Monday, June 18, 2018

Ailing "ice pick killer" in Texas, seeking to halt his scheduled execution, points to failed efforts in Alabama and Ohio

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "Too frail for death row? Texas inmate seeks execution reprieve," a notorious capital defendant has a notable new claim in federal court in an effort to avoid execution. Here are the details:

After two recent botched U.S. executions of inmates with compromised veins, a convicted murderer and rapist is arguing he is too ill to be put to death by lethal injection in Texas later this month.  Lawyers for Danny Bible, a 66-year-old inmate set to be executed on June 27, said in a federal court filing in June that his health and vein access were worse than inmates in Alabama and Ohio whose executions were called off after IV placements failed.

The cases have capital punishment critics questioning whether justice is served by executing a person convicted of horrific crimes but who is now too weak or sick to be considered a threat....  Some death penalty proponents counter that sympathy should not be shown to inmates who they accuse of trying to game the system by filing appeals that take decades to wind through the courts, denying justice to the victims’ families.

The average age of death row inmates has increased in the United States as the number of executions has trended downward, as fewer states conduct lethal injections and appeals take more time.  More than 40 percent of U.S. death row inmates are 50 years of age or older, according to U.S. data and the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

In recent years, death row inmates were just as likely to die awaiting execution as they were to be executed.  Last year, 24 death row inmates across the country died in prison awaiting execution, mostly due to natural causes, while 23 inmates were executed, according to data compiled by Reuters.

Of the first group, six of those inmates died awaiting executions in California, which has the largest death row of 746 inmates but has not conducted an execution since 2006.

In 2016, there were 19 non-execution deaths and 20 executions in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bible was sentenced to death in Texas for a string of rapes and murders that started in the Houston area in 1979 and earned him the nickname “ice pick killer” for the weapon he used.

His lawyers now are seeking to halt his execution, saying he is confined to a wheelchair after he fractured his spine in a prison bus crash in 2003 and has coronary artery disease, diabetes and hypertension.  “Under the current circumstances, attempts to place IVs in Mr. Bible would be futile and likely result in significant pain and suffering,” his lawyer wrote in their court filing.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for a comment, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it had full confidence in its ability to complete Bible’s execution.

Lawyers for the inmates whose lethal injections were aborted in the past year say those cases offer a cautionary tale. The execution of convicted murderer Doyle Hamm, 61 and suffering from terminal cancer and chronic illnesses, was called off in February after medical personnel tried for 2-1/2 hours to place an intravenous line. The effort left Hamm with more than a dozen puncture wounds, court records showed, and came after his lawyers argued that any lethal injection attempt would be futile due to his compromised veins.

Ohio also called off the execution of convicted murder Campbell, 69, because death chamber personnel could not find a suitable vein in the inmate, frail from cancer and other diseases. Campbell died about four months later in prison.

Recent prior related posts:

June 18, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Kentucky Supreme Court finds state's statute for assessing intellectually disability in capital cases does not comply with Eighth Amendment

As reported in this local article, the "Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state's practice for determining if someone is intellectually disabled and not eligible to receive the death penalty is “unconstitutional” and has established new guidelines."  Here is more about the ruling:

The order changing Kentucky’s rules on capital punishment came in the case of Robert Keith Woodall, who was sentenced to death for raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in Greenville two decades ago. The high court ordered a lower court to hold a hearing to determine if Woodall is intellectually disabled, preventing him from being executed.

It is unconstitutional to sentence a mentally disabled person to death – which has been defined in Kentucky as someone with an IQ below 70. However, Kentucky's high court ruled a person cannot be found intellectually disabled simply because they have an IQ of 71 or above. Instead, the justices determined defendants must undergo a “totality of the circumstances test,” including whether they have the ability to learn basic skills and adjust their behavior to circumstances, among other guidelines.

Those standards are in line with guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court that take other factors into account, according to the ruling. The federal court, for example, bars states from using a single, strict IQ standard to determine a prisoner's death penalty status.

In its ruling, the Kentucky high court found the state's current law to be “an outdated test for ascertaining intellectually disability." Kentucky was one of only a few states still using the fixed score cutoff to determine mental disability.

The full ruling from the Kentucky Supreme Court is available at this link, and here are few key paragraphs from the majority opinion:

Admittedly, the U.S. Supreme-Court has not provided crystal-clear guidance as to what exactly constitutes a constitutional violation regarding the determination of whether a defendant is intellectually disabled to preclude the imposition of the death penalty.  It is also true that the U.S. Supreme Court seems to suggest that a defendant's IQ score, after adjusting for statistical error, acts as the preliminary inquiry that could foreclose consideration of other evidence of intellectual disability, depending on the score.

Two things are clear, however: 1) regardless of some of the statements the U.S. Supreme Court has made, the prevailing tone of the U.S. Supreme Court's examination of this issue suggests that a determination based solely on IQ score, even after proper statistical-error adjustments have been made, is highly suspect; and 2) prevailing medical standards should be the basis for a determination as to a defendant's intellectual disability to preclude the imposition of the death penalty.

June 14, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Pew Research Center reports uptick in support for death penalty

FT_18.06.08_DeathPenalty_widening-partisan-gapThe folks from Pew have some notable new survey research on the death penalty reported here under the headline "Public support for the death penalty ticks up." Here are the details:

Public support for the death penalty, which reached a four-decade low in 2016, has increased somewhat since then.  Today, 54% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% are opposed, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May.

Two years ago, 49% favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, the lowest level of support for capital punishment in surveys dating back to the early 1970s.

While the share of Americans supporting the death penalty has risen since 2016, it remains much lower than in the 1990s or throughout much of the 2000s.  As recently as 2007, about twice as many Americans favored (64%) as opposed (29%) the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

Since the mid-1990s, support for the death penalty has fallen among Democrats and independents but remained strong among Republicans. About three-quarters of Republicans (77%) currently favor the death penalty, compared with 52% of independents and 35% of Democrats.

Since 1996, support for the death penalty has fallen 27 percentage points among independents (from 79% to 52%) and 36 points among Democrats (71% to 35%).  By contrast, the share of Republicans favoring the death penalty declined 10 points during that span (from 87% to 77%)....

Support for the death penalty has long been divided by gender and race. In the new survey, about six-in-ten men (61%) say they are in favor of the death penalty and 34% are opposed. Women’s views are more divided: 46% favor the death penalty, while 45% oppose it. A 59% majority of whites favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared with 47% of Hispanics and 36% of blacks.

Young people are somewhat less likely than older adults to favor capital punishment.  Those younger than 30 are divided — 47% favor and 46% oppose it — but majorities in older age groups support the death penalty.

There are educational differences in views of the death penalty. Adults who have a postgraduate degree are more likely to oppose the use of the death penalty in cases of murder (56%) than those whose education ended with a college degree (42%) and those who never received a postsecondary degree (36% some college experience; 38% high school degree or less).

White evangelical Protestants continue to back the use of the death penalty by a wide margin (73% favor, 19% oppose). White mainline Protestants also are substantially more likely to support (61%) than oppose (30%) the death penalty. But among Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, opinion is more divided: 53% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 42% oppose it. And while 45% of those who are religiously unaffiliated oppose the death penalty, 48% support it.

Especially because the spike in support for the death penalty here seems to be greater among Republicans and independents, I am inclined to describe these results as reflecting a "Trump Effect."   Notably, this poll was taken only a month after Prez Trump and his Attorney General were actively talking up the idea of the death penalty for some drug dealers (see all the links in this post), and I cannot help but wonder if these results somewhat reflect that particular use of the bully pulpit.

June 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

After SCOTUS rejected its standards, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again rejects Bobby Moore's intellectual disability claim to preclude death penalty

As noted in this post last year, the US Supreme Court in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797 (S. Ct. March 28, 2017) (available here), rejected the restrictive factors then being used by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to assess intellectually disability for death penalty ineligibility under the Eighth Amendment.  But the defendant in that case, as reported in this local article, has now had his intellectually disability claim rejected again by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  Here are the basics:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld the death sentence of Bobby Moore in a case over the definition of intellectual disability — despite pleas from both Moore and the prosecution to change his sentence to life in prison.

More than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down Texas’ method of determining intellectual disability for death-sentenced inmates in Moore's case, ruling the state used outdated medical standards and rules invented by elected judges without any authority. In a 5-3 ruling on Wednesday, the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals accepted the use of current medical standards to determine intellectual disability but said Moore still fails to qualify — making him eligible for execution.

Moore was sentenced to death nearly 38 years ago, three months after he walked into a Houston supermarket with two other men and fatally shot James McCarble, the 73-year-old clerk behind the counter, according to court documents....

In a new evaluation using the current medical framework, the majority of the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Moore still did not show enough adaptive deficits to qualify as intellectually disabled, citing the fact that he learned to read and write in prison and buys items from commissary — the prison’s store. The Supreme Court had warned against using strengths gained in a controlled environment like prison, but the Texas court said some of Moore’s deficits were due to the “lack of opportunity to learn,” according to the opinion written by Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

The court’s opinion also noted that before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that people with intellectual disabilities were exempt from execution, Moore had claimed in court that he did not have a disability and that his difficulties were due to an abusive childhood and his lack of learning opportunities.

In a 67-page dissent, death penalty critic Judge Elsa Alcala, joined by Judges Bert Richardson and Scott Walker, said the court’s majority erred in its use of the current medical standards and that Moore is intellectually disabled. Alcala said the court disregarded the standards by improperly weighing Moore’s strengths against his deficits in his adaptive functioning and put too much weight on his progress in a controlled death row environment.

She cited the decision by the lower Texas court that held a live hearing on the issue, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for a change of sentence based on Moore’s deficiencies and many observations in the Supreme Court ruling that appeared to agree Moore was disabled. “I’m in good company in reaching this conclusion,” Alcala wrote. “There is only one outlier in this group that concludes that applicant is ineligible for execution due to his intellectual disability, but unfortunately for applicant, at this juncture, it is the only one that matters.”...

Though it hasn’t changed his sentence, the Supreme Court ruling in Moore’s case has had repercussions throughout Texas. At least two men on death row had their sentences changed to life in prison after the ruling, and on Tuesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals halted an execution set for June 21 because of the Moore case. The judges sent the case of Clifton Williams back to a lower court to look into claims of intellectual disability given the Supreme Court ruling.

Though Moore will remain on the row in solitary confinement, it seems unlikely he will get an execution date set while Ogg, a Democrat elected in 2016, is in office. Execution dates are set by convicting county courts after appeals have been exhausted, usually prompted by the district attorney’s office. And Ogg asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to change Moore’s sentence to life in prison last November, agreeing that he was intellectually disabled. Ogg did not answer a question from The Texas Tribune about seeking an execution date for Moore. Instead, she said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon that she anticipated the court’s decision to use “correct scientific standards” would immediately be applied to assess intellectual disability claims of other death row inmates, without mentioning Moore at all.

The 35-page majority opinion in Ex parte Bobby James Moore is available here, the 67-page dissenting opinion is available here.

June 7, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Noticing a shrinking (but still functioning) death penalty in Georgia

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has this notable new article headlined "Death sentences becoming increasingly rare in Georgia."  Here are excerpts, with a few remarkable lines highlighted:

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday did something it once did on a fairly routine basis but now hardly ever does: It heard a death-penalty appeal. It had been almost two years since the court heard a direct appeal — the first appeal after a capital sentence is imposed — in a death-penalty case. And this once-unthinkable rarity shouldn’t change anytime soon.  It’s now been more than four years since a Georgia jury handed down a death sentence.

This is in keeping with what’s been going on nationally. Last year, 39 death sentences were imposed nationwide.  That’s a dramatic drop from 126 capital sentences imposed a decade earlier and from 295 death sentences imposed in 1998, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

National polls show the death penalty is losing public support, said Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.  That’s because people are becoming increasingly comfortable with the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole....

The last time a death sentence was handed down by a Georgia jury was March 2014 in Augusta against Adrian Hargrove, who committed a triple murder.  Last year, the two death cases that went to trial in Georgia involved the murder of law enforcement officers — a crime that traditionally results in a death penalty.  Yet both resulted in sentences of life without parole.

More often than not, district attorneys are now allowing capital defendants to enter guilty pleas in exchange for life-without-parole sentences.  “It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said. “As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it’s not worth the effort.”  Even so, it’s not time to remove the death penalty as a sentencing option, Porter said. “I think there are still cases where there’s just no question that death is the proper punishment.”...

Opponents to capital punishment have traditionally been aligned with liberal causes. More recently, increasing numbers of conservatives are speaking out against it. Heather Beaudoin, national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said her primary concerns are the number of exonerations that have been disclosed over the years and the possibility of executing an innocent person. “We have a problem on our hands,” she said....

Beaudoin founded Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty in Montana in 2010. Five years ago, it became a national organization and has chapters in 13 states, including one in Georgia. “Many of our supporters are millennials who are pro-life like I am,” she said. “We believe that life is created by God and has value no matter what the circumstances are. Even someone who has committed an awful crime — that life has value.”

After four years without a death sentence, Georgia’s capital defender office is attracting national recognition. The capital defender’s office is part of the state’s public defender system and represents capital defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers.  The office’s intervention program, in which capital defenders seek plea deals from prosecutors early on in a case, has helped more than 20 defendants avoid a death-penalty trial, Jerry Word, who heads the defender office, said.  “The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months,” Word said. “The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county.”

I am not sure it would be entirely accurate to assert that a state has a well-functioning death penalty system if nobody gets sentenced to death. But I do think it is accurate to say that the death penalty is playing an important role in Georgia's criminal justice system: the mere possibility of capital charges seems to be essential to helping poor murder defendants get high-quality representation early in a case and also to helping the most wrenching cases get resolved within a matter of months.

June 5, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 04, 2018

Justice Sotomayor delivers lengthy dissent from denial of cert in Texas capital case concerning ineffective assistance of counsel

This morning's Supreme Court order list yet again lacks any grants of certiorari, but it does not lack some other interesting happenings.  The list includes a per curiam resolution of a dispute over access to abortion by undocumented teens in US custody that is sure to get the most attention. And a denial of cert in a capital case from Texas, Trevino v. Davis, may also generate some buzz because of a long dissent by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg. Here is a snippet from the start and close of this 13-page dissent:

When the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ultimately considered whether Trevino was prejudiced by his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and present evidence of his fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), the panel majority did not properly “reweigh the evidence in aggravation against the totality of available mitigating evidence.”  Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 534 (2003).  Rather, the majority dismissed the new FASD evidence because it purportedly created a “significant double-edged problem” in that it had both mitigating and aggravating aspects, and stopped its analysis short without reweighing the totality of all the evidence.  861 F.3d 545, 551 (2017).  That truncated approach is in direct contravention of this Court’s precedent, which has long recognized that a court cannot simply conclude that new evidence in aggravation cancels out new evidence in mitigation; the true impact of new evidence, both aggravating and mitigating, can only be understood by asking how the jury would have considered that evidence in light of what it already knew.

