Thursday, May 21, 2015

After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?

Download (1)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":

Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.

It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.

Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.

This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.

For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”

The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.

The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.

Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.

Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.

May 21, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nebraska legislature votes by large margin to repeal state's death penalty

As reported in this new AP article, " Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts."  Here is more:

The vote was 32 to 15 in Nebraska's unicameral Legislature.  If that vote holds in a veto override, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.  The Nebraska vote is notable in the national debate over capital punishment because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons and say it is a waste of taxpayer money.

Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, has vowed to veto the bill. Ricketts announced last week that the state has bought new lethal injection drugs to resume executions.  Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued in his weekly column Tuesday that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.

Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate to liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Nebraska.

May 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Has death penalty administration now become a "testing ground for toxic drugs"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this lengthy new New Republic piece: "Lethal Entanglements: Lethal injection was supposed to be a cleaner, more humane version of capital punishement. Over the past five years, it has become a messy, largely unmonitored testing ground for toxic drugs."  Here are is a passage from the center of the lengthy article:

Lethal injection was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 as a less violent alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. Over the next 25 years, almost every death-penalty state copied Oklahoma’s three-drug formula: first the barbiturate sodium thiopental to knock the prisoner out, then the paralytic pancuronium bromide to immobilize him, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart.  The second and third drugs would cause intense suffering on their own, but the Supreme Court ruled that the method was constitutional in Baze: As long as the thiopental rendered the prisoner unconscious, he would be insensate to the agonizing effects of the next two drugs.  Just one year after the Baze decision, though, in late 2009, the pharmaceutical company that sold thiopental to every death-penalty state, Hospira, reported a shortage.

As a consequence, the death penalty has undergone in the past five years its biggest transformation since states began switching to lethal injection decades ago.  As thiopental disappeared, states began executing prisoners with experimental one-, two-, or three-drug cocktails.  States have essentially been improvising what is supposed to be one of their gravest and most deliberate duties, venturing deep into the shadows to carry out executions.  They have turned to mail-order pharmaceutical suppliers and used untested drugs.  They have sidestepped federal drug laws, minimized public disclosure, and, on multiple occasions, announced changes to execution protocols just hours before prisoners were set to die.  The machinery of death in the United States has become a kluge.

In April, the Supreme Court acknowledged this when it heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross.  A group of prisoners from Oklahoma — including Richard Glossip, a convicted murderer — challenged the state’s use of a drug called midazolam because they feared it would not anesthetize them.  The court had hoped Baze would obviate future lethal injection lawsuits, but the thiopental shortage had stripped the decision of any practical relevance almost as soon as it was issued. Now, just seven years later, the justices were considering whether they should invalidate a specific method of execution for the first time in U.S. history.  The court’s decision won’t overturn the death penalty, but it will define the way we practice it for years to come.

Though the challenge comes from Oklahoma, it is Arizona that provides the best case study of the rapid, slipshod evolution of lethal injection since Baze. The desert state hasn’t executed the most prisoners since the thiopental shortage began — that distinction belongs, as always, to Texas — but it has used more methods than any other state, killing prisoners with four different drug combinations.  No other state has been quite so dogged in its determination to carry out executions. And no other state has left so detailed a paper trail.  Judges, lawyers, and journalists (most notably Michael Kiefer at The Arizona Republic) have brought much of the abuses to light over the years, but the story has been told in disparate pieces: a deposition here, an uncovered email there. The complete narrative is more troubling than any one of its components.

May 20, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 18, 2015

Deterrence, jurisdiction and the death penalty after many murders in Waco bar brawl

The title of this post are the topics I am now thinking about inspired by this lengthy news article, headlined "Capital murder charges expected in Waco biker shootout," discussing possible charges in the aftermath of a bloody bar fight.  Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added):

The unprecedented, deadly biker gang violence on display Sunday at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, has led to mass arrests, massive bail figures, the specter of numerous death penalty cases, the likely shuttering of a business, and an irate police force who said they did everything they could to stop it.

About 170 motorcycle gang members charged with engaging in organized crime are each being held on a $1 million bond in the wake of the shootout in Waco that left at least nine dead and 18 injured, and authorities say capital murder charges are expected....

While they haven't been filed yet, capital murder charges open the possibility that prosecutors will seek the death penalty for some of the suspects, in a state that puts far more inmates to death annually than all others....

Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said while capital murder charges are likely, it's too early to determine how many motorcycle gang members will face the charge.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety says the violence that unfolded in Waco when rival motorcycle gangs opened fire on each other in a restaurant parking lot is unprecedented. The shootout erupted shortly after noon at a busy shopping center where members of at least five rival gangs had gathered for a meeting. DPS Director Steve McCraw, a former FBI agent, said Monday that the shootout Sunday was the first time "we've seen this type of violence in broad daylight."...

Police and the operators of Twin Peaks - a national chain that features waitresses in revealing uniforms - were aware of the meeting in advance and at least 12 Waco officers, in addition to state troopers, were outside the restaurant when the fight began, Swanton said. As a result, the whole incident, involving an estimated 100 guns in total, "happened very fast," Swanton said. "We were there within seconds, meaning within 35 to 40 seconds," Swanton said.

So far, officials have admitted that some of the bikers were shot by police, but have not said whether or not any of those killed died as a result of police gunfire....

The interior of the restaurant was littered with bullet casings, knives, bodies and pools of blood, he said. Authorities were processing the evidence at the scene, south of Dallas. About 150 to 200 bikers were inside during the shootout. "I was amazed that we didn't have innocent civilians killed or injured," Swanton said.

Parts of downtown Waco were locked down, and officials stopped and questioned motorcycle riders. Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were assisting local and state authorities. McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, whose office is involved in the investigation, said all nine who were killed were members of the Bandidos or Cossacks gangs.

In a 2014 gang threat assessment, the Texas Department of Public Safety classified the Bandidos as a "Tier 2" threat, the second highest. Other groups in that tier included the Bloods, Crips and Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. The Bandidos, formed in the 1960s, are involved in trafficking cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice....

