.
The state Supreme Court noted in its Hurst ruling that it has previously concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case did not require juries to make specific findings of aggravating factors or to make unanimous decisions regarding death sentences. The Florida court refused to revisit its prior rulings.
Hurst also argued the jury should have been required to determine whether he was mentally disabled, a finding that would have barred the implementation of the death penalty. After hearing testimony from witnesses and experts, the trial judge ruled that Hurst was not mentally disabled. The state Supreme Court ruled that although some states require such findings be made by juries, Florida is not one of those states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated that procedure.
Hurst appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Examining federal death row as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev becomes its newest (and youngest) member
The new NBC News piece, headlined "Tsarnaev Joins A Death Row With Many Members, And Few Executions," reviews some realities of federal death row in the wake of yesterday's formal capital sentencing of the Boston Marathon bomber. Here are excerpts:
Now that he's been formally sentenced to death, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will soon become a resident of federal death row, joining 61 other killers who've been condemned to die by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana.
There he will wait — likely for a very long time. Just how long depends on a range of factors, mainly the strength of his legal appeals. But it's safe to assume that, provided the appeals fail, it will be several years before he is put to death.
Despite the name, there isn't much death on death row. Since the federal government reinstated the death penalty in 1988, 75 inmates have ended up on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ten have been removed, and only three have been executed.
The last man to die there was Louis Jones Jr., in 2003, eight years after he was sentenced for murdering a U.S. soldier. The other two, marijuana kingpin Juan Raul Garza and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, waited eight years and four years, respectively, for their executions.
That leaves 61 men and 1 woman still on federal death row, including two people whose original conviction or sentence has been reversed but their legal fate has not yet been finalized. Tsarnaev, 21, is the youngest.
He'll join a cast of violent men at Terra Haute — the one woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who killed a pregnant woman and cut her unborn baby out of her womb, is serving her remaining days in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas....
The longest current residents of death row are Corey Johnson, James Roane Jr. and Richard Tipton, fellow gang members who were sentenced to execution in 1993 for nine murders committed to protect their crack dealing operation. The newest — before Tsarnaev — is Thomas Sanders, who was sentenced to death in September for kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl.
It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. As this article highlights, if you embrace that aphorism, federal death row is locale which has been experiencing a whole lot of justice denied in recent times.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
"A Shrinking Texas Death Row"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new item from the Texas Tribune. The piece has a series of great interactive charts providing the details on this basic death-penalty data story:
The number of inmates on Texas’ death row is falling. At its peak in 1999, 460 men and women were living with a death sentence in Texas, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Today, there are 260.
The reason for the decline isn't a rise in executions. In 2000, an all-time high of 40 inmates were executed in Texas, compared with 10 last year. So far this year, nine inmates have been executed.
The main reason is a drop in new death sentences. In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to Texas death row, according to BJS data. In 2008, that number was nine — and has stayed in that range ever since. This year, there have been no new death sentences so far, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that zero is significant. “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” Kase said. “Before this year, the longest that we’ve gone is through the first quarter."
Experts suggest several factors could be contributing to the falling number of death sentences, from a national decline in support for the death penalty to shortages of the lethal drugs used in executions. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not face execution, lessening future sentences as well as sparing 29 offenders who were already sitting on death row.
But consistently, they point to a 2005 law that offered Texas prosecutors the option to pursue life-without-parole sentences against capital murder defendants. Previously, capital murder offenders who did not receive the death penalty were eligible for parole after 40 years....
Since that law was enacted, the number of life-without-parole sentences has increased nearly every year, according to TDCJ. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96.
Currently, 745 people are serving a life-without-parole sentence in Texas, nearly three times the number of death row inmates. So far this year, Kase said three death penalty cases have gone to trial. All have ended with life-without-parole sentences.
Many bombing victims scheduled to speak at formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
This AP article, headlined "More than 30 victims to speak at Boston bomber's sentencing," provides a preview of a high-profile formal sentencing scheduled to take place today in Massachusetts federal court. Here are excerpts:
More than 30 victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their family members are expected to describe the attack's impact on their lives before a judge formally sentences bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.
In May, a federal jury condemned Tsarnaev to die for bombing the 2013 marathon with his brother. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when the brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line. Under the federal death penalty law, Judge George O'Toole Jr. is required to impose the jury's sentence. Tsarnaev's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court.
Among those expected to speak are Rebekah Gregory, a Texas woman who lost a leg in the bombings, and Liz Norden, the mother of two Massachusetts men who each lost a leg. Tsarnaev, 21, also will be given a chance to speak if he chooses.
Monday, June 22, 2015
How much will get spent on (merely symbolic?) death penalty referendum efforts in Nebraska?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable local article from Nebraska headlined "Group fighting death penalty retention gets $400,000 grant." Here are the interesting "follow-the-money" details:
Death penalty opponents got a cash injection Friday, and death penalty advocates accused them of using it to suppress voter rights.
ACLU of Nebraska will give the $400,000 grant from Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League to the Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition formed to fight the effort to retain capital punishment in the state. Proteus Action has given $21 million nationwide in the past five years toward repeal of the death penalty. "This support demonstrates the world is watching what is happening here this summer," Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. "This support will be like rocket fuel to the campaign."