Although this Court is not usually in the business of error correction, this case warrants our intervention and summary disposition.  I respectfully dissent from the Court’s refusal to correct the Fifth Circuit’s flagrant error....

The Fifth Circuit majority plainly misapplied our precedents.  Absent intervention from this Court to correct that error, Trevino remains subject to a death sentence having received inadequate consideration of his claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and with no jury having fairly appraised the substantial new mitigating evidence that a competent counsel would have discovered.  That result is indefensible, especially where our failure to intervene sanctions the taking of a life by the state.

June 4, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, June 03, 2018

"Equal Protection Under the Carceral State"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Aya Gruber now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

McCleskey v. Kemp, the case that upheld the death penalty despite undeniable evidence of its racially disparate impact, is indelibly marked by Justice William Brennan’s phrase, “a fear of too much justice.” The popular interpretation of this phrase is that the Supreme Court harbored what I call a “disparity-claim fear,” dreading a future docket of racial discrimination claims and erecting an impossibly high bar for proving an equal protection violation. A related interpretation is that the majority had a “color-consciousness fear” of remedying discrimination through race-remedial policies.  In contrast to these conventional views, I argue that the primary anxiety exhibited by the McCleskey majority was a “leniency fear” of death penalty abolition. Opinion author Justice Lewis Powell made clear his view that execution was the appropriate punishment for McCleskey’s crime and expressed worry that McCleskey’s victory would open the door to challenges of criminal sentences more generally. 

Understanding that the Court’s primary political sensitivity was to state penal authority, not racial hierarchy, complicates the progressive sentiment that McCleskey’s call-to-action is securing equality of punishment. Derrick Bell’s “interest convergence” theory predicts that even conservatives with an aversion to robust equal protection law will accept racial-disparity evidence when in the service of crime-control values.  Indeed, Justice Powell may have been more sanguine about McCleskey’s discrimination claim had mandatory capital punishment been an option.  Accordingly, I caution that, outside of the death penalty context, courts and lawmakers can address perceived punishment disparities through “level-up” remedies, such as mandatory minimum sentences or abolishing diversion (which is said to favor white defendants).  There are numerous examples of convergence between antidiscrimination and prosecutorial interests, including mandatory sentencing guidelines, aggressive domestic violence policing and prosecution, and the movement to abolish Stand-Your-Ground laws.

June 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 01, 2018

Making the case against nitrogen as an execution method

Download (14)Charles Blanke, an oncologist and professor of medicine, has this notable new commentary in Newsweek headlined "Death by nitrogen should not be america's new capital punishment method." Here are excerpts:

Ever since the first recorded state punishment, when the Jamestown colony executed a Spanish spy by firing squad more than 400 years ago, Americans have tinkered with the technologies used to kill condemned prisoners....  Since 2015, three states, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi, trying to improve upon the current methods of execution in America — gas chamber, hanging and lethal injectio n— have added nitrogen gas asphyxiation to their capital punishment arsenals.

Nitrogen, which makes up about 78% of the air we breathe, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas used in a broad commercial range that includes ceramics manufacturing and steelmaking.  While it is not poisonous, breathing in pure nitrogen keeps the brain from getting enough oxygen, which itself is directly fatal.  In fact, a number of lethal industrial accidents involving inhaled nitrogen are reported every year.  Though its potential use in executions has not been formally studied, advocates have already suggested legal death via nitrogen inhalation would be quick, peaceful, and humane.

We need to ask three questions about the possible use of nitrogen in capital punishment cases.  Would it work? Does it offer advantages over current methods? And, is it cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? The answers are yes, maybe, and we don’t know (but probably yes).

Though it has not yet been used in a death penalty case, there is no doubt using nitrogen to execute prisoners would be highly effective.  Placed into a pure nitrogen environment, the convict would be unconscious within a minute (possibly even after a breath or two) and would be dead soon after.  Its failure rate, that is, cases in which the prisoner survives, would likely be much lower than what we see with current death penalty methods.

The second question, whether or not using nitrogen is better than what we currently do, is harder to answer. We need to be cautious in adopting new methods for use in capital punishment cases.  Every technique embraced to date, no matter what advantages they were thought to offer in theory, has been fraught with real-life shortcomings, ranging from modest to heinous.  Convicts in the electric chair have burst into flames, or required multiple jolts. The gas chamber, adopted by 12 states as being humane, fails in five percent of cases, with some prisoners observed to gasp for air for prolonged periods. Others have convulsed.

Lethal injection, the go-to procedure in every state with a capital punishment provision, has the highest fail rate of any method, exceeding seven percent. It can require multiple needle pokes to access veins in prisoners scarred from drug abuse or chronic illness, and one recent botched execution attempt in Alabama reportedly led to profuse bleeding and a punctured bladder....

There are many unanswered questions on what could go wrong with nitrogen use. If prisons forced the convicts to wear a tight fitting mask, would this increase the feeling of suffocation?  Could they still leak?  Or, would an entire room need to be filled with pure nitrogen? Would accidental dilution with oxygen-containing room air (mask or room) slow or even prevent death, leaving prisoners in comas or brain-damaged?

Also, nitrogen use isn’t medically regulated, and it’s hard to imagine much quality control would be applied to inspecting the gas used in death penalty cases.  What happens if prisons buy contaminated product?  Finally, would the nitrogen manufacturers take their cue from those making medications used in lethal injection and restrict sales to penitentiaries?...

Humans normally breathe in life-sustaining oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide produced during respiration.  Choking victims, who cannot get enough oxygen, say it is agonizing.  Supporters of using nitrogen in capital punishment cases believe the feeling of suffocation actually comes not from lack of oxygen (known as hypoxia), but from the buildup of carbon dioxide.  Since prisoners could still blow off carbon dioxide while breathing pure nitrogen, advocates say they wouldn’t suffer from air hunger.

What if they are wrong? Some studies suggest that fatal low oxygen levels alone do cause anxiety and the fear of suffocation.  And, it wouldn’t actually matter, even if they are right.  Hypoxia itself can cause severe nausea, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, inability to move, and seizures, regardless of what the carbon dioxide levels are doing.

Nitrogen gas doesn’t put people to sleep as do the medicines used in anesthesia, so prisoners could be painfully aware.  To be sure, sedating them first would prevent any distress from the hypoxia, but it would leave all the other problems associated with lethal injection.

It should be noted that nitrogen was previously used to kill animals, but it’s not a method that’s used anymore—the American Veterinary Medical Association does not recommend nitrogen euthanasia because evidence suggests gassed dogs and cats can actually suffer horribly before dying. Determining in advance whether or not nitrogen asphyxiation offers a “peaceful” death is impossible. We don’t have a lot of interviews with survivors of industrial nitrogen accidents, and experimentation is unethical—we can’t partly gas convicts and ask them how it went.

If our old-fashioned methods are not ideal, and nitrogen asphyxiation is not proven humane, are there other alternatives? Yes. I testified in hearing where the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama recently ruled in the case of Doyle Lee Hamm that oral drugs used medically in states allowing terminally ill patients to take their own lives — “death with dignity”. This method could lawfully be employed in capital punishment cases. Though Alabama still ultimately tried (unsuccessfully) to use standard intravenous injection following the legal action spawning that ruling, medications given by mouth are under consideration in death penalty cases elsewhere in the south....

Capital punishment remains constitutional, and it isn’t going away any time soon.  However, our Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty cannot involve unnecessary or wanton infliction of pain, and that there must be a constitutional means of applying it.  We need to put more thought into the methods used, especially since there are no means to scientifically test in advance whether or not they violate the Eighth Amendment.  We don’t and can’t know that nitrogen asphyxiation would be painless, and it simply doesn’t qualify as an acceptable means of carrying out a death sentence.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 1, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"Blind Justice: Why the Court Refused to Accept Statistical Evidence of Discriminatory Purpose in McCleskey v. Kemp — And Some Pathways for Change"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Reva Siegel recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court refused to accept statistical evidence of race discrimination in an equal protection challenge to the death penalty.  This lecture, on the decision’s thirtieth anniversary, locates McCleskey in cases of the Burger and Rehnquist Courts that restrict proof of discriminatory purpose in terms that make it exceedingly difficult for minority plaintiffs successfully to assert equal protection claims.

The lecture’s aims are both critical and constructive.  The historical reading I offer shows that portions of the opinion justify restrictions on evidence to protect prosecutorial discretion, while others limit proof of discrimination in ways that seem responsive to conservative claims of the era about race, rights, and courts.  Scrutinizing the Court’s reasons for restricting inferences from statistical evidence opens conversations about the principles on which McCleskey rests and the decision’s prospective reach.

A close reading of the decision has led some courts to interpret McCleskey’s restrictions on statistical evidence as a response to particular concerns raised by the record in that case, opening the door to statistical evidence of bias in other equal protection challenges in criminal cases.  At the same time, revisiting McCleskey and its progeny raises questions about the capacity of courts to redress bias in the criminal justice system.  Three decades of living with McCleskey teaches that it is important to design remedies for bias in the criminal justice system that do not depend solely on judges for their implementation.

May 30, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Updated archive of European Union engagement concerning death penalty in the United States

I have the great honor and pleasure of talking today about the application of the death penalty in Ohio to a delegation of the European Union to the United States. Prior to the meeting, the EU delegation drew my attention to this online archive of (past) EU engagement in the US on death penalty.

This archive includes letters of appeal, official statements and the link, and it has been recently modified to update all the links, going back 18 years. Here is the description that sets up the links that follow:

The EU unconditionally supports the right to life and the right not to be subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment— standards recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international human rights agreements, and many national constitutions.

Abolition of the death penalty is a prerequisite for EU membership, and the European Union actively promotes a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty and protests against the practice in individual cases throughout the world.  The EU has insisted that bilateral extradition treaties with non-EU countries automatically preclude the use of the death penalty in all cases of extradited prisoners from EU Member States.

As a global leader in the fight against torture and other forms of ill treatment, the EU works to prevent and eliminate torture and to end the impunity of those responsible.  Through its Guidelines on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, the EU strives to persuade non-EU countries to produce and apply effective measures to outlaw torture.  The EU also champions anti-torture initiatives in international forums, consistently raises its concerns with other countries through political dialogue and bilateral initiatives, and provides substantial funding for relevant projects by civil society organizations.

May 22, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 21, 2018

In shadow of Parkland, a notable discussion with victim families about capital prosecutions in Florida

This local article from Florida, headlined "For victims' families, no easy answer on whether the ordeal of a death penalty case is worth it," take a thoughtful look at what a death penalty prosecution can mean for the families of murder victims. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The parents of the murdered students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been asked — directly by prosecutors, indirectly by defense lawyers, and while talking amongst themselves — whether the young man responsible for mercilessly slaughtering their children should be executed for the crime.

At stake is more than just the life of the killer, Nikolas Cruz.  Whenever the death penalty is ordered in Florida, the case is automatically appealed, guaranteeing the victims’ families will be locked with Cruz in a lengthy process that can take years or even decades to resolve. It’s a position no one envies, but some who have been through similar ordeals say the Parkland parents cannot give a wrong answer, no matter what they decide.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel talked to family members of three victims whose accused killers faced the death penalty. They agreed that the process is long, grueling and takes an emotional toll. Yet none regret their decisions to ask prosecutors to seek a death sentence.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office already announced that it plans to seek the death penalty against Cruz, 19, who killed 14 students and three staff members at the Parkland high school.  Prosecutors won’t say whether the families’ input could change the strategy.  And Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, has offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the dead, said Finkelstein’s offer is tempting. “I support the death penalty,” he said. “But I don’t want to pursue it in the case of my daughter’s killer. … If there’s a chance Cruz is willing to take a plea deal, I say go for it.”  Guttenberg said his main concern is having to relive the case at every stage — a trial, followed by a penalty phase, followed by appeals, the specter of a retrial, repeating the process from the beginning, “only to end up at what is likely to be a life sentence anyway.”...

For Chris Crowley, staying away wasn’t an option.  Crowley waited 27 years to see his sister’s killer executed in 2013. William Frederick Happ confessed in the execution chamber and begged for forgiveness before he was put to death by lethal injection.  His victim, Angela Crowley, had lived in Lauderdale Lakes for just a few months and was working at a travel agency in the spring of 1986.  She was on her way to visit a friend in Citrus County when she was abducted and murdered by Happ.

Chris Crowley, 61, said watching Happ die gave him a kind of closure he never could have gotten had he known the killer was in a cell getting three meals a day. “He would have had the possibility to kill again,” Crowley said. “The possibility of escape. The possibility of a commuted sentence. With the death sentence, there’s finality.”...

Deborah Bowie calls her situation “the textbook case for everything that is dysfunctional about capital punishment.”  Bowie’s sister, Sharon Anderson, was murdered in 1994 along with two others in what became known as the Casey’s Nickelodeon murders.  The other victims were Casimir "Butch Casey" Sucharski, former owner of the popular Pembroke Park bar that gave the case its nickname, and Marie Rogers....  “It’s a marathon every time,” said Bowie. “I feel for any family that is starting a death penalty case at the beginning. They have no idea what they’re in for.” 

May 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Death penalty restoration may get a vote in Illinois House

I have not blogged before about the recent suggestion by the Illinois Gov to restore the death penalty in his state, but this new article reports that the idea may now be headed toward a vote in the Illinois House.  Here are the details:

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed Thursday to allow a vote on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s controversial plan to reinstate the death penalty and expand the waiting period to purchase firearms, creating a political minefield Democrats contend could hurt re-election-seeking Republicans more than themselves.

Madigan said the issues the Republican governor raised “deserve a full hearing and consideration before the House.” “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders and continuing our effort to keep our children, our schools and our communities safe from senseless gun violence,” Madigan said in a statement.