Swanton said the local biker gangs have little regard for law enforcement, which is why they did not hesitate to start a shootout with uniformed officers in plain sight. "They could care less whether we were here or not," Swanton said. "That's the violence we were dealing with."

I think almost everyone knows or should know that Texas is the state most likely to impose and carry out a death sentence in the United States. Thus, it sure appears that Texas's notable death penalty track record had no deterrent effect on the folks with guns and knifes involved in this carnage.

Especially with the stories of drug trafficking and gang threats on local police, I also think this case seems almost to cry out for federal intervention. Thus, I think it will be interesting to watch just which jurisdiction (state or federal) takes the lead on charges (both capital and noncapital) in this stunning crime story.

May 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 15, 2015

Capital jury concludes character of crime matters most in death sentencing of Boston bomber

I was on the links on a lovely spring afternoon when this news broke (via CNN): "Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sentenced to death."  As the title of this post highlights and as I suggested in some prior posts, I long thought the sentencing in this case came down to whether the jury was concerned more about the horrific crime that Tsarnaev committed or about the explanations of his background emphasized by the defense.  In the end, it appears that the crime prevailed.

Lots of notable commentary about the notable sentencing verdict can already be found at Crime & Consequences:

UPDATE: Detailed post-verdict commentary keeps coming from Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, who is obviously quite energized by the jury's condemnation of the Boston bomber:

May 15, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

"America’s Deadliest Prosecutors"

150512_JURIS_deadliestprosecutors.jpg.CROP.original-originalThe title of this post is the main headline of this notable new Slate piece, which highlights the central role that different prosecutors can and do play in the administration of the death penalty.  Here are excerpts:

“I think we need to kill more people,” Dale Cox, a prosecutor in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, said recently. He was responding to questions about the release of Glenn Ford, a man with Stage 4 lung cancer who spent nearly three decades on death row for a crime he did not commit. Cox acknowledged that the execution of an innocent person would be a “horrible injustice.” Still, he maintained of the death penalty: “We need it more now than ever.”

Cox means what he says. He has personally secured half of the death sentences in Louisiana since 2010. Cox recently secured a death sentence against a father convicted of killing his infant son, despite the medical examiner’s uncertainty that the death was a homicide. Rather than exercising caution in the face of doubt, Cox told the jury that, when it comes to a person who harms a child, Jesus demands his disciples kill the abuser by placing a millstone around his neck and throwing him into the sea.

The nation suffered more than 10,000 homicides last year, yet only 72 people received death sentences — the lowest number in the modern era of capital punishment. The numbers have been steadily declining for the better part of a decade. Most states are abandoning the practice in droves. Even in states that continue its use, capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.

What distinguishes these counties from neighbors that have mostly abolished the death penalty, in fact if not in law? Perhaps the biggest factor is the presence of a handful of disproportionately deadly prosecutors who represent the last, desperate gasps of a deeply flawed punishment regime. Most of their colleagues are wisely turning away from a practice that has revealed itself to be ineffective at deterring crime, obscenely expensive, inequitably administered, and not infrequently imposed upon the innocent. But America’s deadliest prosecutors continue to pursue death sentences with abandon, mitigating circumstances and flaws in the system be damned.

Cox is one of them.  Jeannette Gallagher of Maricopa County, Arizona, is another. She and two colleagues are responsible for more than one-third of the capital cases — 20 of 59 — that the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed statewide between 2007 and 2013.  Gallagher recently sent a 19-year-old with depression to death row even though he had tried to commit suicide the day before the murder, sought treatment, and was turned away. She also obtained a death sentence against a 21-year-old man with a low IQ who was sexually abused as a child, addicted to drugs and alcohol from a young age, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.  She then sent a U.S. military veteran with paranoid schizophrenia to death row.  Her response to these harrowing mitigating circumstances has not been to exercise restraint, but rather to accuse each of these defendants of simply faking his symptoms.  The Arizona Supreme Court has found misconduct in three of her cases, labeling her behavior as “inappropriate,” “very troubling,” and “entirely unprofessional.”...

Meanwhile, in Duval County, Florida, Bernie de la Rionda has personally obtained 10 death sentences since 2008.  (He failed to secure the conviction of George Zimmerman, however, for chasing down and shooting teenager Trayvon Martin.)  The Florida Supreme Court reversed three of those cases; one for law enforcement misconduct and two after concluding that death was too severe a punishment.  That court also reversed an earlier death sentence because de la Rionda repeatedly harped about the defendant’s sexual preferences and views on homosexuality, despite the trial court’s warning that the evidence was irrelevant....

Not surprisingly, death sentences drop precipitously after these prosecutors leave office. Bob Macy sent 54 people to Oklahoma’s death row before retiring in 2001.  Over the past five years, Oklahoma County has had only one death sentence.  Lynne Abraham secured 45 death sentences as the Philadelphia district attorney.  Since she retired in 2010, the new district attorney has obtained only three death sentences.  Joe Freeman Britt, dubbed the deadliest prosecutor in America, secured 42 death sentences during his tenure in Robeson County, North Carolina.  Last year DNA evidence led North Carolina officials to release two intellectually disabled half brothers, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, each of whom served 30 years — with McCollum under a sentence of death — for a rape and murder they did not commit.  Britt is the prosecutor who sent McCollum, a man with the mental age of a 9-year-old, to death row.  Britt retired in the 1990s, and the county has imposed only two death sentences in the past decade.

May 15, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Any predictions about how long the capital jury will need to deliberate in the Boston bombing case?

Slider_2015-04-06T174208Z_174798518_GF10000051140_RTRMADP_3_BOSTON-BOMBINGS-TRIALAs this Boston Globe article reports, "jurors began deliberating Wednesday on the sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sorting through a complex 24-page verdict slip meant to help them decide whether the Boston Marathon bomber should be sentenced to life in prison or death." Here is more details about where matters now stand as a set-up to the question in the title of this post:

The jurors were left with only 45 minutes to meet Wednesday after receiving instructions from the judge and hearing closing arguments from both sides. Prosecutors used their time to depict the 21-year-old defendant as a remorseless terrorist who participated in the bombing to make a political statement; defense attorneys portrayed Tsarnaev as the troubled follower of an older brother who brainwashed him into joining his violent plan.