ACLU of Nebraska is part of the coalition, as are Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Innocence Project, faith leaders, conservative leaders and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.
Friday afternoon, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty called ACLU participation in the coalition shameful. “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to vote on whether they wish to restore the death penalty," founding member Bob Evnen said in a statement. "The ACLU has announced that it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue. Few rights in a democracy are more fundamental than the right to vote. The ACLU’s effort to thwart that right is shameful.”
Replied Conrad: "I absolutely disagree with that. I don't understand that attack." Conrad said her group's work is the opposite of voter suppression. Declining to sign the pro-death-penalty petition is in fact exercising one's right to vote, she said.
Last month, Nebraska became the first red state since 1973 to abolish capital punishment. The Legislature voted for repeal May 20 and a week later overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) goes into effect Aug. 31.
Almost immediately, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he'd look at putting the issue to a vote, and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty opened offices in Omaha and Lincoln the first week of June.... Death penalty supporters have 72 more days to gather 115,000 verified signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to suspend the law and put it to a vote in November 2016. They need about half that number to put the issue to a vote after the law takes effect.
"I think both are hard," Conrad said of the two thresholds. "I can tell you from working both sides of campaigns in direct democracy, it's not easy to be out in the heat and the rain in a multitude of counties. ... I don't think that they or we can take anything for granted."
Conrad said Nebraskans for Public Safety will use the $400,000 to make sure the petition drive is conducted properly and to work statewide to educate people on the issue. And if the move to stop the law from taking effect is successful, she said, her group will have a good start at working to defeat a vote next year.
Peterson said he expects Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will raise and spend about $900,000 and will file required paperwork June 30 saying how much it has raised so far.
This story suggests that at least a few million dollars are likely to be spent on just the initiative run-up effort in Nebraska, and I have to assume many millions more will get spent on the campaign if (when?) the issue gets on the ballot. And yet, even if Nebraska voters were to bring the death penalty back after the legislature's recent repeal, it seems highly unlikely the vote will significantly increase the chances any formerly condemned murderer gets executed or that any future murderers get sent to death row.
Even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, defense attorneys are sure to continue pursuing extensive (and expensive) litigation in state and federal courts asserting that the eleven folks already on Nebraska's death row cannot now be executed. And even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, prosecutors are sure to continue to struggle to convince Nebraska juries to condemn murderers to death in future cases.
Notably, given that Nebraska has not executed anyone in nearly two decades, and has averaged less than a single death sentence per year over its modern history, symbolism plainly matters a lot more than substantive outcomes as money is raised to fight over the death penalty's future in the Cornhusker State. Whatever position one takes on the death penalty, it is hard not to wonder if the monies to be spent on the developing symbolic capital policy fight could go to much uses for violent crime victims and the state's judicial system.
Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years
As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:
Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."
The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.
North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.
Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....
The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."
The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.
Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.
The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link. That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:
• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally. Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved. (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)
• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.
• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.
• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed. They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.
• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases. The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Despite statutory repeal, capital defenders say they need to keep representing Nebraska condemned
Some of the challenging issues facing Nebraska lawyers in the aftermath of the state's legislative repeal of the death penalty are on display in this notable local article headlined "John Lotter's lawyers argue they must stay on case because death penalty issue isn't settled." Here are the details:
Legal arguments over Nebraska’s death penalty repeal have quickly emerged in a federal court case involving one of the state’s death row inmates. Two Kansas City attorneys argued this week that John Lotter’s death sentence was negated by the Nebraska Legislature’s May 27 repeal of capital punishment.
But lawyers Rebecca Woodman and Carol Camp said their client remains under threat of execution while a referendum petition drive attempts to overturn the repeal law and Gov. Pete Ricketts pushes for the lethal injections of Lotter and the nine other men on death row. For that reason, the attorneys asked to remain assigned to Lotter’s case.
“Although Mr. Lotter asserts that the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions would bar his execution even if the governor and his group were able to repeal the repeal, it is clear the governor will keep attempting to execute him until the courts definitively say he may not. That moment has not yet arrived,” the attorneys stated in a court brief filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.
In response, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General James Smith argued that only the Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to commute a death sentence under the state’s Constitution. Smith contended lawmakers passed flawed legislation by including intent language that says the repeal should apply to the existing death row inmates. “If the act was an unconstitutional power grab by the Nebraska Legislature, Lotter’s final death sentence remains in effect,” Smith said in his brief....
Lotter, 44, has spent 19 years on death row for a New Year’s Eve 1993 triple homicide near Humboldt. One of the victims was targeted for being transgender, which inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lotter lost his previous appeals before state and federal courts. That makes him and Carey Dean Moore — convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 — the top candidates for execution depending on what happens with the repeal law.
As of now, however, Nebraska lacks the means to carry out an execution. Two of the three drugs required in the state’s lethal injection protocol have expired, and federal officials have said they will block the state’s attempt to import at least one of the drugs.
Woodman and Camp, who work with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, pointed out that no other state has executed an inmate after repealing the death penalty. To do so “would represent the sort of random, arbitrary, purposeless extinction of human life that the Eighth Amendment forbids,” they said in their brief. The two have asked U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kopf to allow them to continue to represent Lotter while the status of the death penalty remains uncertain. They indicated Lotter has been pursuing constitutional claims never before litigated that would invalidate his death sentence.