Rauner’s rewrite would create a 72-hour “cooling off” period to buy any firearm and reinstate capital punishment for slaying a law enforcement officer or in cases where two or more people are killed. A new bill containing the governor’s plan will be discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, and Democrats said Madigan intends for it to be eventually called for a full House vote.

The move provides some political insulation for Madigan, the chief political nemesis of the re-election-seeking governor. It prevents the governor from attacking the veteran House speaker for defending the lives of cop killers by blocking a vote on Rauner’s crime-fighting initiative. It’s doubtful the Rauner plan would pass the House, but Madigan’s move carries several political risks for individual lawmakers in both parties. It also creates significant complications for rank-and-file Republicans.

Lawmakers on both sides who vote against the measure could find themselves targeted by political opponents as being soft on crime and weak in their support of law enforcement by refusing to lift the state’s seven-year ban on capital punishment. That could particularly impact suburban Democratic lawmakers in a region where the party has made increasing inroads on traditionally Republican territory. Still, several lawmakers who served in 2011 when the state abolished the death penalty following a tarnished history of wrongful convictions are already on record with their vote.

The bill is more complex for Republicans. While reinstating the death penalty has its appeal to Republican voters, Rauner’s plan also would create a 72-hour waiting period for all guns, not just military-style firearms contained in the original bill. An expansion of the waiting period is opposed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and is at odds with many voters in rural Illinois legislative districts represented by Republicans who champion their support for gun rights.

Kudos to leadership for allowing debate and a vote on these matters. Especially in an election year, voters should be able to know when their representatives stand on an array of high-profile political issues. I wish Senator Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders in Congress would take a page from the folks in Illinois when it comes to allowing high-profile criminal justice issues like sentencing reform and marijuana reform get a fair up-or-down vote so that voters can know for sure where there representatives stand and so that proposals with majority support can actually become law.

May 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Texas completes its sixth execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, in Texas "Juan Castillo was put to death Wednesday evening, ending his death sentence on his fourth execution date within the year."  Here is more:

The 37-year-old was executed for the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio. The execution had been postponed three times since last May, including a rescheduling because of Hurricane Harvey.

Castillo's advocates and attorneys had insisted on his innocence in Garcia’s murder, pleading unsuccessfully for a last-minute 30-day stay of execution from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott after all of his appeals were rejected in the courts. The Texas Defender Service, a capital defense group who had recently picked up Castillo’s case, asked Abbott for the delay to let its lawyers fully investigate claims they said discredited the prosecution’s evidence against Castillo — including recanted statements and video of police interrogations that contradict testimony at trial.

But with no action from the governor, Castillo was taken into the death chamber in Huntsville, and at 6:21 p.m., injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, according to the Texas Department of Justice. Twenty-three minutes later, he was pronounced dead.... [H]e became the sixth person executed in Texas this year and the 11th in the country.

Texas appears to be on pace to return to its modern historical pattern of 10 or more execution per year.  As this Death Penalty Information Center chart reveals, from 1992 through 2015, the Lone Start State had 10 or more executions every single year save one year.  Over this 24-year period, Texas averaged more than 20 executions per year, including a single year high of 40 executions in 2000.  But in 2016 and 2017, Texas only executed 7 condemned inmates each year.  With six more executions scheduled in Texas before the end of September, it seems Texas is poised to regress toward its historical execution mean in 2018.

UPDATE:  I just saw this new AP piece reporting on two new Texas execution dates set for October "bringing to eight the number of inmates set for lethal injection in the coming months."

May 16, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, May 11, 2018

Nevada defense attorney loses latest battle, but may still be winning war, in effort to preclude an execution defendant apparently seeks

This local article, headlined "Nevada Supreme Court overturns lower court ban on using a paralytic in Scott Dozier execution, citing procedural issues," reports on a state Supreme Court ruling that might (or might not) increase the chance of the first execution in Nevada in more than a decade.  This matter seems to have a notable (and disturbing?) backstory, and here are the basics (with a few points emphasized):

Nevada’s Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to vacate its decision blocking part of the state’s proposed three-drug lethal injection combination, although one of the drugs it needs to carry out an impending execution has expired and it’s uncertain if and when the state can replace it.

The unanimous ruling comes two days after oral arguments were held in the case of 47-year-old Scott Dozier, whose execution was scheduled for November 2017 but has been indefinitely delayed.  Dozier, who was convicted of two murders in Nevada and Arizona, voluntarily gave up his appeals and says he wants to be put to death.

While a federal public defender raised the prospect that including the third drug and final drug in the protocol, a paralytic, could lead to a torturous execution that would violate prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, the justices focused their ruling on the procedural elements of the case. The justices rebuked both the District Court judge and federal public defenders representing Dozier, saying the challenge to the execution protocol was “procedurally improper” and led to confusion and a failure to follow the correct procedures for appealing a death penalty case.

The decision said the federal public defender didn’t file a 1983 action or another appropriate mechanism to challenge the execution method, and instead raised the challenge as part of a “Motion for Determination Whether Scott Dozier’s Execution Will Proceed in a Lawful Manner” in a post-conviction proceeding that had already been suspended....

Togliatti ruled in November that the state’s proposed drug combination to carry out the execution presented a “substantial risk of harm” to Dozier as the method had never been tested and because prison officials presented little evidence in court. The court found that the inclusion of the paralytic could mask symptoms that the first two drugs were not working, leading to the possibility that Dozier would be aware but unable to communicate as he suffocated.   Justices noted in a footnote that the federal public defender’s actions appeared to “be at odds” with Dozier’s directive that his counsel not take any actions to delay the execution.

A representative of the attorney general’s office told justices this week that the state’s supply of diazepam — the first of the three drugs proposed to be used in the execution — had expired on May 1, but said it might be possible to replace the drug. Pharmaceutical companies that have barred the use of their drugs for executions have made it difficult for states to carry out the killings. Lawyers for Dozier didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday on what their next steps would be.

A spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections said the agency was waiting for the issuance of a warrant of execution before they could get started setting a date for Dozier to be put to death.

I am generally sympathetic to what might be called "creative" lawyering by capital defense attorneys when an execution date looms and their client requests pursuing every possible means to block an execution.  But in this case, according the Nevada Supreme Court, the death-row defendant has "consistently stated that he wanted the State to carry out the death sentence and did not want counsel to take actions that might disrupt his execution."  Under these circumstances, I am troubled by the "creative" lawyering deployed here to thwart the express wishes of the capital client.

The defendant here has not only been languishing on death row for an extra seven months while a procedurally improper motion was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court, but now Nevada may no longer have "valid" drugs it needs to carry out the execution that the defendant presumably still wants.  I assume the defense attorney here and perhaps others may be urging Dozier to reconsider his request to have his execution go forward, and it will be interesting to watch if any further appeals are brought whenever the state can get another execution date scheduled.  But unless and until one thinks the rule of law can and should be ignored whenever the stakes are high enough, the capital litigation backstory story should be considered disconcerting.

May 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

C-SPAN's Landmark Cases series examines 1976 SCOTUS decision in Gregg v. Georgia

C-SPAN has this ongoing series called Landmark Cases "produced in partnership with the National Constitution Center [that] explores the issues, people and places involved in some of the most significant Supreme Court cases in our nation's history." As C-SPAN puts it, "Landmark Cases introduces viewers to the stories of the plaintiffs who sparked these cases and to the justices and lawyers who were key to the Supreme Court's review. The series visits historic sites and other locations that bring these cases to life and studio guests interacting with C-SPAN viewers offer historic context and modern relevance to the programs."

This week's broadcast, linked here, is focused on the Supreme Court's the 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia, although a range of issues related to the history and constitutionality of the death penalty are discussed. The astutely-selected guests for participation in this C-SPAN program were Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker and Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.

Notably, the first two seasons of Landmark Cases have yet to cover any case after 1978, so I suppose I cannot yet get grumpy that the Apprendi, Blakely, Booker line of cases. But C-SPAN says it picks "the most significant and frequently cited cases" for its program, and these sentencing cases certainly fit that description.  

May 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Television | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 07, 2018

Examining whether nitrogen gas could be a viable new method for executions

538143779The New York Times has this extended new article about the latest innovation in execution methods under the headline "States Turn to an Unproven Method of Execution: Nitrogen Gas."   The piece is worth reading in full, and here are excerpts:

Hamstrung by troubles with lethal injection — gruesomely botched attempts, legal battles and growing difficulty obtaining the drugs — states are looking for alternative ways to carry out the death penalty. High on the list for some is a method that has never been used before: inhaling nitrogen gas.

Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen for executions and are developing protocols to use it, which represents a leap into the unknown.  There is no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones....

In March, Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, said that using nitrogen was “the safest, the best and the most effective method available.”  There is scant scientific data to back up that statement. What little is known about human death by nitrogen comes from industrial and medical accidents and its use in suicide.  In accidents, when people have been exposed to high levels of nitrogen and little air in an enclosed space, they have died quickly.  In some cases co-workers who rushed in to rescue them also collapsed and died.

Nitrogen itself is not poisonous, but someone who inhales it, with no air, will pass out quickly, probably in less than a minute, and die soon after — from lack of oxygen.  The same is true of other physiologically inert gases, including helium and argon, which kill only by replacing oxygen....

(Although nitrogen itself would be novel, gas chambers have existed as an American execution method since the 1920s. The last case was in 1999, when Arizona used clouds of hydrogen cyanide to execute an inmate.  Coughing and hacking, he took 18 minutes to die.)

Death from nitrogen is thought to be painless.  It should prevent the condition that causes feelings of suffocation: the buildup of carbon dioxide from not being able to exhale.  Humans are highly sensitive to carbon dioxide — too much brings on the panicky feeling of not being able to breathe.  Somewhat surprisingly, the lack of oxygen doesn’t trigger that same reflex.  Someone breathing pure nitrogen can still exhale carbon dioxide and therefore should not have the sensation of smothering.  Before passing out, a person may feel lightheaded, dizzy or maybe even a bit euphoric, and vision may dim.

Dr. Charles D. Blanke, who has studied data on physician-assisted dying, said it was not at all clear that nitrogen inhalation would bring a peaceful death.  Dr. Blanke, a medical oncologist and professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said he had consulted colleagues in pulmonary medicine and anesthesiology, and they had concerns that carbon dioxide actually could build up and cause feelings of suffocation....

Unlike lethal injection, the use of nitrogen would not require that the execution team dig around for a vein.  An anesthesiologist, who requested anonymity because medical societies bar members from participating in executions or providing information to encourage them, said that nitrogen inhalation was less cruel than lethal injection.  And since it presumably would involve no paralytic agent, witnesses would be able to see whether the person seemed to be suffering, he said.  Seizures might occur from inhaling nitrogen, he said. But if the technique appears to go smoothly, he predicted that other states would quickly adopt it. 

In fact, according to state documents, in May of 2016, an Arizona company sent a sales-pitch letter for nitrogen gas executions to Nebraska corrections officials. Among the standout features of its Euthypoxia Chamber: It “produces calm and sedation followed by inebriation and euphoria;” it “requires no medical expertise;” and it guarantees “the demise of any mammalian life in 4 minutes.” In passing along the letter to another official, a state corrections department executive hand-wrote: “I’m not intending to respond — just thought it was an odd correspondence.”

Ms. Moreno, of the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic, said that implementing nitrogen gas is not as simple as states suggest.  There are different grades of nitrogen, including medical and industrial, she said, with commensurate purities and regulations.  Observers of the execution would need protection.  Officials would have to figure out how to safely clear nitrogen from the room before a physician could declare death and the staff could remove the body.

The Final Exit Network, a volunteer organization that supports the rights of people with terminal illness or intractable suffering to end their lives, considers nitrogen inhalation a reasonable method, and directs people to information about it.  The technique involves putting a plastic bag over one’s head and pumping in nitrogen.  Janis Landis, president of the network, said: “The science behind inert gases is quite well settled. Any inert gas, one can breathe it in, in place of oxygen. You don’t have air hunger.  You can keep breathing. You pass out and you die.”

A few (of many) prior related posts:

May 7, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Leading newspaper in New Hampshire advocates "Governor, end the death penalty"

I have not blogged about the recent votes by New Hampshire’s legislature to repeal the state's rarely used death penalty because of reports that New Hampshire's Governor was sure to veto the repeal and there were not sufficient votes to override a veto. But since the veto has yet to take place, I figured I might note this new editorial in the Concord Monitor headlined "Governor, end the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

For the second time since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, both houses of New Hampshire’s Legislature have voted to repeal the state’s capital punishment law.  The first attempt died in the face of a threatened veto by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.  It was a dark hour in the state’s history.  New Hampshire is the only New England state to countenance the death penalty, indeed the only Eastern state north of Virginia whose laws call for putting transgressors to death.

This year’s repeal vote faces a promised veto by Gov. Chris Sununu.  We urge the governor to let the will of the people, as represented by the majority vote of their representatives, be expressed.  He should sign the bill or let it become law without his signature.  If he does neither, lawmakers should override his veto.  In the House, one more vote would have given repeal proponents a veto-proof majority.  In the Senate, just two more votes would have done the same.

John Breckenridge, a Manchester police officer who watched his partner, Michael Briggs, die from a bullet fired by Michael Addison, the only inmate on New Hampshire’s death row, spoke against the death penalty four years ago when the New Hampshire House voted to abolish capital punishment.  “As a Catholic, I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who -- for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others -- still lives . . . in the possibility of spiritual redemption.”

This year, another former Manchester police officer, Rep. Richard O’Leary, once the Queen City’s deputy chief, voted for repeal.  “I don’t believe we have the right under any circumstances, except immediate self-defense, to take a life.  Once the criminal has been subdued, arrested, segregated from society and rendered defenseless, I cannot see where the state has any compelling interest in executing him.  It’s simply wrong.”

It is also costly.  Because he was sentenced to death the state will spend millions to prosecute Addison for Briggs’s murder.  That’s money that could be put to far better use.  We urge Manchester Sens. Lou D’Allessandro and Kevin Cavanaugh to heed the words of Breckenridge and O’Leary and, if it comes to that, vote to override a Sununu veto.  Others who voted against repeal should change their vote and at long last put New Hampshire on the right side of moral history....

A wrongful death committed in society’s name cannot be undone.  It’s time for New Hampshire to join the enlightened states and nations that have abolished capital punishment.