Both sides also reminded jurors — the same panel that convicted Tsarnaev last month — of the emotionally charged testimony and graphic photos presented during the 10 weeks of testimony. Yet they recommended contrasting methods of weighing whether Tsarnaev deserved to be put to death.

In her closing argument, Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev’s attorney, delivered a surprising concession, telling jurors they could quickly endorse some of the sections of the verdict slip that refer to the factors that permit, but do not require, the imposition of the death penalty for her client. “Check them off,” she said with a dismissive flick of the wrist.

Clarke acknowledged there was ample evidence presented during the trial that Tsarnaev, among other things, intended to kill, that his crime was premeditated, and that it was especially cruel and heinous — all factors that make his offenses subject to capital punishment.

But prosecutors urged a more careful review of each section of the verdict form, calling on the 12 jurors to study the long list of Tsarnaev’s actions and each question they must answer in reaching their decision. They called on jurors to remember that they promised to remain open to the death penalty if the government proved its case. “I urge you to take your time with each one,” said prosecutor William Weinreb, who gave the rebuttal closing after Clarke’s statement.

But Clarke, as has been her style since the beginning of the trial, when she startled the courtroom by conceding that Tsarnaev committed the crimes, continued to try to show jurors that she was leveling with them and that she was a high-minded attorney looking to not waste their time with legal technicalities.

In her 90-minute statement, Clarke struck a more philosophical note, saying sometimes good kids emerge out of chaotic, troubled homes to become good young adults — but sometimes not.  She went through photos and evidence suggesting that Tsarnaev’s parents were emotionally, and later physically, absent from his life, and that Tsarnaev’s older troubled and radicalized brother, Tamerlan, filled the void.  The root cause of the violence that erupted on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, was Tsarnaev’s older brother, Clarke said. “Dzhokhar would not have done this but for Tamerlan,” she said....

Echoing themes of war, prosecutors passionately argued before jurors that Tsarnaev was his own man and chose to become a jihadist warrior.  They portrayed him as part of a disturbing number of young anti-American terrorists who seek to kill to send a political message.  While the defense has cited Tsarnaev’s age — he was 19 when he planted the bombs — as a mitigating factor against the death penalty, prosecutor Weinreb rejected the notion.

“These weren’t youthful crimes,” he said. “There was nothing immature or impulsive about them. These were political crimes, designed to punish the United States . . . by killing and mutilating innocent civilians on US soil.”

He went on to say that while the defense case focused heavily on Tamerlan as the evil force who corrupted his younger brother, no evidence to back up the theory emerged in court. “Where is the evidence of brainwashing and mind control?” Weinreb asked.

Reaching their final decision will be more art than science, both sides said, telling jurors that it will not be a simple tabulation of how many aggravating factors they endorse against the number of mitigating factors they find. Those factors, among other things, are delineated on the verdict slip.

For the jury to impose the death penalty, all 12 members would have to unanimously agree on that sentence for at least one of the 17 death-eligible counts for which Tsarnaev was convicted. Anything short of that would require the judge to impose life in prison without parole. Jurors are scheduled to resume deliberations Thursday.

I have a nagging feeling that, because I am going to be off-line during most of the work day today and tomorrow with a variety of professional commitments, we are going to get a verdict from the jury before the end of this week. But perhaps because there are multiple formal elements to the capital verdict form, and perhaps also because the jurors may want ample time to talk through all their perspectives, it certainly seems possible we will not get a verdict until next week.

A few prior related posts:

May 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Extended coverage of messy Oklahoma execution and execution methods

960The just-released June issue of The Atlantic magazine has a lengthy cover story headlined "Cruel and Unusual: The botched execution of Clayton Lockett — and how capital punishment became so surreal."  This piece is a long and valuable read, and these excerpts provides a flavor of its coverage beyond the events of a single capital case:

Since the mid-1990s, when lethal injection replaced electrocution as America’s favored method of execution, states have found drug combinations that they trust to quickly and painlessly end a life.  They often use three drugs.  The first is an anesthetic, to render the prisoner unconscious.  The second is a paralytic.  The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise.  In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training.  Sometimes that person is a lawyer — a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison.  These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past.  So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs.  In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so....

[In early 2014], Mike Oakley, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, had returned from vacation to find the department in a near-frenzy. Before he’d left, the department had ordered pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy for the executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, a 46-year-old man convicted in 2003 of raping and killing his roommate’s 11-month-old baby.  But compounding pharmacies had come under pressure to stop selling drugs for executions, and Oklahoma’s supplier had backed out.  With the executions scheduled for March 20 and March 27, one of Oakley’s deputies began driving around the state, walking into pharmacies and asking for pentobarbital, without success.

Oakley didn’t know why the task of finding drugs for executions fell largely to him: he had no medical training.  But he wanted to help his colleagues — especially the warden, whom he considered conscientious and hardworking — because he knew how much strain carrying out a death sentence put on them. He had gone into corrections, 25 years earlier, because Oklahoma was doing interesting work in mediation between victims and offenders. Now he was about to retire, and he found himself, as his swan song, developing a new execution cocktail.

The Atlantic also hasin its June issue this companion piece headlined "A Brief History of American Executions: From hanging to lethal injection." Here is how it starts:

Hanging is perhaps the quintessential American punishment.  In the pre-revolutionary era, criminals were also shot, pressed between heavy stones, broken on the wheel, or burned alive.  (An estimated 16,000 people have been put to death in this country since the first recorded execution, in 1608.)  But the simplicity of the noose triumphed, and its use spread as the republic grew.

In theory, a hanging is quick and relatively painless: the neck snaps immediately.  But hangings can be grisly.  If the rope is too short, the noose will slowly strangle the condemned.  If the rope is too long, the force of the fall can decapitate the person.