May 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, May 04, 2018

Georgia execution back on; stay lifted with clemency denied by state parole board

As reported in this prior post, earlier this week the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles issued an unusual stay on the even of a scheduled execution.  But now, as reported in this article headlined "Murdered Georgia man’s father thanks God inmate’s execution is back on," it appears that the execution will go forward only 48 hours after it had been originally scheduled. Here are the basics:  

Not long after halting the scheduled execution of Georgia inmate Robert Earl Butts Jr., the State Board of Pardons and Paroles lifted its own stay, putting the death penalty wheels back in motion.  Butts is now scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday at 7 p.m.  Before the parole board issued a stay Wednesday night, Butts was expected to get the needle Thursday evening for the 1996 murder of off-duty correctional officer Donovan Corey Parks.

“Oh Lord,” said Freddie Parks, the victim’s father. “I’m nervous. I’m really happy to hear the good news. I’ve been going through it 22 years. Nobody knows what I’ve been going through but me and the Lord. And I’ve been really talking to Him.” Just hours earlier, Parks, a 75-year-old retired prison guard, was angry and despondent at the same time over the stay of execution. “It wasn’t fair the way it came out, putting it off. Another blow,” he said at the time.

When the board issued its 90-day stay Wednesday night, its spokesman said the five-member panel needed time to review the “considerable amount of additional information” it received in a meeting with Butts’ attorneys, as well as in a subsequent session with those who wanted to see the execution carried out.  “Knowing the gravity of its decisions, the board extended deliberations in order to consider supplemental information submitted during the meeting that members had not previously reviewed,” spokesman Steve Hayes said. “Completing that process, the board voted to deny clemency.”

While the parole board has the sole constitutional authority to grant clemency, the courts have the ultimate power to decide whether to spare an inmate’s life. So Butts’ attorneys continued to file appeals on Thursday.

If Butts, 40, is executed, he will be the second man Georgia has put to death this year.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This local article reports on the completed execution:

Robert Earl Butts Jr. was put to death by lethal injection Friday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. He was pronounced dead at 9:58 p.m. When asked for a final statement, Butts replied, “I’ve been drinking caffeine all day.”  Then he declined an offer for a prayer.

Butts kept his eyes closed from the moment he was placed on the gurney. He never looked at the father and brother of his victim, sitting on just the other side of the window that separates the witness area from the execution chamber.  Nor did he look at Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee or Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was chief deputy in Baldwin County at the time of the murder.

Two minutes after the pentobarbital began to flow into the vein in his arm, Butts mumbled, “It burns, man.” After that, he yawned and took a series of deep breaths until there was no movement about a minute before he was pronounced dead.

Butts, 40, was sentenced to death for the March 1996 murder of 25-year-old Donovan Corey Parks in Milledgeville. Butts and his co-defendant, Marion Wilson Jr., asked Parks — an off-duty correctional officer — for a ride from a local Walmart store, then minutes later ordered him from the car and shot him in the head. Butts was 18 at the time.

May 4, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

An uncertain execution stay for uncertain reasons from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles

As reported in this AP piece, "Georgia's parole board on Wednesday issued a decision halting the scheduled execution of a condemned inmate less than 24 hours before he was set to be put to death." Here is more about the decision that strikes me as full of uncertainties:

Robert Earl Butts Jr., 40, had been scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Thursday at the state prison in Jackson.  The State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its decision just before 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to grant a stay of up to 90 days to give board members more time to consider the case.

"Due to the considerable amount of additional information the Board has received regarding the case and because the Board understands the importance and seriousness of its authority and responsibility, a stay was issued," board spokesman Steve Hayes said in an emailed statement....  The board could issue a final decision in the case during the stay period or at the end of the 90 days, Hayes said. 

Earlier Wednesday, the board held a closed-door hearing to listen to arguments for and against clemency for Butts.  A judge in the Superior Court of Baldwin County, where Butts was sentenced to death, last month issued the order for the execution to be carried out within a window starting Thursday and ending May 10.  If the board decides to lift the stay and denies clemency within that period, the execution could go forward without a new execution order.

The board also has the option to commute Butts' death sentence to a sentence of life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Butts and Marion Wilson Jr., 41, were convicted of murder and armed robbery in the March 1996 slaying of Donovan Corey Parks in central Georgia.  The two men asked Parks for a ride outside a Walmart store in Milledgeville and then ordered him out of the car and fatally shot him a short distance away.  Prosecutors have said Butts fired the fatal shot.

Authorities said Butts and Wilson were gang members who had gone looking for a victim when they drove Butts' car to the Walmart store.  Juries in separate trials found sufficient evidence to sentence both men to death because Parks was killed during the commission of an aggravating felony, armed robbery.  Wilson's case is still pending in the courts.

Butts' attorneys had asked the parole board in a clemency application filed last week to spare his life.... His attorneys insisted in the clemency application that Butts wasn't the shooter. A jailhouse witness, Horace May, who testified at trial that Butts confessed to being the shooter has now signed a sworn statement saying he made the story up out of sympathy for Wilson, whom he also met in jail....

Butts' attorneys also argued in his clemency petition that the single aggravating factor wouldn't warrant a death sentence in Georgia today.  They also ask the board to consider commuting Butts' sentence to life in prison after weighing abuse and neglect during Butts' childhood, the fact that he was just 18 when the crime occurred and that he has expressed remorse.

Butts' lawyers submitted a supplement to the clemency application to the board at the clemency hearing Wednesday. In that supplement, they argued that evidence in the case indicates that Wilson consistently had possession of the gun used to kill Parks. They also said there's no evidence that Butts was a member of a gang or that Parks' killing was gang-related. They wrote that the fact that the two tried to sell the car at a chop shop shows the crime was financially motivated.

Because Georgia sets a week for an execution time, it seem possible that the clemency petition will be denied in the coming days and the execution still goes forward. Thus, I find it uncertain whether this stay connotes a real likelihood that this defendant will avoid execution in the coming day. And that uncertainty is itself built on top of uncertainty about what the Georgia Board might be finding troubling in this case.  Notably, this local article provides this account of the last time this kind of stay was granted and its aftermath: "The last time the board stayed an execution was on April 17, 2012. Daniel Green was scheduled to be executed for a 1991 Taylor County murder. The board commuted Green’s sentence to life without parole on April 20, 2017."

May 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Interesting statistics in BJS statistical brief "Capital Punishment, 2016"

Earlier this week, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released this short new publication titled simply "Capital Punishment, 2016." The paper presents statistics on persons under sentence of death in the United States as of year-end 2016. Though already a bit dated, the publication is still an interesting accounting of summary trends in the death row population, including admissions to and releases from death row. Here are a few highlights from the publication's list of highlights:

May 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Feds forego capital prosecution for airport mass murderer, allowing guilty plea to LWOP

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Airport shooter Esteban Santiago to plead guilty, spend life in prison," highlights how (jury) sentencing discretion and other procedural rights in capital cases can impact how prosecutors approach charging and bargaining even in horrible murder cases.  Here are the details (with my emphasis added), with a bit of commentary to follow:

Esteban Santiago, the man who confessed to fatally shooting five people and wounding six at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, has agreed to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

Prosecutors have accepted his offer and are not seeking the death penalty but the judge first wants Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to make sure he’s legally competent to plead guilty.

The decision takes a very expensive and potentially long and emotional trial — followed by years of appeals — off the table.  Santiago’s documented history of severe mental illness, the fact that he went to the FBI and asked for help two months before committing the mass shooting, his willingness to plead guilty and his military service in the Iraq War were likely among the top factors that affected the decision, experts said.

Santiago, 28, had pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6, 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  Ten of those charges carried a potential death sentence or life in federal prison. His change-of-plea hearing is expected to be scheduled in the next several weeks in federal court in Miami.

Both sides are due back in court May 23 for a competency hearing with U.S. District Beth Bloom. If the judge is satisfied that Santiago is mentally competent, she would then allow him to plead guilty....

He was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric care in Alaska in November 2016, two months before the shooting. He had driven to the FBI office in Anchorage, asked for help and told agents he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind.

After Santiago surrendered at the airport, FBI agents said he confessed and told them he was “programmed” to act under government mind control. Later in the interview, he said he was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group, but authorities said no terrorism links have been found.

Though the line highlighted above tells a big part of the story, I still find myself left wondering about what factors played a central role in the sentencing decision-making of federal prosecutors here. I wonder if many or even most of the victims/family members supported this decision to forego a capital prosecution (and also wonder if they at all troubled that this critical decision lingered for 16 months from the time of this awful crime). I also wonder if prosecutors, perhaps concerned about a possible insanity defense and criticisms of mental health care given to veterans, we not even confident about getting a guilty verdict, let alone a death sentence, were this case to go to trial.

Whatever the reasons for the feds decision-making here (which will remain hidden and are essentially unreviewable), this case helps reveal the range of forces that necessarily place brakes on any efforts by the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions to make significantly more use of the death penalty.  A mass shooting in an airport of nearly a dozen people with five deaths would seem to be a textbook example of a "worst-of-the-worst" offense.  But because the defendant can make the case that he is not a worst-of-the-worst offender, federal prosecutors (in a pro-death penalty state) are not even willing to try to secure a death sentence.  

May 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, April 30, 2018

Following a stay last month, SCOTUS grants cert on a method of execution Eighth Amendment case from Missouri

The US Supreme Court this morning issued this order list this morning that includes a trio of grant of certiorari.  The only criminal case of the three is Bucklew v. Precythe.  Interestingly, Bucklew only first came to SCOTUS last month when, as noted in this prior post, the Supreme Court Justice split 5-4 when granting Russell Bucklew a stay from his execution in Missouri based in part on his claim that any lethal injection would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he has "blood-filled tumors [growing] in his head, neck, and throat."  

Here is how this SCOTUSblog case page describes the issues presented by Bucklew's cert petition: 

Issues: (1) Whether a court evaluating an as-applied challenge to a state’s method of execution based on an inmate’s rare and severe medical condition should assume that medical personnel are competent to manage his condition and that procedure will go as intended; (2) whether evidence comparing a state’s method of execution with an alternative proposed by an inmate must be offered via a single witness, or whether a court at summary judgment must look to the record as a whole to determine whether a factfinder could conclude that the two methods significantly differ in the risks they pose to the inmate; and (3) whether the Eighth Amendment requires an inmate to prove an adequate alternative method of execution when raising an as-applied challenge to the state’s proposed method of execution based on his rare and severe medical condition.

Interestingly, on the order list when granting cert, the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief some additional issues.  Here is what the Court said when granting cert:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. In addition to the questions presented in the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following Question: Whether petitioner met his burden under Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), to prove what procedures would be used to administer his proposed alternative method of execution, the severity and duration of pain likely to be produced, and how they compare to the State's method of execution.

This Bucklew case likely will not be argued until October or November 2018, and likely will not produce an opinion from the Court until probably around this time next year. So, stay tuned.

April 30, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, April 27, 2018

"Death Qualification in Black and White: Racialized Decision Making and Death‐Qualified Juries"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Death qualification has been shown to have a number of biasing effects that appear to undermine a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair jury.  Attitudes toward the death penalty have shifted modestly but consistently over the last several decades in ways that may have changed the overall impact of death qualification.  Specifically, the very large gap between black and white Americans' current support for capital punishment raises the question of whether death qualification procedures disproportionately exclude African Americans from capital jury participation.

In order to examine this possibility, we conducted two countywide death penalty attitude surveys in the California county that has the highest percentage of African American residents in the state.  Results show that death qualification continues to have a number of serious biasing effects — including disproportionately excluding death penalty opponents — which result in the significant underrepresentation of African Americans.  This creates a death‐qualified jury pool with the potential to be significantly more likely to ignore and even misuse mitigating factors and to rely more heavily on aggravating factors in their death penalty decision making.  The implications of these findings for the fair administration of capital punishment are discussed.

April 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Texas completes its fifth execution of 2018

As reported in this AP piece, a "prisoner on Texas death row for killing a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother in a gang-related shooting at a child's birthday party in Fort Worth a decade ago was executed Wednesday evening." Here are a few more details about the execution and the defendant's crimes:

Erick Davila received lethal injection for using a laser-sighted semi-automatic rifle to spray bullets at about 20 people — more than a dozen of them children. Annette Stevenson, 48, and her granddaughter, Queshawn Stevenson, were killed and four others were wounded, including the girl who was celebrating her 9th birthday.

Davila, 31, belted to a gurney in the Texas death chamber, offered no apologies. He appeared almost cocky as several relatives of his victims entered the witness area of the death chamber, raising his head off the gurney and acknowledging some that he appeared to know. "I may have lost the fight but I'm still a soldier," he said when asked by the warden if he wanted to make a statement. "Take it as it is. To my supporters and family, y'all hold it down. Ten toes down. That's all I got to say."

He was pronounced dead at 6:31 p.m. CDT, 14 minutes after the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital was administered. Davila was the ninth prisoner executed in the U.S. this year, five of them in Texas.

Authorities said the April 6, 2008, attack was in apparent retaliation for a previous run-in Davila had with the slain girl's father, who was attending the party.  The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Davila's lawyers about 30 minutes before the punishment was carried out....

Defense lawyers at Davila's trial tried to show he didn't intend to kill multiple people, a criterion for the capital murder charge.  They argued he instead only intended to kill Jerry Stevenson, whose daughter and mother were shot to death. Authorities said Stevenson belonged to a rival gang and that Davila believed members of that gang shot him in 2005. Stevenson denied belonging to the gang.

Davila was accused but not tried in another fatal shooting just days before the birthday party slayings. While awaiting trial for capital murder, he also attacked Tarrant County jailers and maintenance workers during an escape attempt.  He previously served prison time for a 2004 burglary in Tarrant County and was released after about a year.

April 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"6 Months Since Trump Declared an Opioid Emergency, What's Changed?" ... other than AG Sessions "strongly" encouraging capital prosecutions?

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Governing article, which provides this answer via a subheadline: "Some health officials say nothing. Members of Congress, meanwhile, are taking matters of money for the drug crisis into their own hands." Here are excerpts:

On Oct. 26 last year, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic -- which took more than 64,000 lives in 2016 -- a national emergency.  More specifically, he declared it a public health emergency, which can be used to ease some federal rules for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to, among other things, make more people eligible for Medicaid or dispatch more medical professionals to the areas hit hardest by the drug crisis.