The Supreme Court has never struck down a method of execution as unconstitutional.  But states have at times tried to make the process more humane.  “Hanging has come down to us from the dark ages,” New York Governor David B. Hill told the state legislature in 1885. He asked “whether the science of the present day” could produce a way to execute the condemned “in a less barbarous manner.”

May 14, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice call for absolute capital abolition

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, headlined "Former justice calls for end to death penalty," reports on a notable speech given by a notable former jurist.  Here are the details:

A former chief justice of Georgia’s highest court on Tuesday strongly renounced the death penalty and called for its abolition.  Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, said the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” “makes no business sense” and is not applied fairly and consistently.

“Capital punishment must be permanently halted, without exception,” Fletcher said. “It will not be easy, but it can and will be accomplished.”

Fletcher, now a Rome lawyer, retired from the state Supreme Court in 2005.  Although considered one of the court’s more liberal members, he cast numerous votes upholding death sentences.  In more recent years, he has signed on to legal briefs urging courts to halt the executions of a number of condemned inmates.

Fletcher made his remarks Tuesday evening at the Summerour Studio near Atlantic Station, where he received the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Gideon’s Promise Award for his role in helping create a statewide public defender system.  In his acceptance speech, Fletcher said he was about to “shock” those attending the ceremony.

Lawyers who once criticized his decisions upholding death sentences were justified, he said. “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Fletcher said....

Fletcher added, “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country.”  Too often, Fletcher contended, budgetary issues, race and politics factor into the decision-making of whether to seek the death penalty.

Fletcher cited the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who once said he could “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”  Blackmun made this declaration before he retired from the high court in 1994. “It is time for us to quit the tinkering and totally abolish this barbaric system,” Fletcher said.

May 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is it unseemly I wish I could watch the Boston bombing closing arguments?

The question in the title of this post reflects my (perverse?) frustration with the absence of cameras in federal courtrooms, especially in cases in which the work of advocates seem so significant in the sentencing decision-making process.  From the start of the Tsarnaev trial, I have long thought that the sentencing outcome would turn on how well the prosecution  keeps the jury's focus on the horrible crime (which surely seems death-worthy) and how well the defense turns the focus to mitigating personal factors which perhaps led Tsarnaev to commit the horrible crime.  I am expecting that the closing arguments would capture and encapsulate the debate over this crime, criminal and his punishment in a fascinating way.  But, to my disappointment, I will only get to read accounts of the arguments rather than see and hear them directly.

For those eager for a bit of a preview, this new Boston Globe article, headlined "Lengthy, complex checklist awaits Tsarnaev jurors," explains the formal death sentencing process the jury will soon be facing:

In the end, the punishment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will come down to one question: Have federal prosecutors proved that the Boston Marathon bomber’s crimes were so heinous he deserves to be sentenced to death?

But before jurors weigh that singular decision they will first have to wade through a complex checklist in a lengthy verdict sheet to show that they have indeed weighed all the factors in the case — those identified by prosecutors, known as aggravating factors, as well as those presented by defense attorneys, called mitigating factors.

Legal analysts say the thoroughness of the process is meant to assure that jurors focus on relevant factors and ignore prejudicial and arbitrary circumstances in determining a defendant’s fate. “The jury has to consider the circumstances that the government says is relevant, that justifies a death sentence, and then the jury makes a reasoned, morally responsible response to that evidence,” said George Kendall, a New York lawyer who has handled hundreds of death-penalty cases. “The idea is we want to have a system of accountability.”

Unlike typical criminal cases, the jury that determined Tsarnaev’s guilt in the first phase of his trial is also tasked with deciding his punishment during this second phase of his trial. And in deciding which sentence to bestow, the jurors will weigh the aggravating factors — or reasons why Tsarnaev’s crimes were so heinous he deserves death — against the mitigating factors, or arguments that seek to explain and soften his culpability in the crimes.

The formula of arguing aggravating vs. mitigating factors in capital crimes was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1976, in a case originating in Georgia, and it became the basis for modern federal death penalty laws. The decision ended an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty that had begun four years earlier after the Supreme Court ruled that death penalty laws were unconstitutional because they were being applied arbitrarily.

Now, under the modern application of the death penalty, jurors must consider aggravating factors and mitigating factors for each defendant — and they must record their conclusion on each of those factors on the verdict slip. They must then repeat the process for each count.  Tsarnaev faces 17 charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty.

US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. has not released a copy of the verdict slip, but prosecutors have already identified aggravating factors in the case: That Tsarnaev intentionally sought to kill and inflict bodily injuries; that he targeted vulnerable victims, including children and spectators at the Marathon finish line; Tsarnaev has shown no remorse; the attacks were in the name of jihad, or terrorism; one of his victims was a police officer; and the attack was premeditated.

Jurors will have to be unanimous in finding that each of the aggravating factors was proven. They also must be unanimous if they choose to sentence Tsarnaev to death.  A split jury would result in a life sentence.

But jurors will also vote on the defense team’s mitigating factors, and they do not have to be unanimous on each one.  “The defense doesn’t have the same kind of burden, it’s the prosecutors who have the burden to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt, that death is the only appropriate sentence,” Kendall said.

Jurors will then weigh the totality of aggravating and mitigating factors before deciding on a sentence.  O’Toole has already instructed jurors that choosing a sentence isn’t a matter of simple math of how many aggravating factors were proven vs. how many mitigating factors the defense presented, but a “reasoned, moral response” to the overall case. “A single mitigating factor can outweigh several aggravating factors,” O’Toole told jurors.

The defense team has not publicly disclosed the mitigating factors it will list on the verdict sheet, but they will likely draw from the themes they have sought to crystallize in the trial: That Tsarnaev was an impressionable teenager who was manipulated by a dominating older brother; that brain science shows that teenagers do not have a fully matured brain; that he came from a troubled upbringing, and was looking for guidance in a vulnerable time in his life; and that his family held to old cultural tradition that he obey the direction of his older brother....

Kendall said jurors in Tsarnaev’s case are likely to weigh each argument seriously, having sat through 27 days of testimony in both phases of the trial, and listening to more than 150 witnesses. “It’s not just paperwork,” Kendall said. “It’s after all this evidence that the decision is being based on factors the law considers prudent and right ones.”