The declaration has already been extended twice, most recently on Tuesday.  But health policy experts say it's unclear what -- if any -- HHS rules have been waived since the declaration.  Moreover, Trump did not directly offer state and local governments more money to combat the drug crisis.  Because of this, some say the declaration has been nothing more than an empty promise.  "We’ve seen no effect here in Baltimore from the emergency [declaration]," says Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner. "We could save so many more lives if we had more resources. We don’t need any more rhetoric."  Wen worked with members of Congress to take matters of money into their own hands....

There are at least seven other bills floating around Congress to address the opioid epidemic. The most comprehensive with the most bipartisan support is the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2.0. It offers $1 billion more than current federal funding for treatment and prevention programs and would mandate a three-day limit for first-time opioid prescriptions.

Frustration over federal inaction is even boiling over within the president's own party.  Before Trump traveled to New Hampshire to talk about opioids, the state's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, reportedly confronted White House officials about the lack of funding to back up the emergency declaration.  "The president cannot come to New Hampshire without a plan that has substance," Sununu told White House aides, according to CBS News.

Trump still gave his scheduled speech there in March to unveil new initiatives to fight the opioid epidemic.  He focused on cracking down on illegal immigration and drug dealers. Since then, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for some drug traffickers....

His focus on law-and-order tactics exasperated many health officials. "I'm deeply concerned with the focus on incarceration. It goes against what science says, which is that addiction is a disease.  We know that treatment works.  The war on drugs doesn't," says Wen.

The plan the White House released after Trump's New Hampshire speech did include several bipartisan, health-focused efforts to combat the crisis -- but most of the ideas weren't new and there were few specifics about how to pay for them.  Before the emergency declaration, Trump assembled an opioid commission to explore the best tactics the federal government could deploy to stem the tide of overdoses.  A final report was released in November, with some bipartisan recommendations, such as removing barriers to treatment and increasing access to drug courts that divert people struggling with addiction from jail.

But even those who worked on the commission's 138-page report have said that the administration has no plan to systematically address the epidemic.... There have been some encouraging signs, however, that the federal government is serious about addressing the opioid epidemic. The Trump administration has continued an Obama-era policy of approving waivers to let their Medicaid programs pay for addiction and mental health treatment in facilities larger than 16 beds -- which is normally prohibited under federal law. So far, the Trump administration has approved waivers from Indiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. Five states -- Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin -- have pending waivers still.

And last month, Congress passed a federal spending bill that includes a $3.3 billion increase in funding for the opioid crisis. The $3.3 billion will go toward prevention, treatment and law enforcement activities across the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Department of Veterans Affairs and other entities that help state and local governments. Many health policy experts, however, argue that it still isn't enough to make a meaningful impact.  To put that in context, the federal budget for HIV care in 2017 was $32 billion.

The other part of the title of this post is a reminder that it was a full five weeks ago that AG Jeff Sessions issued a "Memo to U.S. Attorneys on the Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions" (full text here) which "strongly encourage[d] federal prosecutors" bringing federal drug prosecutions to "include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases."  I keep wondering if and when we will see that memo having any real tangible impact.

Roughly speaking, federal prosecutors bring about 400 federal drug prosecutions per week, meaning that there have likely been around 2000 federal drug prosecutions since the AG issued his capital punishment memo.  Even if AG Sessions means by "strongly" encouraging capital prosecutions that only the very worst 0.1% of federal drug defendants should be subject to federal capital charges, we should perhaps have expected to have seen by now two federal drug defendants being subject to a federal capital indictment.  (I am inclined here to recall frequent statements by groups like NAUSAA that that federal system is focused only on "the most dangerous and serious drug traffickers." If this is true, perhaps AG Sessions thinks 1% or even 10% of federal drug prosecutions should include capital charges.  If so, we ought to already be seeing dozens of federal capital prosecutions by now.)

As of this writing, I am not aware of a single new capital drug case since the AG's March memo, though it is certainly possible that some are in the works and that is only a matter of time before we see a lot more federal capital cases.  I know I will be continuing to wonder if, when and how the capital prosecutions that AG Sessions has strongly encouraged will become a reality.

April 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

"All Bathwater, No Baby: Expressive Theories of Punishment and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Susan Bandes now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker offer a richly textured and fair-minded account of the fraught relationship between capital punishment and the United States Supreme Court.  As the book convincingly illustrates, capital punishment doctrine often serves as little more than window dressing, providing a false sense of coherence and legal legitimacy to prop up a regime that is both arbitrary and discriminatory. Although the book is clear-eyed and appropriately unsentimental, the authors hold out hope that a principled capital jurisprudence is possible.  They seek to distinguish the factors that ought to animate the Court’s jurisprudence from those that are illegitimate.

This review of Courting Death proceeds in three parts.  Part I describes the book’s main arguments. Part II explores the limits of employing legal doctrinal tools to shed light on the forces that shape and sustain capital punishment in the United States. In particular, it explores the implicit question underlying the Steikers’ critique: is there a path toward a principled capital jurisprudence?  Part III focuses on so-called “expressive” theories of punishment, which emphasize the symbolic, communicative importance of the death penalty. It argues that expressive punishment theory has become a grab bag of poorly differentiated concepts that too often obfuscate rather than illuminate the death penalty debate.  It then returns to the topic of Part II, exploring the difficulty of distinguishing “off-limits” or “extra-legal” political and emotional influences from appropriate legal influences on the death penalty debate.  The review concludes that once all these arguably illegitimate influences are stripped away, a coherent, principled doctrinal capital punishment doctrine is not possible.

April 24, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

India government moving forward with the death penalty for child rape

This new Bloomberg piece, headlined "India Approves Death Penalty for Child Rapists After Outcry," provides a useful reminder that the United States is not the only nation inclined to respond with punitive new laws in the wake of a high-profile horrible crime.  Here are the basics:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet cleared an ordinance that imposes the death penalty on convicted child rapists.

The amendment to the nation’s criminal law, which allows the death sentence in cases of rape of girls under age 12, was approved on Saturday, an official told reporters in New Delhi after the cabinet meeting. Once the president signs the ordinance, it will become a law.

The government acted after the recent failure of India’s ruling party to act on the growing outrage over two brutal rapes risked eroding Modi’s support ahead of state and national elections. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had urged authorities to act, according to the Times of India newspaper.

The cabinet also raised the minimum sentence in cases of rape of a woman to 10 years from the current seven, and in the rape of a girl under 16 years of age to 20 years from 10. In a crime that shocked India, an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir was kidnapped in January, drugged, held for several days in Kathua, was raped multiple times then murdered, local police said. In Uttar Pradesh, a state lawmaker from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is accused in a June 2017 rape case in Unnao.

Of course, this particular punitive reaction to an awful child rape is no longer possible in the US: the Supreme Court ruled a decade ago in Kennedy v. Louisiana that the use of the death penalty as punishment for child rape is unconstitutionally severe and thus barred by the Eighth Amendment.

Interestingly, just the other day I was doing a little research on the death penalty for non-capital crimes and I came across one especially notable reaction to the Kennedy ruling.  Here is the quote, and readers are welcome to guess who said it before clicking through to the link:

"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," [this prominent federal politician] said at a news conference.  "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution." 

April 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Alabama completes execution of (record-old) murderer of federal judge

As reported here by CNN, "Alabama has executed Walter Leroy Moody, 83, who had been convicted of murder for the mail bombing death of a federal judge in 1989." Here is more:

Moody is the oldest person put to death since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Earlier Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the appeals from Moody's attorney after temporarily delaying his death by lethal injection.

Moody was convicted in 1996 for the murder of federal Judge Robert Vance in Birmingham, Alabama. "Moody has spent the better part of three decades trying to avoid justice. Tonight, Mr. Moody's appeals finally came to a rightful end. Justice has been served," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said....

He was convicted in Alabama for sending a bomb that killed Vance, a federal appeals court judge. Moody, according to prosecutors, sought revenge on the court and the judge because they had previously refused to overturn his conviction in a 1972 bomb possession case.

He also was convicted in federal court in 1991 for killing Vance and for the bombing death of Robert Robinson, an NAACP attorney in Savannah, Georgia. He was sentenced to life in prison.

April 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ohio Supreme Court unanimously rejects Sixth Amendment challenge to state's capital sentencing procedures

A couple of states have had their death penalty systems chewed up by the "post-Hurst hydra," the term I have used to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges apply the Supreme Court Sixth Amendment ruling in Hurst v. Florida. But yesterday in Ohio v. Mason, 2018-Ohio-1462 (Ohio April 18, 2018) (available here), the Ohio Supreme Court explained why Ohio's capital sentencing procedures are constitutionally sound. Here is how the opinion starts and some key passages:

At issue in this case is whether Ohio’s death-penalty scheme violates the right to a trial by jury as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Marion County Court of Common Pleas found that it does, but the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment. Because the Ohio scheme satisfies the Sixth Amendment, we affirm....

When an Ohio capital defendant elects to be tried by jury, the jury decides whether the offender is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of aggravated murder and — unlike the juries in Ring and Hurst — the aggravating-circumstance specifications for which the offender was indicted. R.C. 2929.03(B).  Then the jury — again unlike in Ring and Hurst — must “unanimously find[], by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravating circumstances the offender was found guilty of committing outweigh the mitigating factors.”  R.C. 2929.03(D)(2).  An Ohio jury recommends a death sentence only after it makes this finding. Id.  And without that recommendation by the jury, the trial court may not impose the death sentence.

Ohio law requires the critical jury findings that were not required by the laws at issue in Ring and HurstSee R.C. 2929.03(C)(2). Ohio’s death-penalty scheme, therefore, does not violate the Sixth Amendment.  Mason’s various arguments to the contrary misapprehend both what the Sixth Amendment requires and what it prohibits....

While we uphold our conclusion in Belton that weighing is not a fact-finding process subject to the Sixth Amendment, we further conclude that even if the weighing process were to involve fact-finding under the Sixth Amendment, Ohio adequately affords the right to trial by jury during the penalty phase.  Mason contends that it does not, because the process permits a jury only to recommend a death sentence.  See R.C. 2929.03(D)(2).  Here, he emphasizes the statement in Hurst that “[a] jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” Hurst, ___ U.S. at ___, 136 S.Ct. at 619, 193 L.Ed.2d 504.  But he fails to appreciate the material difference between the process by which an Ohio jury reaches its death recommendation and the Florida process at issue in Hurst.

April 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Can and will New Mexico carry out two executions even after its repeal of the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local report on oral arguments before the New Mexico Supreme Court yesterday.  Here are some details:

Even before abolishing the death penalty, New Mexico had executed only one inmate in nearly 50 years. And that person, child-killer Terry Clark, had waived his right to further appeals, clearing the way for his death by lethal injection in 2001.

The rarity of the death penalty in New Mexico emerged as a key point in oral arguments Tuesday as the state Supreme Court wrestled with whether to allow the execution of the state’s only two inmates remaining on death row. Their crimes came before the 2009 repeal, making them still eligible for execution.

Much of Tuesday’s debate was technical, focusing on “proportionality” — whether death for these two inmates would be out of line with the sentences for similar defendants who’d committed similar crimes.

Justice Charles Daniels zeroed in on the question this way: New Mexico, he said, executed 27 people in the first 47 years of statehood, and then only one in a 57-year period after that. And there were certainly people who committed “horrible murders” but escaped the death penalty, he said.

That raises a question, he suggested, about whether the state was “evenhanded” in deciding which people to execute. “Can we really look in the mirror and say we’ve walked the talk and imposed the death penalty consistently in New Mexico?” Daniels asked at one point.

Hanging in the balance are the lives of Robert Fry and Timothy Allen — both convicted of murder, in separate cases. Allen faces a death sentence for strangling a 17-year-old girl, Sandra Phillips, in 1994. He also was convicted of kidnapping and attempted rape. Fry was sentenced to die for the killing of Betty Lee, a mother of five, in 2000. She was hit with a sledgehammer and stabbed.

Their attorneys asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to revisit how New Mexico handled death cases from that era, in light of the 2009 repeal.

A 1983 decision by the court outlined how the judiciary should go about determining whether an inmate’s death sentence is disproportionate to the penalties imposed on similar defendants. The justices that year established a narrow view of which cases are similar — requiring that the defendants being compared had been convicted under the same aggravating circumstances.

But the attorneys for Fry and Allen argued for a broader pool of cases for comparison, in which defendants receive life sentences. You could argue that the “universe of cases” ought to include any case where the death penalty could have been sought, but wasn’t, they argued. Furthermore, they said, New Mexico hasn’t properly tracked the handling and circumstances of cases to provide a meaningful way to search for comparable crimes, making the 1983 decision impractical to carry out....

Assistant Attorney General Victoria Wilson urged the Supreme Court to stick with its 1983 decision on comparable cases. State law doesn’t require the kind of data collection the inmates’ attorneys say is necessary, she said. The question before the court, Wilson said, was simply whether the death sentence had been imposed arbitrarily.

April 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 07, 2018

"Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010: Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable empirical paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by John Kramer, Jeffery Todd Ulmer and Gary Zajac. Here is its abstract:

A study of disparity in the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania by Kramer, Ulmer, and Zajac (2017) was recently completed for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness.  This study collected basic statistical data on 4,274 cases charged with homicide in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2010, and then collected highly detailed data from courts and prosecutors’ offices on a subset of 880 first degree murder convictions in 18 counties accounting for more than 87% of all 2000-2010 first degree murder convictions.  Utilizing propensity score methods in analyses of these first degree murder convictions, the study examined whether defendants’ and victims’ race/ethnicity (separately and in combination), predicted: 1) prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty, 2) prosecutors’ decisions to retract a motion to seek the death penalty once it is filed, and 3) court decisions to sentence defendants to death or life without parole.

Key findings were: 1) No pattern of disparity was found to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants in prosecutors’ decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.  2) Black and Hispanic defendants were not disadvantaged in death penalty sentence decisions relative to White defendants. 3) Cases with White victims, regardless of race of defendant, were 8% more likely to receive the death penalty, while Black victim cases were 6% less likely to receive the death penalty. 4) Prosecutors filed to seek the death penalty in 36% of first degree convictions; but later retracted that filing in 46% of those cases.  Moreover, a predominant pattern emerged in which a death penalty filing strongly predicted a guilty plea in these murder cases, and pleading guilty strongly predicted the retraction of the death penalty filing. 5) There were very large differences between counties in the likelihood of prosecutors filing to seek the death penalty, the likelihood of their retracting that filing, and in courts imposing the death penalty.  In fact, the biggest extra-legal influence on whether defendants faced or received the death penalty was where their cases were handled.  6) Public defenders were less likely than private or court appointed attorneys to have the death penalty filed in cases they represented.  However, public defender cases were more likely to receive the death penalty, and defendants represented by private attorneys were especially unlikely to receive the death penalty.  These defense attorney differences also, in turn, varied greatly between counties.

April 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 05, 2018

A call for papers on "Lockett v. Ohio at 40"

I received via email and got authority to post this notice of an interesting call for papers on a particular (underappreciated?) Supreme Court capital case:

The Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Akron School of Law invites scholars, practitioners, and advocates to submit papers commemorating the United States Supreme Court decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).  Argued by the brilliant Prof. Anthony Amsterdam, the decision laid the framework for narrowing application of the death penalty.  Lockett not only overturned Ohio’s 1974 era death penalty law, it heralded the significance and breadth of mitigating factors that must be considered by jurors and judges making the life or death decision in the penalty phase of capital cases, and tapped in to issues of disproportionate sentencing (those decided and yet to be).

Papers reflecting on the decision and its progeny are invited for a written symposium in the Akron Law Review’s online journal ConLawNOW, to be submitted by August 20, 2018.  All submissions are welcome.  Papers may be in the form of essays of 10-15 pages, or more traditional law review format.  To participate, please send a brief abstract of the proposed paper to Prof. Emerita Marge Koosed at mkoosed @ uakron.edu and Prof. Tracy Thomas, Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law, at thomast @ uakron.edu.

The University of Akron School of Law will host a program commemorating the Lockett decision, with Sandra Lockett Young in attendance, in October 2018. It is hoped that writers will be available to participate in this program by video conferencing.

April 5, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

AEDPA accelerant: examining prospects for speedier capital appeals for "opt-in" states

Remarkably, it has been almost a quarter century since Congress reformed federal habeas procedures through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. But in all that time, a dormant part of AEDPA has been its provisions seeking to enable states a quicker route through federal capital habeas review if they provided adequate counsel for state collateral review. But as highlighted by this lengthy new article, headlined "‘Express lane to death’: Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly," this part of AEDPA may have some new life. Here are the basics:

Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to "opt in" to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.

Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and — if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting — it could end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates. "Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, a longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.

A spokeswoman for the state's attorney general framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings. "Opting-in would serve several purposes for Texans, including sparing crime victims years of unnecessary and stressful delays, ensuring that our state court judgments are respected by federal judges as cases progress, and reducing the excessive costs of lengthy federal court proceedings," said the spokeswoman, Kayleigh Lovvorn....

The request — which comes after years of declining executions — has sparked a federal lawsuit and hundreds of pages of comments from a broad coalition of concerned parties including the ACLU, the American Bar Association, Mexico's government, a former federal judge and dozens of defense attorneys.

There's doubt among the defense bar whether Texas actually meets the qualification criteria. Approval is up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the nation's top law enforcement officer who recently advocated for capital punishment for drug dealers in some cases. If Sessions gives the green light to the Lone Star State's application, it will be the first opt-in approval in the more than two decades since the law's inception....

The state's hopes for fast-tracking a path to execution date back to at least 1996, when Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Written in the tough-on-crime 1990s and in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, the law set time limits to expedite federal appeals in death penalty cases and gave greater deference to state courts....

But in addition to what is already in place, the law opens the door to creating even tighter deadlines with a special opt-in provision under a section called Chapter 154. In order to qualify for Chapter 154 certification, states have to prove they offered good enough lawyers earlier in the process, during the so-called "state habeas" appeal. If the condemned were all able to get competent, sufficiently paid attorneys with the funds to afford things like investigators and specialists during the state habeas appeal, then the law would permit speeding up the later federal habeas appeal....

The letters submitted to the government early this year were highly critical of Texas' current defense system, calling it "inadequate" and "infected" by "well-publicized failures," pointing out that the state doesn't even guarantee counsel for all types of post-conviction proceedings.

So far no state has qualified. But in November, Sessions fired off letters to Texas and Arizona — two states that previously put in certification requests — and asked if they still wanted to apply. They did.

The states' affirmative responses prompted a required comment period, during which Texas Defender Services and other capital defense organizations produced a 247-page comment — bolstered by more than 100 appendixes — criticizing Texas' application, calling it "little more than a whitewash of the state's persistent historic failures" that includes "no evidence at all." The application itself doesn't explain why the state wants to opt in.

Kent Scheidegger, death penalty supporter and legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation touted opt-in as a way to speed up the process. "We talk about due process of law — I call this overdue process of law," he said. "The victims' families just get frustrated beyond belief with all this reexamination when in most cases the guy is guilty beyond any doubt. The fact that a federal court overturns the judgment doesn't mean that that's a just result."

Houston-based capital defense attorney Patrick McCann stressed that federal courts are where many condemned men —including those wrongfully convicted like Anthony Graves, and those deemed too intellectually disabled to execute, like Bobby Moore — have gotten relief. "This is a political quest," he said. "It's an appeal to Gov. Abbott's base to make it very proudly explained that we have an express lane to death."...

If Sessions approves it, opting in would include limitations on how long federal courts have to resolve cases, restrictions on judges' abilities to grant stays of execution, and limits on the claims that prisoners can raise in federal habeas proceedings.

But what's sparking the most concern among defense lawyers is a change that would halve the time attorneys have to file the first part of their federal appeal. If Texas opts in, attorneys would have six months instead of a year to interview witnesses, hire investigators and familiarize themselves with sometimes a decade or more of case files to sift out any possible past lawyering mistakes, suspicion of withheld evidence or proof of actual innocence stuffed away in boxes and boxes of materials.

"Doing all that in one year is already extraordinarily difficult, and any further limitations would only exacerbate the existing problem," said Emily Olson-Gault, director of the Death Penalty Representation Project at the American Bar Association. "We know that errors are made in capital cases," she added. "The more that the allotted time to prepare is limited, the greater the risk that serious constitutional errors will stand uncorrected."

And if claims aren't raised in the first filing, they can't always be raised later. "They're valid concerns but you gotta consider the other side of the coin," said Scheidegger "The state and the victims have an interest in seeing these sentences carried out and at present it is taking far too long."

Death penalty lawyer Kenneth McGuire — who is among those suing in federal court in Washington, D.C., to challenge the certification process — called the shorter time frame "completely impractical" and said it would "only guarantee a miscarriage of justice." Attorney James Rytting concurred, adding that sometimes it takes "several months" for the courts to appoint federal habeas lawyers.

April 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Texas completed fourth execution on 2018

As reported here, a "man dubbed Lubbock’s 'suitcase killer' was executed Tuesday evening, one day after his 38th birthday." Here is more:

Rosendo Rodriguez was sentenced to death in the 2005 murder and sexual assault of Summer Baldwin, a newly pregnant prostitute, according to court records. Baldwin’s body was found folded inside a suitcase at the city’s landfill. Rodriguez was also implicated in the 2004 murder of 16-year-old Joanna Rogers, whose body was also found in a suitcase in the landfill after Baldwin was discovered.

Just minutes before his execution was scheduled at 6 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court denied his final appeal, and the process to put Rodriguez to death began on time. He was placed on a gurney, connected to an IV, and uttered his last words while his family and the parents of Baldwin and Rogers watched on through a glass pane. In his final statement, Rodriguez called for an investigation into the Lubbock County district attorney and medical examiner, saying they were involved in thousands of wrongful convictions. He also called for a boycott of Texas businesses until the death penalty is stopped....

He died at 6:46 p.m., 22 minutes after a lethal dose of pentobarbital was injected into his veins. He was the fourth person executed in Texas this year and the seventh in the nation.

March 27, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3)

After botched effort last month, Alabama agrees not to try again to execute Doyle Lee Hamm

As reported in this NBC News piece, an "Alabama death-row inmate who survived a botched lethal injection will not face another date with death under a settlement his attorney struck with the state." Here is more:

Doyle Lee Hamm filed a civil rights action last month after the prison medical team repeatedly punctured him in an effort to place an IV before calling off the execution just before his death warrant expired.

His attorney, Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt, said the procedure amounted to "torture" and was so painful that the 69-year-old Hamm hoped for a quick death. "During this time Mr. Hamm began to hope that the doctor would succeed in obtaining IV access so that Mr. Hamm could 'get it over with' because he preferred to die rather than to continue to experience the ongoing severe pain," Dr. Mark Heath, who was retained by Harcourt to examine Hamm, wrote in a report after examining the inmate.

Hamm was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham.

His legal team warned the state that his veins were in such bad shape from drug use and cancer treatment that it would be very challenging, if not impossible to place the needle that would deliver the lethal drugs.

After that prediction proved true, Harcourt and the state began confidential negotiations. The result is that the state won't set another execution date and Hamm will drop his legal challenges.

Prior related post:

March 27, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 26, 2018

"The War on Drugs Breeds Crafty Traffickers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new op-ed in the New York Times authored by Sanhoe Tree. I recommend the piece is full, and here are excerpts:

Politicians often escalate drug war rhetoric to show voters that they are doing something. But it is rare to ignore generations of lessons as President Trump did earlier this month when he announced his support for the execution of drug traffickers. This idea is insane. But the war on drugs has never made any sense to begin with.

Executing a few individual smugglers will do little to stop others because there is no high command of the international drug trade to target, no generals who can order a coordinated surrender of farmers, traffickers, money launderers, dealers or users.  The drug trade is diffuse and can span thousands of miles from producer to consumer. People enter the drug economy for all sorts of reasons — poverty, greed, addiction — and because they believe they will get away with it.  Most people do.  The death penalty only hurts the small portion of people who are caught (often themselves minorities and low-level mules).

Indeed, on the ground, the threat of execution will even help those who aren’t caught because they can charge an increased risk premium to the next person in the smuggling chain. The risk of capture and punishment increases as drugs move from farm to processing lab, traversing jungles, through cities, across oceans, past borders, distributed by dealers and purchased by consumers.  The greater the risk to smugglers in this chain, the more they can demand in payment....

An overreliance on intensive policing over the decades has also produced a rapid Darwinian evolution of the drug trade.  The people we have typically captured tend to be the ones who are dumb enough to get caught.  They may have violated operational security, bragged too much, lived conspicuous lifestyles or engaged in turf wars.  The ones we usually miss tend to be the most innovative, adaptable and cunning. We have picked off their clumsy competition for them and opened up that lucrative economic trafficking space to the most efficient organizations.  It is as though we have had a decades-long policy of selectively breeding supertraffickers and ensuring the “survival of the fittest.”

To support his case for executions, Mr. Trump cites draconian penalties in other countries. Iran has used the death penalty extensively in drug cases, but more than 2.8 million Iranians still consume illicit drugs.  Earlier this year, the Iranian government even repealed the use of executions in most drug cases which could spare up to 5,000 people on death row.

Mr. Trump often praises President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war in the Philippines, which has claimed 12,000 to 20,000 lives in mostly extrajudicial killings.  But there is little indication that drug use has actually decreased.  In fact, as the killings have increased, so too have the government’s drug use estimates.  What began as 1.8 million users at the beginning of 2016 grew to three million and later four million.  Last September, the Philippine Foreign Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, even raised that estimate to seven million. The higher numbers are likely inflated, but more killings do not appear to reduce the number of users.

Singapore notoriously refuses to publish reliable drug-use statistics, so there is no way to show whether executions have any measurable effect on drug consumption.  As Harm Reduction International pointed out, however, Singapore’s seizures for cannabis and methamphetamine increased 20 percent in 2016 while heroin seizures remained stable. Moreover, 80 percent of Singapore’s prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses.  All of this suggests, Singapore’s famous panacea to solve the drug problem is not as miraculous as it seems....

Mr. Trump is not advancing a new strategy to deal with opioids.  It was President Clinton who put these death penalty statutes on the books as part of the 1994 crime bill, but they remain unused.  Mr. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are trying to change that.  They want to use those laws in racketeering cases and ones involving large quantities of drugs even though the Supreme Court has ruled that capital punishment should be reserved only for crimes resulting in death.

The Donald Trump of 2018 should take a lesson from the Donald Trump of 1990 when he told the Miami Herald: “We are losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war.”

March 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ohio Gov. Kasich commutes yet another death sentence

As reported in this FoxNews piece, the Governor of Ohio commuted yet another death sentence today.  Here are some details explaining why (with an emphasis on a final fact in the article):

Ohio Gov. John Kasich Monday spared a condemned killer who was set to die April 11 for fatally shooting a woman more than three decades ago during a robbery after questions were raised about discrepancies in the case and the fairness of the trial.

The Republican governor's release said his decision followed the report and recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board, which voted 6-4 on March 16 in favor of clemency for death row inmate William Montgomery. Kasich had no additional comment, his spokesman Jon Keeling said.

Montgomery was sentenced to die for the 1986 shooting of Debra Ogle during a robbery in the Toledo area. In its ruling, the parole board concluded that commuting Montgomery's sentence to life without the possibility of parole was warranted, which is what Kasich did....

The board majority noted that two jurors said after the trial they had difficulty understanding the law, and one juror was permitted to remain on the jury despite exhibiting "troubling behavior and verbalizations" that raised questions over fitness. The majority also cited concerns that a police report in which witnesses said they saw Ogle alive four days after Montgomery is alleged to have killed her was never presented to the defense.

A federal judge and a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Montgomery deserved a new trial based in part on the missing report. But the full 6th Circuit rejected that argument. The witnesses later said they mistook Ogle's sister for the missing woman.

"The failure to disclose that report coupled with the issues described above relative to Montgomery's jurors raise a substantial question as to whether Montgomery's death sentence was imposed through the kind of just and credible process that a punishment of this magnitude requires," the parole board said on March 16....

Since taking office, Kasich has allowed 13 executions to proceed and has now spared six inmates.

The 21-page Ohio Parole Board recommendation for clemency is available at this link.

This capital commutation, as noted in the article, is the sixth granted by Gov Kasich.  That now exceeds the number of capital commutations by his predecessor, Ted Strickland, though Gov Strickland's did five capital clemency grants in a single term while Gov Kasich has needed two terms to get best Strickland's number.  And I believe Ohio Gov Richard Celeste still hold the state's modern record as he commuted eight death sentences as he was leaving office in 1991.