Jurors are scheduled to hear closing arguments Wednesday morning and could begin their deliberations Wednesday afternoon.

A few prior related posts:

May 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Ohio legislators moving forward on recommended death penalty reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "Lawmakers want to exclude mentally ill from death penalty," a number of recommendations made by a death penalty task force on which I served here in Ohio are emerging in notable bills. Here are the basics:

Killers diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill” at the time of the crime could not be executed in Ohio under proposed legislation expected to be introduced Tuesday in the Ohio Senate.  If passed, the bill sponsored by Sens. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, would be a major change in Ohio, which now prohibits the execution of mentally disabled people but not the mentally ill.

Seitz and Williams have been jointly developing legislation based on recommendations from the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force, released in April 2014.  About a dozen task force recommendations are expected to be introduced in the General Assembly.

The bill would bar execution of people who, when they committed the crime, suffered from a serious mental illness that impaired their ability to “exercise rational judgment in relation to their conduct, conform their conduct to the requirements of the law, or appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness of their conduct,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio, which supports the legislation....

Several of the 53 inmates executed in Ohio since 1999 could possibly have been excluded under the proposed change.  Wilford Berry, the first person to be executed when Ohio resumed capital punishment on Feb. 19, 1999, was considered to have mental illness with delusions.  At one point, Berry said he saw the angel of death sitting with him in his prison cell.

NAMI and the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association wrote a letter to lawmakers seek support for the legislation.  “We believe that those who commit violent crimes while in the grip of a psychotic delusion, hallucination or other disabling psychological condition lack judgment, understanding or self-control.  Until such time as the U.S. Supreme Court decides on this question, the responsibility for prohibiting the execution of such individuals in Ohio rests with the Ohio General Assembly.”...

Other task force proposals to be unveiled in the legislature in the future are establishing a statewide indigent death-penalty litigation fund in the Ohio Public Defender's office; requiring certification for coroner's offices and crime labs; and prohibiting convictions based solely on uncorroborated information from a jailhouse informant.

May 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, May 11, 2015

Will and should famed abolitionist nun, Sister Helen Prejean, be allowed to testify at Boston bombing sentencing trial?

Images (4)The question in the title of this post is the interesting legal question to be resolved this week in federal court in Boston as the defense team finalizes its mitigation case on behalf of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  This Boston Globe piece, headlined "Will judge allow nun to testify for Tsarnaev defense?," provides some context:  

While everybody in and around Boston is celebrating Mother’s Day and spring sunshine, George O’Toole has something weighing on him. O’Toole is a judge and has presided over the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with his typical geniality. But even genial judges have to make tough decisions.

The trial, which began with jury selection in the first week of January, and testimony in the first week of March, is winding down. If all goes to plan, and it seldom does in trials, the jury could be sent away by the end of this week, ready to contemplate sentencing Tsarnaev to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But before any of that happens, George O’Toole has to decide whether a 76-year-old Roman Catholic nun can testify as part of the effort to save a 21-year-old Islamic extremist from death. The nun in question is Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, and if you ask what that means, you never had nuns.

Sister Helen Prejean is an icon of the antideath penalty movement, something of a celebrity. “Everybody knows Sister Helen,” said David Hoose, a Northampton defense attorney who has worked on death penalty cases. And it’s true, a lot of Americans do know her, at least vicariously. They know her as Susan Sarandon, the actress who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.”

Twenty years after Sister Helen became the face of the antideath penalty movement in America, she is here in Boston, poised, if O’Toole allows it, to be the last witness for the defense in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

No one saw this coming. As prominent as the New Orleans-based Sister Helen is in the antideath penalty movement, she is not known for testifying in death penalty cases. But she wanted to get involved in this case, somehow. Inevitably, she found herself in the defense camp....

[A]s someone who has counseled death row inmates, Sister Helen can impart [the] message ... that a death sentence hardly guarantees death.

Since 1988, when the federal government got back in the business of executing people, the government has sought the death penalty in nearly 500 cases. In 232 of those cases, there was a guilty verdict where jurors had to decide between life and death, and in 79 cases they chose death. Of those 79, only three have been executed. It’s possible that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be No. 4 if the jury sentences him to death, but the odds are against it.

In the meantime, Judge O’Toole has to decide on the government’s motion to exclude Sister Helen’s testimony. In death penalty cases, the defense is given a wide berth in calling witnesses as they present mitigating evidence.  Even if O’Toole is on the fence about the relevance of Sister Helen’s testimony, and is inclined to tightly limit the scope of what she can speak to, he might not want to risk a reversal of the whole trial over one final witness.

The defense may only want Sister Helen to repeat one of her stock lines: “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” That has been the underlying message of the defense all along. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as a human being, is more than the unspeakable, unforgivable things he did one week in April 2013.

In this post at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger reasonably asks "What does Helen Prejean know that is relevant to the Tsarnaev case?".  I think Kent (and others in the comments) make sound points that could provide a legal justification for the district judge here precluding Prejean from being able to testify at the sentencing hearing on behalf of the Boston bomber.  But I also think, as the article above hints, judges are generally disinclined to preclude completely any offered defense testimony at the sentencing-phase of a capital trial.  I thus predict that the district judge here will allow Prejean to testify in some limited way if the defense presses aggressively for her to be a witness.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: Apparently Prejean started to testify not long after I wrote this post. This new USA Today article, headlined "Sister Helen Prejean: Tsarnaev 'genuinely sorry for what he did'," starts with this account of what transpired:

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on Monday in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial. She said he is "genuinely sorry for what he did," and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing's victims.

"He said it emphatically," Prejean said. "He said no one deserves to suffer like they did." She added, "I had every reason to think he was taking it in and he was genuinely sorry for what he did."

Prejean said she had met with Tsarnaev five times since early March and that he "kind of lowered his eyes" when he spoke about the victims. His "face registered" what he was saying. She interpreted his remorseful sentiment "as absolutely sincere," she said.