March 26, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Interesting (and important?) new polling data on the death penalty

Yesterday the results of a new Quinnipiac University Poll were released here, and the press release about the results start with this account of the results of questions about the death penalty (with my emphasis added):

In a simple question, American voters support the death penalty 58 - 33 percent for persons convicted of murder, according to a Quinnipiac University National Poll released today.

But when offered a choice between the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole, American voters choose the life option 51 - 37 percent, the first time a majority of voters backed the life without parole option since the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University Poll first asked this question in 2004.

There are deep party and gender divisions as Republicans back the death penalty 59 - 29 percent. Backing the life option are Democrats 73 - 19 percent and independent voters 49 - 37 percent. Women back the life option 56 - 33 percent. Men are divided as 45 percent back the life option and 42 percent support the death penalty. American voters are more united as they oppose 71 - 21 percent, including 57 - 35 percent opposition among Republicans, imposing the death penalty for persons convicted of selling drugs that cause a lethal overdose. Voters say 75 - 20 percent that this use of the death penalty would not help stop the opioid crisis.

But voters say 64 - 31 percent that the death penalty should not be abolished nationwide. Democrats are divided as 47 percent say abolish the death penalty and 46 percent say don't abolish it. Every other listed party, gender, education, age and racial group is opposed to abolishing the death penalty.

"It's a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications. Voters are perhaps saying, 'Keep the death penalty, but just don't use it," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Despite what President Donald Trump says, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the stomach for executing drug dealers," Malloy added.

The "mixed message" take away is obviously the right one, and it also means that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty can spin these results in any number of ways. But the result that only half of self-identified Democrats call for abolishing the death penalty strikes me as perhaps the most critical single finding and one that likely entails that the death penalty will not be abolished legislatively even in blue states in near future.

March 23, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

AG Jeff Sessions issues memo to "strongly encourage federal prosecutors ... when appropriate" to pursue "capital punishment in appropriate cases"

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions this morning issued a short "Memo to U.S. Attorneys on the Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions." Here is the full text of this memo:

The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering, and death on communities throughout our nation.  Drug overdoses, including overdoses caused by the lethal substance fentanyl and its analogues, killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016 and now rank as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.  In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual.

Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge.  To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal.  This includes designating an opioid coordinator in every district, fully utilizing the data analysis of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, as well as using criminal and civil remedies available under federal law to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for unlawful practices.

In addition, this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases.  Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes.  Among these are statutes that punish certain racketeering activities (18 U.S.C. § 1959); the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(j)); murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise (21 U.S.C. § 848(e)); and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs (18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1)).  I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.

Notwithstanding AG Sessions saying in the first paragraph of this memo that "we cannot continue with business as usual," the last paragraph of this memo strikes me not too much of a change to business as usual.  My sense has always been that the feds will pursue "capital punishment in appropriate cases," especially for intentional murders in conjunction with drug dealing.  As this DPIC page highlights, one of three modern federal executions was of Juan Raul Garza, "a marijuana distributor, [who] was sentenced to death in August 1993 in Texas for the murders of three other drug traffickers."  And the DPIC federal death penalty page also suggests as many as 14 of the 61 persons already on federal death row are there for drug-related killings.

So it seems that federal prosecutors have long used "these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation." But I suppose it is still pretty significant for the US Attorney General to formally and expressly "strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use" various capital punishment statutes to combat our nation's drug problems.  The big practical question that follows, of course, is whether and when more federal capital prosecutions will be forthcoming and in what kinds of cases.

Prior related posts:

March 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Two more SCOTUS wins for criminal defendants in Ayestas and Marinello

The Supreme Court this morning released two opinions in argued criminal justice cases: Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16–6795(S. Ct. March 21, 2018) (available here) and Marinello v. United States, No. 16-1144 (S. Ct. March 21, 2018) (available here). Here are the line-ups of the votes by the Justices and the start of each opinion for the Court:

Ayestas v. Davis:

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined.

Petitioner Carlos Ayestas, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a Texas court, argues that he was wrongfully denied funding for investigative services needed to prove his entitlement to federal habeas relief.  Petitioner moved for funding under 18 U. S. C. §3599(f), which makes funds available if they are “reasonably necessary,” but petitioner’s motion was denied. We hold that the lower courts applied the wrong legal standard, and we therefore vacate the judgment below and remand for further proceedings.

Marinello v. United States:

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined.

A clause in §7212(a) of the Internal Revenue Code makes it a felony “corruptly or by force” to “endeavo[r] to obstruct or imped[e] the due administration of this title.”26 U. S. C. §7212(a). The question here concerns the breadth of that statutory phrase. Does it cover virtually all governmental efforts to collect taxes? Or does it have a narrower scope? In our view, “due administration of [the Tax Code]” does not cover routine administrative procedures that are near-universally applied to all taxpayers, such as the ordinary processing of income tax returns. Rather, the clause as a whole refers to specific interference with targeted governmental tax-related proceedings, such as a particular investigation or audit.

A busy day means I am unlikely to have much time to obsess over these two relatively small wins for defendants, but I do have time to make a quick comment about the voting particulars. Specifically, I think it notable in Ayestas that a state capital defendant got a unanimous vote in his favor from the Court and that in Marinello, both the Chief and the newest Justices voted with the majority in favor of the defendant rather than with Justice Thomas's dissent.

March 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SCOTUS, by 5-4 vote, stays Missouri execution

As reported here by Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog, "over the objection of four justices, the Supreme Court tonight blocked Missouri from executing Russell Bucklew, who was scheduled to die tonight."  Here is more:

Bucklew was convicted for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders, who was living at the time with Bucklew’s former girlfriend, Stephanie Ray. Bucklew kidnapped and raped Ray, and he wounded a state trooper during the shootout that preceded his capture.

Bucklew argues that allowing the state to execute him by lethal injection would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he suffers from a rare disease that has caused “unstable, blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck, and throat.”  If Bucklew has trouble breathing when the execution begins, he contends, the tumor in his throat could rupture, filling his mouth and airway with blood.  As a result, he tells the justices, his “execution will very likely be gruesome and painful far beyond the pain inherent in the process of an ordinary lethal injection.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit rejected Bucklew’s challenge to the constitutionality of his execution, holding that he had not shown that his suggested alternative method of execution —  lethal gas —  would significantly reduce the likelihood that he would suffer unnecessarily.

Last week Bucklew filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review that ruling, which he described as resting on “3 distinct misreadings and dangerous extensions of this Court’s” earlier decisions on lethal injection. The state filed a brief opposing review, and Bucklew has filed his reply, but the case has not yet been scheduled for consideration at one of the justices’ private conferences. Tonight’s order staves off Bucklew’s execution to allow them to consider his petition. If the justices deny the petition, the stay will automatically end and the state can go forward with his execution; if they grant it, the stay will continue until the justices rule on the merits of his case.

I am inclined to speculate that the recent execution difficulties of Alabama and Ohio may have played at least some role in the willingness of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy in joining his colleagues voting for a stay in this case.

March 20, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Justices join Justice Breyer questioning how Arizona's death penalty system operates

Many month ago, as highlighted here, the cert petition in Hidalgo v. Arizona generated considerable attention.  That matter ended today when the petition for a writ of certiorari was denied, along with this lengthy statement by Justice Breyer joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. I was expecting some Justices to say something really notable after all this build up, by the statement ends this way:

Although, in my view, the Arizona Supreme Court misapplied our precedent, I agree with the Court’s decision today to deny certiorari. In support of his Eighth Amendment challenge, the petitioner points to empirical evidence about Arizona’s capital sentence system that suggests about 98% of first-degree murder defendants in Arizona were eligible for the death penalty.  That evidence is unrebutted. It points to a possible constitutional problem.  And it was assumed to be true by the state courts below. Evidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation. However, in this case, the opportunity to develop the record through an evidentiary hearing was denied. As a result, the record as it has come to us is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courtsbelow in the first instance. We do not have evidence, for instance, as to the nature of the 866 cases (perhaps they implicate only a small number of aggravating factors).  Nor has it been fully explained whether and to what extent an empirical study would be relevant to resolving the constitutional question presented.  Capital defendantsmay have the opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here. And the issue presented in this petition will be better suited for certiorari with such a record.

Meh.

March 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to call for more capital cases under current federal laws, but not seeking new death penalty laws

Ever since Prez Trump starting talking up his affinity for using the death penalty for drug dealers, I have been wondering if he was planning to call for Congress to develop new capital statutes to help pursue that end.  But, according to this new Wall Street Journal piece, a big speech coming from Prez Trump on Monday will only call for more capital cases to be brought under existing federal criminal laws.  The WSJ piece carries this full on-line headline "Trump’s Opioid Battle Plan Includes Seeking More Death-Penalty Prosecutions: The president will ask the Justice Department to press more cases against drug traffickers under current law."  Here are highlights:

President Donald Trump on Monday will call for new steps to combat the opioid epidemic, including a push to reduce opioid prescriptions by a third over three years, asking the Justice Department to seek more death-penalty cases against drug traffickers under current law, and for federal support to expand the availability of overdose-reversal medication.

The proposals will come in a speech in the hard-hit state of New Hampshire. They form part of a broader blueprint by Mr. Trump, which senior White House officials on Sunday described as seeking to deploy education, law enforcement and treatment to try to reverse abuse of particularly addictive drugs that claim the lives of more than 100 people a day in the U.S.

Other elements of the strategy, the White House said, would include a fresh public-awareness campaign about drug abuse, a research-and-development partnership between the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies into opioid prescription alternatives, tougher sentences for fentanyl traffickers, and screening of all prison inmates for opioid addiction.

But it is the death penalty proposal that is likely to dominate discussion of the package.  “The Department of Justice will seek the death penalty against drug traffickers when it’s appropriate under current law,” said Andrew Bremberg, the president’s top domestic-policy adviser.

Senior White House officials referred specific questions about the death-penalty stance to the Justice Department but emphasized that the administration was seeking to use current law rather than call for a new federal statute.

A 1988 federal law imposes the death penalty on drug “kingpins” who commit murder in the course of their business.  Some legal analysts say that it has resulted in dozens of sentences but few executions since then.  John Blume, a law professor at Cornell Law School and director of its death-penalty project, said the statute as enforced to date typically has ensnared “mid- to low-level drug dealers…None of them were really objectively the people they said they were going to get.”...

In November, a presidential commission headed by Mr. Trump’s one-time political rival for the Republican presidential nomination, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, issued a 56-recommendation report that included calls for the federal government to set up drug courts across the U.S., retrain medical prescribers on opioid use and reduce incentives for doctors to offer the powerful painkillers. It also called for engaging with states to expand access to naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug. The administration accepts all 56 recommendations, a senior White House official said Sunday.

At a brief appearance at a White House summit on opioids earlier this month, Mr. Trump openly mused that other countries allow the death penalty for drug trafficking and that he believed they had less of a drug problem as a result. He said that translated into a need for more “strength.” He offered few further details, saying only that he also wanted to see the federal government bring legal action against opioid manufacturers, because “if the states are doing it, why isn’t the federal government doing it?”

Such remarks had sparked speculation that Mr. Trump would seek a new death penalty for drug trafficking, and with it, a revived debate about the permissibility of such laws under the constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has rejected capital punishment for crimes such as child rape in recent years and has taken a narrower view of arguments that seek to execute people for indirectly causing deaths through criminal actions.

Prior related posts:

March 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Oklahoma embracing nitrogen gas instead of lethal drugs as method of execution

Images (3)As detailed in this new CNN piece, headlined "Oklahoma plans to use new execution method," the Sooners are soon to be trying a novel execution protocol. Here are the details:

Unable to obtain drugs to use for its lethal injections, Oklahoma will use inert gas inhalation as the primary method for death penalty executions once a protocol is developed and finalized, the state's attorney general announced Wednesday. Oklahoma is the first state to adopt this method.

"As you know, in Oklahoma, a bill that was signed back in 2015 by the governor states that if lethal injection is held unconstitutional or is unavailable, an execution shall be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia," Attorney General Mike Hunter said. "We are exercising that option." Nitrogen is one of several inert gases that can cause hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency that causes death.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said his office will prepare the legal documents within the next 90 to 120 days and, if that's acceptable, the attorney general will move forward with the protocol. Hunter said the state is "at the very beginning of this process ... and will provide updates as they become available."

Currently, 49 people sit on death row in Oklahoma; 16 have exhausted their ability to appeal their cases, Allbaugh said. The state has struggled to find legally obtainable lethal injection drugs, he said. It previously used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (either sodium thiopental, pentobarbital or midazolam), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) and a heart-stopping agent to cause death (potassium chloride), according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center....

The bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued a study of the death penalty in the state on April 25. The report concluded that the moratorium should remain in place until significant reforms to the death penalty process are made, and recommended a one-drug barbiturate execution protocol.

But Hunter said inert gas inhalation is used in countries that have legalized assisted suicide. A 2010 Journal of Medical Ethics study, based on experiments performed by Swiss organization Dignitas, found that the dying process of oxygen deprivation caused by an inert gas is "potentially quick and appears painless." "It also bypasses the prescribing role of physicians, effectively demedicalizing assisted suicide," the researchers wrote.

Hunter said that "using an (inert gas inhalation) will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures." "Research has shown that individuals exposed to an excessive amount of inert gas experience fatigue, dizziness, perhaps a headache, loss of breath and eventual loss of consciousness," he said, citing the US Air Force Flight Surgeon's Guide, which looks at cases of pilots breathing excessive amounts of inert gas.

Hunter said that people who die by inhalation of inert gases are dead within just a few minutes. The method is "safest, best and most effective," he said.

By contrast, the American Veterinary Medical Association's Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals recommend the use of nitrogen for chickens, turkeys and pigs but say it's unacceptable for other mammals. "These gases create an anoxic environment that is distressing for some species," the authors say.

Oklahoma re-enacted the death penalty in 1973 and, since 1976, has performed 112 executions. Hunter noted that an overwhelming majority of the Oklahoma electorate voted to amend the Constitution and guarantee the state's power to impose capital punishment two years ago.

March 14, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trump Administration reportedly looking (seriously?) at the death penalty for serious drug dealers

In reported in prior posts here and here, Prez Trump has reportedly talked privately about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and has talked publicly about using the "ultimate penalty" to address drug problems. Now according to this new Washington Post article, headlined "Trump administration studies seeking the death penalty for drug dealers," these musings by President Trump are now a policy proposal being seriously examined by the administration:

The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis.