Prejean said she talked with Tsarnaev about both their faiths: his Islam and her Catholicism. "I talked about how in the Catholic Church we have become more and more opposed to the death penalty," she said, quickly drawing an objection from the prosecution.

Defense attorney Miriam Conrad, questioning Prejean, interjected, "Stop you right there." Conrad asked Prejean what she heard in Tsarnaev's voice she he spoke about the victims' suffering. "It had pain in it," she said.

May 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 08, 2015

"Have Texans lost their taste for capital punishment?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line in this Dallas Morning News commentary by Steve Blow headlined "Even in tough-on-crime Texas, death penalty convictions decline." Here are excerpts from the start of the piece:

I was struck by recent news accounts of a local murder trial. I remembered the crime well. Jacob Galen Everett, 22, was convicted of entering a Red Wing shoe store in Arlington, directing clerk Randy Pacheco to the back room and shooting him once between the eyes. Robbery was the motive, and the evidence showed that Everett got away with $200.

A few years ago, that would have been a certain death penalty case -- a cold-blooded murder committed in the course of a robbery. Instead, prosecutors sought life without parole and jurors went along.

I’m sure Texas still prides itself as a law-and-order state, but our hang-’em-high reputation may be in jeopardy. “There is no doubt about it. We’re seeing a reduction in the use of the death penalty in Texas,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service. That’s a nonprofit that assists in death penalty defenses and advocates for fair trial policies. “We have a reduction in death penalty cases going to trial, and we have a reduction in death verdicts,” she said.

In 1999, Texas courts sent 39 people to death row. Last year, it was 11. And so far this year, none. “Here it is May, and we have had only two death penalty cases in Texas,” Kase said. “And in both, the jury chose life without parole instead. That strikes me as really significant.”

A decline is also evident in the number of executions being carried out. Yes, Texas still led the nation in executions last year, but it was with an asterisk. For the first time in decades, Texas shared that distinction. We tied with Missouri. Both states executed 10 people. Florida was close behind with eight.

And those numbers reflected a downward trend in executions -- both in Texas and the other 31 states with the death penalty. Executions in Texas peaked at 40 in the year 2000.

May 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Delaware Gov pledges to sign death penalty repeal legislation

As reported via this local article, Delaware "Gov. Jack Markell broke his silence on the effort to repeal Delaware's death penalty, telling the News Journal that he believes capital punishment is an 'instrument of imperfect justice'." Here is more:

"It doesn't make us safer," Markell said. "Should the repeal bill come to my desk, I would sign it." Markell's comments come just days before a House committee takes up the legislation which repeals the state's death penalty, except for those 15 inmates already on death row.

This is the first time Markell has publicly spoken on the matter. Markell said he's taken his time to formulate his position on the matter, saying that recent exonerations nationally and revelations of flawed testimony in certain cases have helped shape his view. "This is not an easy issue. My thinking has changed and I just wanted to give it very careful consideration," he said.

In April, the legislation passed the Senate in April 11-9 and now heads to the House Judiciary Committee. The legislation was not passed out of the same House committee last General Assembly. Police groups strongly oppose repeal and are expected to step up opposition in the House.

Markell said he respects all viewpoints on the matter, saying that at one point while serving on the state's Board of Pardons, he supported four of the five death penalty cases that came before him. "I know this is a really difficult issue for members of the General Assembly," he said. "I hope that after considering the arguments as I have, they will reach the same conclusion that I have."

May 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Electrifying Tennessee fight over electric chair as back up execution method

BuzzFeed has this interesting new article about an interesting legal fight unfolding in Tennessee.  This extensive headline provides the basics: "Tennessee Officials Fight Inmates’ Attempt To Challenge Electric Chair Plans: The electric chair is Tennessee’s plan B if the state can’t get ahold of lethal drugs. The inmates argue it’s unconstitutional, but the state argues that they can’t challenge it yet."  Here are some details from the start of the article:

Can death-row inmates challenge the constitutionality of electrocution?  The Tennessee Supreme Court will soon decide.  

Death penalty states once phased out the electric chair in favor of drugs — for humane reasons.  Now that drugs have become hard to obtain, states like Tennessee have turned to older execution methods like the chair as a backup.

On Wednesday, the state court will weigh whether death-row inmates can challenge the method’s constitutionality.  Thirty-four inmates allege electrocution is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — that the electric chair disfigures the body and is an affront to evolving standards of decency.

But Tennessee has pushed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the inmates can’t challenge the method because none of them are actually scheduled to face electrocution.

Tennessee’s preferred method is lethal injection, using pentobarbital made from a secret compounding pharmacy.  Lawmakers passed a law last year that makes electrocution the contingency plan if either drug makers or the courts make lethal injection impossible.

“The[y] are asking the court in this case to… consider hypothetical situations involving uncertain or contingent future events that may or may not occur as anticipated or, indeed, may not occur at all,” Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office wrote.

May 7, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Boston bombing defense team turns to brain science in making mitigation case

As reported in this new Boston Globe piece, headlined "Brain expert testifies for Tsarnaev defense in penalty phase," jurors tasked with deciding what punishment to impose on the Boston Marathon bomber got a lesson in brain science during today's trial activities. Here are the details:

The part of the brain that matures the latest is the part that controls impulses and imagines consequences of actions in the future, a brain development expert testified Wednesday at the death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Dr. Jay Giedd, a professor at the University of California San Diego and a child psychiatrist, was called as a witness by the defense, which is seeking to stave off a death sentence for Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing. Giedd’s testimony came on the sixth day of the defense case in the penalty phase of Tsarnaev’s trial in US District Court in Boston. The defense is seeking a sentence of life without parole....

Giedd’s testimony appeared to be intended to suggest that Tsarnaev was not fully responsible for what he did because of his youth. In teenagers, Giedd said, impulse control is “still under construction.”

“Teens are more likely to choose smaller, sooner rewards” and are “less worried for long-term consequences,” he said. He said people’s brains tend to become adults in the second decade of their lives. But he said, “There are so many exceptions to the rule.”