President Trump last week suggested executing drug dealers as a way to make a dent in opioid addiction. Opioids killed nearly 64,000 people in 2016, and the crisis is straining local health and emergency services.

People familiar with the discussions said that the president’s Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice are studying potential policy changes and that a final announcement could come within weeks. The White House has said one approach it might take is to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — a capital crime because even small amounts of the drug can be fatal. White House officials also are studying tougher noncapital penalties for large-scale dealers.

Trump said last week that the administration would soon roll out unspecified “strong” policies on opioids. White House officials said Trump has privately expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers. “Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty, and they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said during an appearance at a White House summit on opioids last week.

Trump also has endorsed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to the issue; Duterte’s “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people by extrajudicial police killings. Last year, Trump praised Duterte in a phone call for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is leading much of the work on opioids for the White House. Singaporean representatives have briefed senior White House officials on their country’s drug policies, which include treatment and education, but also the death penalty, and they provided a PowerPoint presentation on that country’s laws.

Singapore’s model is more in line with the administration’s goals for drug policy than some other countries, a senior administration official said. “That is seen as the holistic approach that approximates what this White House is trying to do,” a senior administration official said....

Federal law currently allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: murder committed during a drug-related drive-by shooting, murder committed with the use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, murder related to drug trafficking and the death of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.

Peter H. Meyers, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, said he doesn’t agree with the idea of adding more capital crimes for drug dealers, but he said it could be a legal approach: “It very likely would be constitutional if they want to do it.”

The administration’s directives come as prosecutors nationwide are cracking down on higher-level drug dealers and law enforcement officials are looking at increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking and dealing. But at the same time, public health officials — including those in the Trump administration — and many in law enforcement are emphasizing treatment rather than punitive measures for low-level users and those addicted to drugs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties for drug offenses.  The Department of Justice said last year it will aggressively prosecute traffickers of any fentanyl-related substance.

If (when?) we see a serious formal death penalty proposal for drug dealers, I will have a lot more to say on the topic. For now, I will be content with three "hot takes" (with number 3 to get a lot more attention if this discourse continues):

1. It is not at all clear that death sentences for drug dealers, even for those whose drugs cause multiple deaths, would be constitutional; it is entirely clear that the issue would be litigated extensively and would have to be definitively decided by the US Supreme Court.

2. If Prez Trump is truly interested in "executing drug dealers" rather than just sending them to death row, he needs to get his Justice Department to get serious about trying to actually execute some of the five dozens murderers languishing  on federal death row (some of whom have been on federal death row for two decades or longer).  

3. If the White House (and/or Attorney General Sessions) is seriously interested in a legislative proposal to make the "worst of the worst" drug dealers eligible for the death penalty, I would seriously urge Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley to consider adding the proposal to his Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as part of an effort to get the White House and AG Sessions to support that bill.  Even if drafted broadly, any federal "death penalty for drug dealers" law would likely only impact a few dozen cases per year, whereas the SRCA will impact tens of thousands of cases every year.  And the SRCA could help tens of thousands of least serious drug offenders while any death penalty bill would impact only the most serious drug offenders.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Not long after this posting, Prez Trump gave a speech in Pennsylvania that, as reported in this new Washington Post piece, covered this ground and received a positive response for the audience:

President Trump on Saturday again called for enacting the death penalty for drug dealers during a rally meant to bolster a struggling GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat here. During the campaign event in this conservative western Pennsylvania district, the president also veered off into a list of other topics, including North Korea, his distaste for the news media and his own election victory 16 months ago.

Trump said that allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers — an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping — is “a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”

“Do you think the drug dealers who kill thousands of people during their lifetime, do you think they care who’s on a blue-ribbon committee?” Trump asked. “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”

It was not the first time Trump had suggested executing drug dealers. Earlier this month, he described it as a way to fight the opioid epidemic. And on Friday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was considering policy changes to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

But on Saturday his call for executing drug dealers got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. As Trump spoke about policies on the issue in China and Singapore, dozens of people nodded their heads in agreement. “We love Trump,” one man yelled. A woman shouted: “Pass it!”

March 10, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

"Lethal Rejection: An Empirical Analysis of the Astonishing Plunge in Death Sentences in the United States from Their Post-Furman Peak"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by David McCord and Talia Roitberg Harmon now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The authors gathered information on 1665 death-eligible cases nationwide for three years at decade intervals: 1994, 2004, and 2014.  In 517 cases death sentences were imposed; in 311 cases sentencers spared the defendants from death sentences, and in 837 cases prosecutors spared defendants from death sentences.  The Article proceeds in three Parts. Part I explains the methodology for unearthing relevant data and preparing it for analysis.  Part II analyzes declines in death sentences due to decreasing death eligibility, that is, fewer murderers over time meeting the criteria that made death a sentencing option.  Four reasons are examined: fewer death-eligible murders, the United States Supreme Court’s exemptions of juveniles who were less than eighteen years of age at the time of the commission of the murder, and persons with intellectual disability (known to the law as the “mentally retarded”); and the abolition of the death penalty in several states.  This Part concludes that about half of the decline in death sentences is attributable to decreased death-eligibility, mostly due to the steep decrease in the number of death-eligible murders.

Part III examines increasingly narrower perceptions of death-worthiness, that is, the evolution in attitudes among prosecutors and sentencers toward deeming fewer among the many death-eligible defendants worthy of death sentences.  This Part requires the most complicated analysis because unlike death-eligibility decisions, which are dictated by law, death-worthiness decisions emerge from an opaque brew of many factors, including, but not limited to, resource differentials among jurisdictions, prosecutorial attitudes, the wishes of the murder victim’s survivors, defense counsel performance, public opinion, and sentencer reactions.  But while death-worthiness decisions are often opaque in individual cases, each case generates empirical data from which patterns may be discerned. Part III uses such data to analyze ten questions and arrive at tentative answers:

• Did the advent of life-without-parole (hereinafter “LWOP”) reduce death sentences in jurisdictions where it was added as an option? (only in Texas)

• Did sentencers become more reluctant to return death sentences? (no)

• Were death sentences decreasingly imposed in less aggravated cases and increasingly imposed in more aggravated cases? (to some extent)

• Did presentation of greater numbers of mitigating factors conduce to fewer death sentences? (no)

• Did robbery during a murder became a less powerful aggravator? (yes)

• Did 18-to-20 year-olds benefit from a ripple effect from the exemption of juveniles? (yes)

• Did death sentences become less common in multiple perpetrator cases? (yes)

• Did low population counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (yes)

• Did low revenue counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (no) and

• Did a few traditionally high-volume death sentencing counties skew the figures by cutting back on the use of the death penalty due to local political factors? (yes)

March 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, March 05, 2018

Spotlighting the modern realities and challenges of geriatric executions

Adam Liptak has this new Sidebar piece in the New York Times headlined "Too Old to Be Executed?  Supreme Court Considers an Aging Death Row." Here is how the piece gets started:

The nation’s death rows are starting to look like geriatric wards. Condemned inmates in many states are more likely to die of natural causes than to be executed.  The rare ones who are put to death often first spend decades behind bars, waiting.

It turns out that executing old men is not easy.  In November, Ohio called off an attempt to execute Alva Campbell, 69, after the execution team could not find a suitable vein into which to pump lethal chemicals.  The state announced that it would try again in June 2019, by which time he would have been 71.

But Mr. Campbell suffered from what one judge called an “extraordinary list of ailments.”  He used a walker, could barely breathe and relied on a colostomy bag.  He was found lifeless in his cell on Saturday, having died in the usual way, without government assistance.

In Alabama last month, state officials called off the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, 61, also because they could not find a suitable vein. Mr. Hamm has at least two kinds of cancer, cranial and lymphatic, and he may not have long to live with or without the state’s efforts.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of another Alabama inmate, Vernon Madison, 67, who suffers from dementia and cannot remember the crime that sent him to death row.  The court, which has barred the execution of juvenile offenders and the intellectually disabled, is now turning its attention to old people.

Prior related posts:

March 5, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Sixth Amendment Sentencing after Hurst"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick and William Berry available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, altered the Court’s Sixth Amendment sentencing doctrine. That doctrine has undergone several important changes since it was first recognized.  At times the doctrine has expanded—invalidating sentencing practices across the country — and at times it has contracted — allowing restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion based on findings that are not submitted to a jury. Hurst represents another expansion of the doctrine.  Although the precise scope of the decision is unclear, the most sensible reading of Hurst suggests that any finding required before a judge may impose a higher sentence must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  This reading invalidates several state capital sentencing systems and several non-capital systems, and it would require dramatic changes to federal sentencing as well.

March 5, 2018 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, March 03, 2018

With death of Alva Campbell, Ohio need no longer worry about trying to execute ill prisoner after first botched attempt

As reported in this local article, "Alva Campbell, "an inmate on Ohio’s death row who had his scheduled execution halted in November after a medical team could not find an accessible vein for the lethal injection, has died." Here is more:

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said the office of Gov. John Kasich notified him that Campbell died early Saturday of natural causes . No other information was available, and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction could not immediately be reached.

Campbell, 69, was a twice-convicted killer, one that O’Brien has often called the “poster child” for the death penalty. Campbell was on parole from another murder conviction when, on April 2, 1997, he killed 18-year-old Charles Dials.  At that time, Campbell was on his way to court to face a series of armed-robbery charges but had been faking paralysis. When he was taken to the courthouse, he sprang from his wheelchair, seized a deputy’s gun and carjacked Dials outside.  The two drove around Columbus for hours before Campbell forced Dials onto the floor of his truck and executed him. Campbell was sentenced to die for that.

Over the years, authorities objected to and grumbled about Campbell’s attempts to delay the justice that a judge and jury had ordered for him.  Upon hearing of Campbell’s death Saturday, O’Brien said, “Due to 20 years of frivolous post-conviction litigation, he successfully ran the clock out on justice due to the state and the victim’s family.”

After the failed execution in November, Campbell’s attorneys had said it was unlikely he could live to see another execution attempt.  They said he suffered from a host of serious cardiopulmonary problems and ailments.  He was returned to Death Row.

Recent prior related posts:

March 3, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Will strong religious liberty advocates rally for Mennonite investigator jailed for refusing to testify in Colorado capital case?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable story from the Denver Post headlined "Mennonite investigator sent to jail after refusing to testify in Robert Ray death penalty hearing: Lawyer for Greta Lindecrantz says she is being punished for long-standing religious beliefs." Here are the basics:

A 67-year-old Mennonite woman spent a second day in the Arapahoe County jail Tuesday after she refused to testify for the prosecution in a death penalty case. Greta Lindecrantz on Tuesday morning was found in contempt of court after she told District Judge Michelle Amico she would not answer questions in the witness stand because of her religious beliefs. Lindecrantz has been called to testify on behalf of the prosecution in an appeals hearing for Robert Ray, who was sentenced to death in 2009 for ordering the murder of Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe, who were witnesses in another murder case.

Lindecrantz worked as an investigator for Ray’s defense team, but those attorneys have not called her as a witness. However, the prosecution wants to question her about her work during the investigation and original trial, said her attorney, Mari Newman. All of her work already is a part of the official court record and there really is no reason for her to take the stand again, she said.

Lindecrantz sat in the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit with her hands shackled as Newman argued that she should be released because she is being punished by the courts for religious beliefs. Testifying would go against her moral and religious views, Newman said. “Imprisonment has not been effective,” Newman said. “It will not be effective tomorrow.”

But Amico said she had made her decision and was sticking to it. She told Newman she could appeal to a higher court. Until then, Lindecrantz would go back to jail. “It was a difficult decision for the court to make (Monday),” Amico said. Newman had asked for a lesser punishment, but Amico responded, “How would less punishment be effective? I’ve imposed jail and she’s still refusing to testify.”

After the hearing, Newman gathered on the courthouse lawn with Lindecrantz’s husband, Dave Sidwell, and supporters from the metro area’s two Mennonite congregations. “She has a fundamental religious belief against the killing of other human beings and specifically against state-sanctioned killing in the form of the death penalty,” Newman said. “She has refused to testify as a witness called by the prosecution — and the reason, the one and only reason she’s refused to testify, is because to do so would violate her firmly held religious beliefs against the death penalty.”

Because of her religious conviction, Lindecrantz has two choices — stay in jail or abandon her faith, Newman said. On Monday night, Lindecratz was in a cell with nine women, some of whom were sick all night because they were detoxing from drugs. Lindecrantz is old enough to be those women’s mothers, she said. “For the court to imprison her until she is broken, until her will is broken, and she abandons her faith and her view that she cannot participate in state-sanctioned killing is an abomination,” Newman said.

Sidwell, who also is a Mennonite, said he supported his wife’s stand, saying they both were adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “She’s not going to change her mind,” Sidwell said. “It’s, to me, a pointless pursuit.”

The Rev. Vern Rempel, pastor of Beloved Community Mennonite Church in Englewood, said he counseled Lindecrantz over the weekend about what she would do when called to the stand Monday morning. Those discussions included figuring out a way that Lindecrantz could comply with the courts without betraying her religious conviction. On Sunday, the congregation gathered around Lindecrantz to pray over the decision. “On Sunday, she said she had clarity and was ready to do this,” he said. “Really, we felt the strength of her commitment.”

Mennonite opposition to the death penalty dates to 1525, Rempel said. “This is not something that is not a mood of Greta’s,” he said. “Or a fancy. Or something she’s making up. It has been a lifetime commitment for her.”

While Lindecrantz is spending her second night in jail, the legal drama has been playing since Jan. 20, when Newman first filed a motion in an attempt to keep her client off the witness stand. But Amico repeatedly denied the motion, saying in an order written on Feb. 16 that allowing people to refuse to participate in death penalty cases on religious grounds would disrupt the justice system. Religious-based capital defense teams would be able to refuse to follow proceedings, rules and laws based on those grounds, Amico wrote. It would create an “absurd and unworkable result” for death penalty cases in Colorado.

Because of the politics involved, I am inclined to guess that the folks who eager to support, on religious liberty grounds, those resisting laws restricting displays of religious items on public lands or laws concerning certain medical procedures will not be quite as quick to get behind this particular form of legal resistance based on sincere religious beliefs. (And, by the same political token, I suspect those usually critical of legal resistance based on religious liberty claims may not be so critical of the claim in this setting.)

March 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)