He also emphasized the role of environment in a child’s brain development. Parents, he said, are “always on, teaching our children about dealing with emotion. ... Our brains learn by example.”

Under cross-examination by Assistant US Attorney Nadine Pellegrini, Giedd also testified that it was crucial to look at a person’s behavior to determine how mature they are. “The behavior itself is ... key,” he said.

He acknowledged that people even younger than Tsarnaev was could have the brain maturity to recognize the consequences of their actions. “Age might just be a number when we’re talking about the level of maturity of an individual?” Pellegrini said. Giedd agreed.

May 6, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 04, 2015

Fairer capital fight has Virginia prosecutors fighting for the death penalty less

As reported in this notable new AP article, headlined "Pace of death sentences, executions slows in Virginia," once the state of Virginia provided a sounder means to defend to capital defendants, prosecutors decided it was sounder not to seek death sentences quite so often. Here is how the lengthy article gets started:

A prosecutor's decision not to seek a death penalty for the man accused of abducting and killing a University of Virginia student is emblematic of capital punishment's decline across the country and in the state that once operated one of the busiest execution chambers in the nation. Virginia has sent only six people to death row in the last nine years after sending 40 over the previous eight years, according to statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. As a result, the state only has eight inmates awaiting execution — down from a high of 57 in 1995 — and unless something changes, Jesse Matthew Jr. won't be joining them.

Matthew is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 18-year-old Hannah Graham. He also is charged with abduction with intent to defile, which is the first of 15 offenses listed in state law that can elevate a murder count to capital murder. Albemarle County's chief prosecutor has declined to say specifically why Matthew, who is due in court for a hearing on pretrial matters Tuesday, was not charged with capital murder.

Matthew's case, perhaps the most high-profile murder case in Virginia since the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings that left 10 dead, is playing out as the death penalty is on the wane. Virginia has slipped from second to third nationally — behind Texas and Oklahoma — with 110 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. No executions are currently scheduled.

Legal experts say there are many reasons for the deceleration of the death penalty in Virginia, but perhaps the biggest is the establishment in 2004 of four regional capital defender offices staffed by attorneys and investigators who devote all their time to death penalty cases.

"In the past, an awful lot of people who ended up on death row had abysmal representation," said Steve Northup, a lawyer and former executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "Prosecutors were able to take advantage. Now prosecutors know capital defendants are going to be well represented."

It's no coincidence, experts suggest, that the sharp downturn in death sentences began the year the capital defender offices opened. The year before, Virginia sent six people to death row. No more than two death sentences have been imposed in any year since.

A recent study by University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass concluded that the number of capital murder charges has declined, but not as rapidly as the number of death sentences. Virginia prosecutors obtained an average of 34 capital murder indictments a year between 1995 and 1999, but only 22 per year from 2008 through 2013. The percentage of those cases going to trial fell from 38 percent in the late '90s to 19 percent, suggesting more cases are being resolved by plea negotiations resulting in punishment less than death. "Virginia prosecutors have not abandoned the death penalty," Douglass wrote. "Instead, increasingly, they bargain with it."

Douglass agrees with others who cite establishment of the state-funded capital defender's offices, which operate on a budget of $3.5 million a year, as one of the reasons Virginia's death row has been steadily shrinking. "A capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," Douglass wrote.

UPDATE: Bill Otis via this post at Crime & Consequences provides some important corrections to the AP article linked and excerpted above.

May 4, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Seventh Circuit, in 6-5 en banc ruling, allows new federal 2241 review of Atkins claim based on new evidence

If you love to spend a spring weekend thinking through the statutes and policies that govern federal collateral review of federal death sentences — and really, who doesn't? — then the en banc Seventh Circuit has a great ruling for you.  Dividing 6-to-5, the Seventh Circuit in Webster v. Daniels, No. 14-1049 (7th Cir. May 1, 2015) (available here), decided that a federal death row inmate was "not barred as a matter of law from seeking relief under section 2241" to continue to pursue based on new evidence his claim that he was "so intellectually disabled that he is categorically ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins and Hall."

This following paragraph from the dissent authored by Judge Easterbrook highlights why this ruling took the majority many pages to reach and is controversial:  

Whether Webster is “retarded” was the principal issue at his trial and sentencing.  He raised his mental shortcomings as a mitigating factor, and four jurors found that they mitigate his culpability, but the jury still voted unanimously for capital punishment.  The sentencing hearing spanned 29 days, with abundant evidence.  The district judge found that Webster is not retarded within the meaning of §3596(c) and sentenced him to death. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on the merits and later affirmed a district court’s decision denying a petition under §2255 addressed to retardation.  If Webster is retarded, he is ineligible for the death penalty.  Whether he is retarded has been determined after a hearing, collateral review under §2255, and multiple appeals.  What Webster now wants is still another opportunity to litigate that question.  The majority gives Webster that opportunity in a new district court and a new circuit, setting up a conflict among federal judges.  Section 2255 is designed to prevent that, and prudential considerations also militate against one circuit’s disagreeing with another in the same case.

May 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2015

"How a Death Row Inmate's Request to Give His Organs Kept Him Alive"

Download (1)The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy Newsweek article discussing the array of remarkable developments that have surrounded the application of the death penalty in Ohio over the last few years.  Here are excerpts which provide a unique spin on the saying that it's always better to give than to receive: 

On November 13, 2013, prison officials transferred Ronald Ray Phillips from death row, where he had resided for 20 years, to the “death house” in southern Ohio. He had finally run out of appeals. In less than 24 hours, they would strap him to a gurney and inject a fatal drug combination into his veins. Just days before his scheduled death, however, Phillips made an unprecedented request—one that has kept him alive until today. He asked to give his heart to his sister, who had a heart condition, and his kidney to his mother, who was on dialysis....

In the fall of 2013, Ohio had just instituted a new lethal injection protocol as its primary method of execution, and its effects were uncertain. The fatal drug cocktail might destroy Phillips’s organs. On the other hand, if Phillips went to the operating room beforehand and doctors removed his heart while he was unconscious, they could save it. But since he couldn’t survive without his heart, they would simultaneously complete the execution in a novel method that had never been considered in Ohio’s capital punishment laws.

Phillips was scheduled to die at 10 the next morning. Just before 4 p.m., as prison employees headed home for the evening, the death house received a call from the governor. “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues, then we should allow for that to happen,” Republican Governor John Kasich said in a statement to the press hours before the scheduled execution. Kasich granted Phillips a reprieve, removing him—temporarily, at least—from the death house....

But the agencies that govern transplantation refused his organs, calling the idea “morally reprehensible.” Parceling out the organs to strangers could be a human rights violation. Because Phillips was a prisoner, he couldn’t voluntarily consent to these procedures. The idea of saving “innocent” lives could also incentivize prosecutors and judges to favor the death penalty. Ohio denied Phillips’s request to donate non-vital organs to strangers.

Yet [a former attorney for the mother of Phillips' victim] counters, “Why doesn’t an inmate have a right to donate his or her kidney? Why is that seen as one of the rights that they’ve given up because they’re incarcerated?”...

Because of Phillips’s reprieve, convicted killer Dennis McGuire took his place. Reporter Alan Johnson witnessed McGuire’s execution. Approximately six minutes into it, McGuire “suddenly starts gasping—deep gasps. His chest would compress, his stomach started going out," Johnson says....

The McGuire fiasco prompted a federal judge to temporarily halt all Ohio executions. Nevertheless, Arizona used Ohio’s protocol that summer to execute Joseph Wood. The execution lasted over two hours, with Wood gasping 640 times. It provoked another moratorium on the death cocktail.

In January 2015, before Phillips’s fourth execution date, Ohio rescinded its controversial mixture, announcing a return to the pentobarbital drug class. Because Ohio has been unable to obtain this drug from Lundbeck, executions will resume in 2016 at the earliest. Phillips’s fifth execution date remains unscheduled.

Phillips’s unprecedented request set off a chain of events that have kept him alive till today. For over a year, he’s been next up on Ohio’s list of scheduled executions. But he’s ridden the wave of botched executions and may transition from a temporary reprieve to a permanent one. Phillips and his attorneys declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

May 1, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Timely (but incomplete) report on political debates as de facto moratorium on federal executions continues

The New York Times this morning has this new front-page article discussing a remarkable national death penalty story that seems never to get nearly as much attention it merits.  The article is headlined "Obama Adminintration Steps Back From Effort to End Federal Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

For a moment last year, it looked as if the Obama administration was moving toward a history­-making end to the federal death penalty.  A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.

At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Mr. Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering.  Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

But the idea never gained traction, and Mr. Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since.  Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.

“It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review.  The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We’ve had too many executions that didn’t work and killing somebody’s not the answer.”

In remarks last May after a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness and writhed and moaned during a lethal injection, Mr. Obama, who has supported the death penalty, seemed to raise expectations for a policy change.  He lamented its racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people.  He referred the matter to Mr. Holder, a liberal stalwart who opposed capital punishment. But privately the White House was cautious, sending word to the Justice Department to keep its focus narrow, administration officials said.    

Mr. Obama called for the review at a time when there had not been a federal execution since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed for raping and murdering a 19-­year-­old female soldier. Since 2010, the federal government has effectively had a moratorium on executions — all are carried out by lethal injection — because manufacturers in Europe and the United States refused to sell the government the barbiturates used to render prisoners unconscious. States, however, found alternatives, including the sedative midazolam, which was used in the gruesome execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma last year.

As the Justice Department sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners.  Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty also urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would actually do more harm than good. “From my view, we’re better off with things bubbling up in the states,” said Henderson Hill, the executive director of the Eighth Amendment Project and one of several people consulted by the administration last year....

Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-­death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian­-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it. “I’m not sure that what the administration would have to say would be inherently influential in Nebraska,” Mr. Hill said.

Opposition to the death penalty was growing in Nebraska last year and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to replace it with life in prison, setting up a veto fight with Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.

Advocates were further worried that if lethal injections were eliminated, states would bring back older methods of execution, a concern borne out in Utah, where officials said they would bring back firing squads if lethal drugs were not available.  Other states are reviving plans to use the electric chair or gas chambers.

Inside the Justice Department, some officials opposed a formal moratorium because it would eliminate the option for the death penalty in terrorism cases like the one against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces a possible death sentence for the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Others worried that eliminating the death penalty would make it harder to persuade Congress to move terrorist suspects from the island prison at Guantánamo Bay to the United States for trial. There were also logistical hurdles.

Advocates and administration officials asked what would happen to the roughly five dozen people on federal death row. Would Mr. Obama, who has said the death penalty was appropriate in some cases, commute the sentences of men who raped and murdered people? There were no clear answers.

In the end, the question never made it to Mr. Obama’s desk. Last fall, Mr. Holder announced plans to resign, and officials said it would be inappropriate to recommend a major policy change on his way out of office, then leave it up to his successor to carry it out. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of three convicted murderers who challenged the lethal injection drugs. Now with the issue before the justices, the review at the Justice Department has come to a halt because any administration action could be seen as trying to influence the court.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was sworn in this week, told senators during her confirmation hearing that the death penalty “is an effective penalty.” But she did not elaborate. Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the review continued. “And we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime.” 

The last line in this excerpt highlights for me the federal death penalty story that continue to fail to get nearly as much coverage, legally, politically and practically, as I think it should. The feds have, I believe, a significant number of capital murderers on federal death row who have completed all their appeals but who have been escaping their imposed punishment since 2007 because of all the state lethal injection litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's Baze ruling and all the subsequent uncertainty that has followed.  

I have long been troubled that the Bush Administration starting in 2007, and the Obama Administration in the years that have followed, have made no apparent effort to try to carry out existing federal death sentences.  Whatever the reasons for a nearly-decade-long de facto executive moratorium on the federal death penalty, I believe federal prosecutors should feel some obligation to defendants, victims and the general public to provide some public explanation about what the heck is going on with the actual administration of the federal death penalty.

April 30, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack