Friday, December 09, 2016

After split tied SCOTUS stay vote, Alabama completes last scheduled execution of 2016

As reported in this AP piece, the final scheduled execution in the United States in 2016 had a number of noteworthy events and elements for those who support and those who oppose capital punishment.  The AP article is headlined "Alabama inmate coughs, heaves 13 minutes into execution," though I think the SCOTUS action that proceeded the actual execution should be of particular interest for law geeks.  Here are some of the details:

A man who killed an Alabama convenience store clerk more than two decades ago was put to death Thursday night, an execution that required two consciousness tests as the inmate heaved and coughed 13 minutes into the lethal injection. Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after the procedure began at the state prison in southwest Alabama. Smith was convicted of capital murder in the Nov. 8, 1994, fatal shooting of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury voted 7-5 to recommend a sentence of

life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. Smith heaved and coughed repeatedly, clenching his fists and raising his head at the beginning of the execution. A prison guard performed two consciousness checks before the final two lethal drugs were administered.

In a consciousness test, a prison officer says the inmate's name, brushes his eyelashes and then pinches his left arm. During the first one, Smith moved his arm. He slightly raised his right arm again after the second consciousness test. The meaning of those movements will likely be debated. One of Smith's attorneys whispered to another attorney, "He's reacting," and pointed out the inmate's repeated movements. The state prison commissioner said he did not see any reaction to the consciousness tests....

Alabama uses the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection combination. Smith and other inmates argued in a court case that the drug was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drug....

Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show. Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot, according to the record. In overriding the jury's recommendation at the 1995 trial, a judge likened the slaying to an execution, saying Wilson had already been pistol-whipped into submission and Smith ignored his pleas for mercy. Wilson had a newborn infant at the time of his death. "The trial court described Smith's acts as 'an execution style slaying.' Tonight, justice was finally served," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement after the execution.

U.S. Supreme Court justices twice paused the execution as Smith's attorneys argued for a delay, saying a judge shouldn't have been able to impose the death penalty when a jury recommended he receive life imprisonment. Four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution, but five were needed to do so.

Smith's attorneys had urged the nation's highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge's override. Smith's lawyers argued a January decision that struck down Florida's death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama's process. In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued. "Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury's verdict," attorneys for Smith wrote Wednesday.

Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing Tuesday that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision....

Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used. The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.

December 9, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Georgia completes ninth and last execution of 2016

As reported here by BuzzFeed News, "William Sallie was executed Tuesday night in Georgia for the 1990 murder of his father-in-law, Jack Moore, after the US Supreme Court denied two requests to halt it." Here is more:

Sallie became the ninth person to be executed in Georgia this year, making it the state with the most executions so far in 2016. It was also the highest number of executions in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

In March 1990, Sallie broke into the home of his in-laws, Jack and Linda Moore, where his ex-wife Robin and their two-year-old son, Ryan, were living after Sallie lost a bitter custody battle. Robin’s 17-year-old sister, April, and 9-year-old brother Justin also lived in the rural home in Bacon County, according to court documents. Sallie shot the Moores as they slept in their bed, killing Jack and wounding Linda. He then handcuffed Linda and Justin to the bed rail and abducted Robin and April to his mobile home where he raped them, according to evidence presented at the trial. He released them a day later and was arrested shortly after.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for Sallie on Monday. Sallie’s clemency petition and an appeal filed in the US Supreme Court argue that his execution will be unconstitutional as he has been denied federal court review of his claims of juror bias because of a procedural technicality. The US Supreme Court denied his request, with no noted dissents by any of the justices.

His lawyers argued that Sallie’s death sentence was imposed at the urging of a juror who was “patently biased” against him and was dishonest about her life experiences that would have affected her judgement during jury selection.

December 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Intriguing discussion of how religion might have helped save the death penalty in Nebraska

584656d34e0b2.imageThis new local article, headlined "How religion impacted Nebraska’s death penalty vote," discusses the intersection of religious beliefs and support for capital punishment among Cornhuskers. Here are the details:

While the presidential election surprised most people, the results of one Nebraska vote shouldn’t have been a surprise. Nebraska voters resoundingly repealed a bill eliminating the state’s death penalty, with 61.2 percent voting to reinstate the punishment and 38.8 percent hoping to keep it off the books. As Nebraska is a solid Republican state, its death penalty vote matches national statistics. 72 percent of Republicans nationwide support the death penalty, according to a September Pew Research poll.

But for some Nebraskans, the death penalty vote wasn’t a political decision, but a decision based on religious beliefs. Christians are more likely to support capital punishment than other groups, according to the same Pew Research Poll. White evangelical Protestants are most in favor, with 69 percent supporting the death penalty, followed by white mainline Protestants at 60 percent. By a narrow margin, more Catholics oppose the death penalty than support it, at 46 percent to 43 percent.

But these views are contrary to official statements from some Christian leaders. Major religious groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, have published statements opposing the death penalty on religious grounds. This means people often disagree with their denomination’s official statements on the issue.

Allison Johnson, a minister at The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, echoed the anti-death penalty sentiments of the ELCA church she serves on campus. If she’d been registered to vote in Nebraska instead of Wisconsin, Johnson would have voted to retain the bill, she said. “Jesus didn’t overcome systems of violence and injustice by more killing,” she said. “Jesus overcame them by absorbing them and dying himself.”

But the Rev. Jerry Thompson of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at UNL said the issue is more complicated than that. Thompson has voiced opposition to the death penalty and voted to retain the bill. “I think of those passages where Jesus says, ‘Forgive your enemies, forgive those who have abused you, pray for them,’” Thompson said. “That doesn’t suggest to me putting them to death is part of the Christian way of life.”

But voting to reinstate capital punishment doesn’t make a Christian a hypocrite, he said. “You could hold religious beliefs and still vote in favor of keeping the death penalty,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that one thing necessarily leads to the other.” The complexity of the issue is one reason for the divide among Christians, Thompson said.

Plus, conversation about the death penalty doesn’t crop up much in day-to-day life, said the Rev. Steve Mills of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. While Mills is against capital punishment, it’s a low priority on his list of things to preach about, he said. “I know the church will speak about [the death penalty], but I don’t think the church has a huge push with it,” Mills said. “I think that’s kind of where it’s not clearly articulated frequently. It just comes up around election time.”

But not all pastors at UNL are against the death penalty on religious grounds. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention are two groups that favor it. Pastor Bill Steinbauer of the University Lutheran Chapel, a Missouri Synod church at UNL, said he rarely discussed capital punishment this fall, although politics was a hot topic. “I think when Christians tend to argue over things, this isn’t one of them,” Steinbauer said. “It’s one more of those things where we can agree to disagree. I don’t see that as being a big, divisive thing.”

He’s against the death penalty for reasons not found in the Bible. “I’m not morally against it; my reasons for being against it are more practical,” he said. “Based on the reading of Scripture, the Bible allows for the government to have capital punishment. But I would also say that it’s somewhat of a case-by-case thing too. If the government is undeniably corrupt and the government is enacting injustice upon people even through the use of the death penalty, no Lutheran pastor would stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s perfectly OK.’”...

UNL student David Magnuson supports the government’s ability to pass punishment. “You know, it is wrong for someone to kill someone, even in retribution; that’s always wrong, but that doesn’t apply to governments,” Magnuson said. “The government is not a person; it is a higher entity, and its role is to be just through laws.” The senior criminal justice major is active both religiously and politically, serving in UNL’s Reformed University Fellowship youth group and interning for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson....

Magnuson grew up in a non-denominational church in Texas, a state where he says “every Christian supports the death penalty.” “Here, it is different, and I’ve met people who don’t support it,” Magnuson said. “It’s a very complex issue, and it’s not a good topic. [But] I think the worst crime you can do is kill someone.” Magnuson said he rejects the argument that it’s cheaper to have a criminal spend life in prison. “Just paying for an inmate in prison is such a strain on society,” he said. “You’re paying to keep them alive. I think we should just kill them, and kill them fast. That’s what we do in Texas, and I think it’s great.”

The best argument he’s heard against the death penalty is that it gives inmates time to find God. But he said the death penalty can’t “stop God’s plan.” “It’s not the government’s role to play Jesus; It’s not,” Magnuson said. “That’s people’s role to play Jesus, and obviously, if we were in a perfect world, we wouldn’t deal with this problem.”

December 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 05, 2016

Is Georgia really "rushing" to execute a defendant convicted of murder in 1990?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times commentary authored by Norman Fletcher, who "served on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years and was its chief justice from 2001 to 2005."  The NY Times gave this commentary the headline "Georgia’s Dangerous Rush to Execution," but the first sentence of the commentary states: "Tomorrow, the State of Georgia intends to execute William Sallie, who was convicted of killing a man in 1990." Though there could be many problems with Georgia's capital system, conducting an execution 26 years after a capital conviction does not seem to me like a "rush job." That lingo aside, here is what former Justice Fletcher goes on to explain in his commentary:

I served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years. During that time I participated in dozens of death-penalty cases and affirmed many of them. That experience, though, exposed me to some of the significant flaws in the system — not just the injustice of the death penalty itself, but specific problems with the way capital cases are handled. Mr. Sallie’s case is a prime example.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Georgia’s system, and one of the reasons the state carries out so many executions, is that it often fails to provide people with lawyers. Mr. Sallie, for example, missed a filing deadline for a federal review of his case by eight days, in part because he didn’t have a lawyer at the time to help him. And this isn’t just a delay tactic; he has several strong claims about constitutional failings during his trial that, if proved, could require the reversal of his conviction. As things stand, he will be executed without review.

Fundamental fairness, due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment require the courts to provide an attorney throughout the entire legal process to review a death sentence. Virtually every capital-punishment state has this safeguard. Georgia is an outlier.

I saw this firsthand as the presiding justice on the State Supreme Court in 1999, in an appeal of a post-conviction hearing for a man named Exzavious Gibson, who was 17 at the time of his crime. It was a critical proceeding, where a lawyer should have raised important details about whether he received adequate representation during his trial — except that, ironically, no volunteer attorney was available. Mr. Gibson, who was poor and apparently, from the records, intellectually disabled and afflicted by acute mental health problems, was forced to represent himself.

That sham of a proceeding is one of the most deplorable vignettes in Georgia’s legal history. But a majority of my fellow justices were less moved, and the court decided, 4-3, that people with death-penalty convictions have no right to counsel at that critical post-conviction stage — a ruling still in force today.

As a result, a door that would have been open to Mr. Sallie in almost any other state was closed to him in Georgia. If it were open, he would be able to present the facts about his trial, which appear to show serious problems with juror bias.

Mr. Sallie’s lawyers amassed volumes of public records and witness statements showing that one of the jurors, despite having a known bias, apparently misled the trial judge and the parties in order to join the jury. (She omitted vital, likely disqualifying information, including striking similarities between her traumatic history of divorce and interstate child custody fights and the domestic strife at the center of Mr. Sallie’s case.) In 2012, after his conviction, she bragged to an investigator that she had persuaded the jury, which was evenly divided between life and death, to vote unanimously for death.

The problem is not just Georgia. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney during the critical post-conviction review stage in state courts. Georgia continues to deny counsel — and denies a man like William Sallie the opportunity to defend his life.

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Anyone interested in SCOTUS speculating after Ohio repeat execution case again left in limbo?

The question in the title of this post emerges from the latest SCOTUS order list here, which does not mention in any way Broom v. Ohio.  This accounting of Broom from SCOTUSblog's most recent Relist Watch will remind readers why I am paying (too?) much attention to this case:

16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

(relisted after the November 4, November 10 and November 22 conferences)

For the first few relists in early November, I was speculating that the Justices were waiting for one or more of them (e.g., Justices Breyer and Ginsberg and ____) to complete a dissent from the denial of certiorari.  But now that this unique (and not-so-complicated) case has been in front of SCOTUS for well over a month, I am starting to think the Justices are inclined to hold on to this case until a replacement for Justice Scalia is named; once that new possible Justice is named, the current Justices can and will all have a better sense of whether and how the new Justice might break a possible 4-4 tie in this case.

Before urging readers to check out all the prior posts linked below (and others), I cannot help but flag a phrase in this post from Sept 2009 when Ohio first tried to move forward with a second execution attempt: "it is hard to predict if and when and how the US Supreme Court will be brought into this fray."  It is perhaps worth recalling that this phrase was written when Justices Scalia, Souter and Stevens were all on SCOTUS.  Now, a (lucky?) seven years later, we have Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and an open seat.

Related posts (most from 2009) on botched Broom execution attempt and its aftermath:

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 02, 2016

Should I be more troubled by Dylann Storm Roof being allowed to defend himself at his federal capital trial?

Abc_dylann_roof1_wg_150716__16x9_992The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing commentary authored by Chandra Bozelko and headlined "Dylann Roof shouldn’t be allowed to act as his own lawyer." Here are excerpts:

Dylann Roof, the avowed white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina church last year, is a 22-year-old man with a presumed history of drug use. He did not graduate from high school. He could be sentenced to death if a jury finds him guilty. And yet he is acting as his own lawyer to defend himself against 33 federal charges of murder and hate crimes.

Roof is representing himself in court against the advice of the presiding judge, Richard Gergel. And by doing so, Roof will likely go the way of other self-represented defendants like Joan of Arc, Jesus, Socrates and Ted Bundy: he’s probably going to be convicted and killed.

But what many people don’t understand is that the judge had no choice but to let Roof represent himself. Since the Supreme Court decided Faretta v. California in 1975, the right to represent oneself is absolute regardless of intellect or educational attainment. Requests to relinquish counsel “…must be honored out of that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.”

Because it’s likely to be little more than a spectacular suicide, the Roof trial should get us to admit that the lifeblood of the law has clots in it. Unprepared defendants shouldn’t be allowed to represent themselves in capital trials; the Supreme Court precedent established in Faretta needs to be overturned or modified in a meaningful way.

I wasn’t as successful as Dylann Roof. In 2007, I tried to represent myself in a criminal trial but was denied, Princeton degree and two years of law school notwithstanding. The judge claimed that, because my request came after jury selection but before the start of the state’s evidence, it was a delay tactic and made my motion untimely. I hadn’t asked for a continuance and was prepared to start right away.

I had a lawyer forced upon me, one who admitted she hadn’t read the police reports and went on to advise the jury that there was no reasonable doubt about my guilt. I ended up being convicted of ten felonies and four misdemeanors and sentenced to five years in prison for identity theft-related crimes, but without a lawyer I might have been sentenced to the maximum on every charge consecutively, which was 185 years in jail. I wasn’t facing the death penalty and the judge assigned to my case still wouldn’t let me represent myself.

Scholars, judges and attorneys have long seen self-represented defendants as calves pulling their own leads to slaughter. Accordingly, they’ve chipped away at Faretta with decisions like the one in my case. Courts look for ways to deny requests for self-representation because they know the unfairness that can ensue. Federal circuit courts are actually split on what constitutes a valid self-representation request. The Supreme Court itself curbed the Faretta right in 2008 in Indiana v. Edwards when it held that defendants can be competent to stand trial yet not competent to represent themselves.

Whether self-representation would hurt every defendant who engaged in it is debatable. The limited evidence we have on the number of self-represented defendants who win is encouraging. But many of those successes come in cases where lethal injection isn’t a possible penalty. Every self-represented person in a capital case has lost.

And yet we still allow defendants like Dylann Roof to act as their own attorneys, despite their obvious inability to do so.... Saying that minimally educated or mentally ill criminal defendants who face lethal penalties must be free from government intrusion in the form of counsel is the same thing as saying suicide is part of individual liberty. While it may be true, it contradicts our country’s alleged respect for life. What is judicially permissible may not be moral....

Removing self-representation as a possibility in capital cases could and should be corrected for with some type of minimum standards for capital defenders.... This denigration of the right to effective assistance of counsel is what makes it easy to allow defendants like Dylann Roof to represent themselves. If appointed counsel won’t do much better, why not let people exercise their rights under Faretta and get themselves killed? Especially when the trial will add glorious sound bites and scenes of an allegedly racist killer getting to cross-examine his African-American victims.

In the name of individual liberties that we’ve already stopped protecting, we will watch Roof’s slow, elaborate, taxpayer-funded self-harm unfold. The trial of the Charleston church shooter places us at a crossroads of Constitution and conscience. If we overturn Faretta v. California and prevent defendants in capital cases from defending themselves while providing them with qualified and paid counsel, we won’t have to choose.

I am tempted to assail many contentions in this commentary, and yet I feel I must give it some respect because it was authored by someone who seemed to have been burned by his her own inability to serve as his her own attorney. I will just comment that I always look for principles of liberty and personal freedom to guide me when I think I might be "at a crossroads of Constitution and conscience." And principles of liberty and personal freedom lead me to the view that persons who are competent should generally be allowed to represent themselves when on trial for their lives or for any other interest.

A few of many prior related posts on prosecution of Dylann Storm Roof:

December 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"The Coming Federalism Battle in the War Over the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Michael Mannheimer and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

From the founding of the Republic until 2002, it appears that only a single person was ever sentenced to death by the federal government for criminal conduct occurring in a State that did not authorize the death penalty for the same conduct.  However, since 2002, eleven people have been sentenced to death by the federal government for criminal conduct occurring in non-death penalty States.  And in the last twenty-three years, the federal government has sought the death penalty dozens of times in non-death penalty States. Such cases virtually always involve offenses historically thought of as being best dealt with at the state level.  While some federal capital defendants in non-death penalty States have raised constitutional objections in their cases based on federalism principles, these objections have uniformly been rejected at the district court level.  However, no federal courts of appeals has yet addressed these objections.

Currently, thirty-one States authorize capital punishment while nineteen do not.  The category of non-death penalty States includes some of the Nation’s most populous, such as New York, Illinois, and Michigan. In the coming decades, it is likely that other large States, such as California and Pennsylvania, and perhaps even Texas, will abandon the death penalty.  It is also likely that capital punishment will be retained in many States, particularly in the South and West, and at the federal level.  Given these premises, the use of the federal death penalty in non-death States, which is now mostly a side issue in the death penalty debate, may take on more prominence.  As the demand for retribution against the very worst murderers in these States continues, future pro-death penalty Attorneys General will likely bring more of these cases in federal court.  Moreover, Congress may continue to expand federal jurisdiction over murders that have tenuous connections to interstate commerce. In short, we may soon see a federalism battle in the war over the death penalty.

November 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Will more than just a handful of condemned murderers be impacted by latest SCOTUS review of capital punishment disability limits?

Washington_terry1The question in the title of this post is my indirect effort to get a quantitative notion of the import and impact of the Texas case, Moore v. Texas, being heard by the US Supreme Court this morning.  The folks at SCOTUSblog have this helpful round-up of some recent previews and commentaries on this case:

Today, the court will hear oral argument in Moore v. Texas, which asks whether Texas can rely on an outdated standard in determining whether a defendant’s intellectual disability precludes him from being executed. Amy Howe previewed the case for this blog. Another preview comes from Karen Ojeda and Nicholas Halliburton for Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Additional coverage of Moore comes from Nina Totenberg at NPR, who notes that “the state’s test is based on what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called ‘a consensus of Texas citizens,’ that not all those who meet the ‘social services definition’ of ‘retardation’ should be exempt from the death penalty,” and from Steven Mazie in The Economist. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Carol and Jordan Steiker argue that rather than “relying on the same approach to intellectual disability that Texas uses in every other context (such as placement in special education or eligibility for disability benefits),” the state appeals “court sought to redefine the condition in the capital context so that only offenders who meet crude stereotypes about intellectual disability are shielded from execution.”

Efforts by Texas to execute intellectually disabled murderers strike very close to home for me because I was actively involved in representing and trying to prevent the execution of Terry Washington back in 1996-97 when there was not yet a constitutional restriction on application of the death penalty for those with certain intellectual disabilities.  I got involved in the Washington case pro bono during my last few months as an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in NYC.  I had the opportunity to help author a cert petition to SCOTUS and a clemency petition to then-Texas-Gov. George W. Bush in which we asserted on Terry's behalf that the ineffectiveness of trial counsel and his intellectually disabilities (which were then called mental retardation) justified sparing him from the ultimate punishment of death.

Terry Washington was sentenced to death for the stabbing murder of a co-worker at a restaurant in College Station, Texas.  As the case was litigated through the federal habeas courts in Texas, there was no real dispute over Terry's mental disabilities because considerable evidence from his childhood indicated diminished mental capacities and in two IQ tests after his initial sentencing to death Terry scored 58 and 69.  But Terry's case was tried in the 1980s when it was not considered ineffective for counsel to fail to investigate and present mitigating mental health and family background evidence.  In the words of the Fifth Circuit rejecting a final habeas appeal in 1996, counsel made "a reasonable strategic decision not to investigate Washington's mental health by retaining a mental health expert or to present evidence of Washington's mental health and family background at the punishment stage of trial." Washington v. Johnson, 90 F.3d 945 (5th Cir. July 25, 1996) (available here).

I cannot help but think of Terry Washington today because I recall drafting sections of the cert petition and clemency petition making the case for a categorical ban on the execution of persons with (as called then) mental retardation.  Unfortunately for Terry, the Supreme Court would not embrace the constitutional position we pushed on his behalf until 2002 when it ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of individuals who are intellectually disabled.  (According to this DPIC accounting, 44 persons with intellectual disabilities were executed between 1976 and the SCOTUS Atkins ruling in 2002.)  Based on the medical records and supporting evidence, I now believe that Terry would have indisputably been shielded from execution by Atkins even though Texas has been trying its best since Atkins to limit the number of condemned murderers who get shielded from execution by its holding.

Returning to the Moore case now before SCOTUS (with the Terry Washington case still on my mind), I sincerely wonder how many persons on death row in Texas or in other states are currently in the doctrinal/proof gray area that the Moore case occupies.  My sense is that most defendants with obvious disabilities have had their sentences reduced based on Atkins, and this DPIC accounting hints that maybe as many as 100 condemned murderers have gotten off of death rows in many states thanks to Atkins.  But in Moore it seems like evidence of disability is sufficiently equivocal and the legal standards sufficiently opaque that SCOTUS has to clean up some post-Atkins doctrinal mess.  For Bobby James Moore, this is obviously now a matter of life and death.  But can we know how many other of the roughly 2500 persons now under serious sentences of death nationwide will be potentially impacted by the Moore decision?

November 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Oregon Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis"

The title of this post is the title of this notable research report released earlier this month.  This press release from Lewis & Clark Law School provides helpful background on the report and its findings. Here are excerpts:

A new report by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University offers an unprecedented financial picture of the previously uncalculated cost of capital punishment in Oregon. “Oregon Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis” shows that the costs for aggravated murder cases that result in death sentences range, on average, 3.5 to 4 times more expensive per case when compared to similar non-death penalty cases.

Lewis & Clark Law Professor Aliza Kaplan spearheaded the research effort, fueled by the fact that there was no data to answer questions about the cost of capital punishment in Oregon. Kaplan approached co-author Peter A. Collins, PhD of Seattle University’s Criminal Justice Department, to complement her legal analysis with best-in-class quantitative analysis methods, following his similar 2015 report on death-penalty cost analysis for the state of Washington.

Looking at cost data from the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Oregon Office Public Defense Services (OPDS) among other sources, the report also examines the role that the lengthiness of death penalty cases plays in their total costs. These cases stretch on for decades due to the constitutional and statutory requirements of appeals and reconsiderations, which increases the net litigation costs for all parties.

The report, which took more than 18 months to compile, also looks at the use of the death penalty in Oregon, which voters did away with in 1964, but reinstated two decades later. Since 1984, 62 individuals have been convicted and sentenced to death. Of those 62, twenty-eight of them are no longer on death row. Just two of these cases have 1 resulted in death (both individuals dropped their appeals and “volunteered” to be executed), four people died of natural causes while in prison, and 22 people, or roughly 79%, have had their sentences reduced.

Offering common ground for policymakers and citizens of Oregon to examine capital punishment, the report is part of a growing trend to bring better data to the work of crafting more sound public policy. For Kaplan, the report is about increasing transparency through better data. “The decision makers, those involved in the criminal justice system, everyone, deserves to know how much we are currently spending on the death penalty, so that when stakeholders, citizens and policy-makers make these decisions, they have as much information as possible to decide what is best for Oregon,” said Kaplan.

According to Dr. Peter Collins, “There are several important takeaways from this research for Oregonians. First, the evidence clearly shows that aggravated murder cases that involve the death penalty are at least three-and-a-half to four-times more expensive than aggravated murder cases that do not involve the death penalty. Second, although the death penalty is not being pursued as frequently as in the past, the average costs when it is have markedly increased. Last, it is ultimately a futile endeavor, as the vast majority of death penalty sentences are decreased to life without parole in post conviction appeals.”

Six law students at Lewis & Clark provided key assistance in producing the report, conducting extensive legal research and field interviews with professionals throughout the criminal justice system. Third-year law student and co-author of the study, Venetia Mayhew, was involved in the project since its first day. “Professor Kaplan provided me with a remarkable opportunity to delve deep into Oregon’s death penalty system and to understand the laborious and costly nature of its processes. I was most struck by the human cost it imposes on all those who participate,” said Venetia Mayhew, JD ’17, who began her work on the analysis in her first year as a Lewis & Clark law student.

November 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 25, 2016

New talk in New Jersey of bringing back capital punishment a decade after state abolition

Download (23)The stark pro-capital punishment election results in a number of states, especially in deep blue California, has been a chief reason I now believe that any reports on the death of the death penalty are obviously premature.  Another sign of these capital punishment times comes from this new local article headlined "Two N.J. lawmakers call for return of the death penalty."  Here are the highlights:

Two New Jersey senators want to bring back the death penalty for what they call the "most heinous acts of murder," including terrorism and attacks on police officers. "These are extreme circumstances that are involved," said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who, along with Sen. Steve Oroho (R., Sussex), introduced legislation Monday to revive the death penalty.  "But I do believe it's an option that should be there, however seldom used."

The death penalty was abolished in New Jersey in 2007. A state study commission concluded then that it cost more to sentence someone to death than life without parole, that advances in DNA testing had raised doubt about some convictions, and that the death penalty rarely was used. The last execution in New Jersey happened in 1963....  Voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma favored keeping the death penalty when it was put on the ballot this month.

In New Jersey, in addition to fatalities caused by terrorism and the targeting of police officers, Oroho and Van Drew want to make the death penalty an option when a child is killed during a sex crime, multiple people are slain, or an individual already has a previous conviction for murder.

Oroho said he believes the death penalty could dissuade people such as Ahmad Khan Rahami, who is accused of setting off bombs in September in New York City, injuring 29 people, and in Seaside Park, N.J., along the course of a 5K run benefiting injured Marines. A delay in the race start prevented injuries there.  The death penalty could not apply the Rahami case because no one was killed, but Oroho said the attacks illustrated the need for capital punishment. "Many people could have lost their lives," he said.

Former Gov. Jon S. Corzine ended capital punishment in 2007 after the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission — composed of judges, prosecutors, and others whom the Legislature asked to study the issue — advocated a ban, citing factors such as high costs.  Keeping an inmate in New Jersey State Prison's capital-sentence unit cost at least $72,000 per year — $32,000 more than keeping an inmate in the prison's general population, the commission said in its report.  The state Office of the Public Defender also estimated in the report that eliminating the death penalty would save $1.4 million annually.  The office based that figure on 19 death-penalty cases that existed in 2006, and the costs of pretrial preparation and jury selection.

Thomas F. Kelaher, who was part of the commission and Ocean County's prosecutor at the time, had his office try the death penalty on two Bronx men accused of tying up a mother and her adult son, slitting the mother's throat, and shooting both in the back of the head in a Barnegat home in 2000. Kelaher said more than 200 jurors were interviewed — mostly about whether they supported the death penalty — before 14 were selected.  "It took us a long, long time to get to the conclusion of the case, and they never got the death penalty anyway," said Kelaher, who is now mayor of Toms River.  Gregory "Shaft" Buttler and Dwayne Gillispie received life sentences instead.

Had they received the death penalty, Kelaher said, appeals likely would have followed and taken up more time and resources. Kelaher called the process "a waste of time." "It never ends," he said.

West Orange Police Chief James P. Abbott, who also was on the death-penalty commission, said that it could take years for someone to be executed, and that trials and appeals cause families to relive the pain of losing a loved one. "To me," Abbott said, the death penalty is "where it belongs — in our past." The justice system, he said, also is subject to human error, which can put the wrong people behind bars.

Van Drew said concrete evidence would be crucial if the death penalty were to return in New Jersey. "DNA proof would be absolutely necessary in some way," he said. "We have to be absolutely sure that this person is guilty."

Because New Jersey has not executed anyone in over 50 years, I do not think formally making the death penalty legal again in the Garden State would actually increase the chances of an execution by any tangible amount. But I do think, for reasons partially explained in this recent post about new non-capital sentencing reforms passed in California and Oklahoma, that sophisticated and shrewd New Jersey advocates for various criminal justice reforms might consider embracing this symbolic call to bring back the death penalty in order to have a strategic "pace car" for other needed New Jersey reforms.  Specifically, as the article here suggests, the New Jersey lawmakers advocating bringing back the death penalty might be uniquely willing to have DNA access and/or protections against wrongful convictions included in any bill to bring back capital punishment.  Relatedly, this FAQ page about New Jersey corrections suggests as many as 1000 folks are serving life with parole sentences in the state.  Perhaps a death penalty bill that specifies the "worst of the worst" killers who will be subject to capital punishment could also include provisions to make the not-so-worst killers more likely to earn parole.

November 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Some sentencing question after Georgia jury verdicts of guiltly on all counts of murder, child cruelty and sexting for Justin Ross Harris

9859581_GA horribly awful (and high-profile and very interesting) state criminal case resulted yesterday in a jury verdict of guilt on all counts.  This new CNN article, headlined ""Jury finds Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in son's hot car death," provides some details about the case that has prompted some sentencing questions for me.  Here are excerpts (with emphasis added on points that prompt follow-up sentencing questions):

A jury in Georgia on Monday found Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in the 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris, 35, was accused of intentionally locking Cooper inside a hot car for seven hours. On that same day, Harris was sexting with six women, including one minor, according to phone records.

In addition to three counts of murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death, and guilty of three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls.  "This is one of those occasions where actions speak louder than words," Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said after the verdict. "He has malice in his heart, absolutely."

The trial, which spanned almost five weeks, was moved to the Georgia coastal town of Brunswick from Cobb County, outside Atlanta, after intense pretrial publicity. It was briefly interrupted by Hurricane Matthew. The Glynn County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 21 hours over four days.  Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence, including the Hyundai Tucson in which Cooper died in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.

Justin Ross Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Cobb County prosecutors argued that Harris intentionally locked Cooper inside his car on a hot summer 2014 day because he wanted to be free of his family responsibilities. Harris' lawyers claimed the boy's death was a tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory. 

It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son into a rear-facing car seat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, then to The Home Depot corporate headquarters, where he worked. Instead of dropping Cooper off at day care, testimony revealed Harris left him in the car all day while he was at work.  Sometime after 4 p.m. that day, as Harris drove to a nearby theater to see a movie, he noticed his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the SUV. Witnesses said he appeared distraught and was screaming. "'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," said Boring in his closing argument.

The prosecution argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat in the SUV. "If this child was visible in that car that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car.  Flat out."  If Cooper was visible, Boring said, "the defendant is guilty of all counts."  After the verdict, jurors told the prosecution that the evidence weighed heavily in their decision, Boring said.

Digital evidence showed that on the day his son died, Harris exchanged sexual messages and photos with six women, including one minor. State witnesses testified that Harris lived what prosecutors described as a "double life."  To his wife, family, friends and co-workers, Harris was seen as a loving father and husband. But unbeknownst to them, Harris engaged in online sexual communication with multiple women, including two underage girls, had extramarital sexual encounters in public places and paid for sex with a prostitute.

Harris' defense maintained that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death. "The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making, so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," said defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore during his closing argument.  Kilgore argued that Cobb County police investigators focused only on matters that fit the state's theory and ignored all the evidence that pointed to an accident. "You have been misled throughout this trial," Kilgore told jurors.  The defense lawyer continued to maintain his client's innocence after the verdict. He said he plans to appeal the verdict. "When an innocent person is convicted there's been some breakdowns in the system and that's what happened here," Kilgore told reporters outside the courthouse. "From the moment we met Ross Harris we've never, ever once wavered in our absolute belief that he is not guilty of what he's just been convicted of."

The defense's key witness was Harris' ex-wife and Cooper's mother, Leanna Taylor. "Cooper was the sweetest little boy. He had so much life in him. He was everything to me," Taylor recalled, as she seemed to fight through tears. For two days, Taylor told jurors private details of her married life with Harris, saying they had intimacy problems and recounting Harris' struggles with pornography.  Marital struggles aside, Taylor described Harris as a "very involved" parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation was that Harris "forgot" Cooper and accidentally left him in the car.  Boring said it did not matter that Taylor declined to speak with the prosecutor's office and testified for the defense. "As far as proving the case we did not need her," he told CNN.

Harris is expected to be sentenced December 5. He could face life without parole, though Boring said the prosecution will speak with the family to determine what kind of sentence to ask for.

Especially for sentencing scholars and advocates like me who worry a lot about about white criminals being treated more leniently than similarly-situated or less culpable minority criminals, I have three follow-up sentencing questions based on this case and its forthcoming sentencing in a Georgia state court:

1.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case apparently exercised his discretion not to pursue capital punishment in a case in which the white defendant was apparently guilty of intentionally boiling his 22-month son to death?

2.  Should we be troubled that Georgia sentencing provisions, if I am understanding the law properly based on this "'Truth in Sentencing' in Georgia" documentrequires a mandatory LWOP for an adult offender who commits two armed robberies, but only requires a mandatory 25-life for intentionally boiling a toddler to death?

3.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case, who already strikes me as unduly lenient for not even pursuing a capital charge, is now apparently willing (after a jury conviction on all counts) to exercise his discretion to seek a more lenient sentence from the sentencing judge based on the sentencing desires of the (white) wife of the murderer?

November 15, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, November 14, 2016

"A comeback for the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this CNN commentary authored by Austin Sarat. Here are excerpts:

For supporters of capital punishment the most consequential development was the election of Donald Trump. Trump is such a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment that, in December of 2015, he promised members of the New England Police Benevolent Association that he would issue an executive order as president containing the "strong, strong statement" that he wants the death penalty for those found guilty of killing a police officer. "Anybody," Trump said, "killing a policeman, a policewoman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer: Death penalty is going to happen, okay?"

Trump's election is likely to put on hold any prospect that the Supreme Court will take up Justice Stephen Breyer's recent invitation to his fellow justices to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The results of referendum questions on the ballot in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma also brought bad news for abolitionists. Voters in California delivered a double-barreled blow.  They rejected Proposition 62, a measure which would have replaced capital punishment for murder with life in prison without parole.  They also approved by a narrow margin a separate measure intended to speed up executions.  That measure designates special courts to hear challenges to death penalty convictions, limits successive appeals and expands the pool of lawyers who could handle those appeals.

Nebraska voters, by a margin of 61% to 39%, approved reinstating that state's death penalty one year after state legislators voted to abolish it.  In Oklahoma, 66% of voters supported State Question 776 declaring that the death penalty cannot be considered cruel and unusual under the state constitution. It added a provision that "any method of execution shall be allowed, unless prohibited by the United States Constitution."

Despite these electoral victories, the likelihood of a reversal of fortune for capital punishment is remote.  The high costs of capital prosecutions, serious doubts about the reliability of capital convictions, concerns about arbitrariness in death sentencing, and the difficulty of finding reliable methods of execution remain.  These issues have allowed death penalty opponents to build their case state by state, appealing to public officials and offering them a different way to frame opposition to capital punishment.

Over the last decade, that strategy has led to judicial or legislative abolition in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska (a decision reversed by Tuesday's referendum) and Delaware.  Its success can also be seen in the dramatic drop in the number of death sentences handed out across the United States.  They have been cut from 315 in 1996 to 49 in 2015. The number of executions also has declined significantly, going from 98 in 1999 to 28 last year.

These changes have occurred because abolitionists have reframed the way many judges, legislatures, and governors think about capital punishment. The focus of political and legal debates has moved from moral and philosophical abstractions toward a careful consideration of the way the death penalty works in practice. Even after the recent election, public officials can continue to oppose the death penalty by questioning whether its day-to-day practices are compatible with central American values, like due process and equal treatment....

While they did not persuade the citizens of California, Nebraska or Oklahoma, opponents of the death penalty have made substantial progress with the American public. A 2015 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans believed that there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death and only 26% thought that there are adequate safeguards in place to make sure that does not happen. That same survey found that 52% of respondents agreed that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.

Because of these concerns about the risk of executing the innocent and about racial discrimination in capital sentencing, 42% of the public now opposes the death penalty, the highest such opposition has been since 1972. Last week's electoral results are a reminder that the death penalty continues to have powerful populist and symbolic appeal, but it does not foretell a comeback for capital punishment. Abolitionists will remain on the offensive, and America still seems to be on the road to abolition.

November 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 11, 2016

Early thoughts on a day to be full of thoughts about the future of the death penalty

As noted in this prior post, I am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that today I will have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Northwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers.  

Needless to say, all the election result earlier this week surely has impacted what a lot of folks plan to say at this event, and here are three notable new article highlights aspects of the new capital punishment world order:

In a (too tiny) nutshell, I generally do not expect too much to change jurisprudentially or practically about the death penalty in the next few years unless and until (1) states can find a steady supply of lethal injection drugs (or devise effective alternative methods of execution), and/or (2) Prez-Elect Trump and his appointees start trying to make a potent case to all Americans that much greater use of the death penalty is an essential and important ways to legally respond to the uptick in murders nationwide in the last few years.

November 11, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did death penalty initiatives make it easier for significant prison reforms to pass in California and Oklahoma?

The sets of death penalty initiatives on state ballots this year received lots of attention, and the pro-death-penalty side received lots of voter support in both "red states" like Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as in the in "blue state" of California.  (And I am very excited, as previewed here, that tomorrow at Northwestern Law I be part of a symposium that will be seeking  to sort out what this means for the future of the death penalty in the US.) But, as Randy Balko notes in this Washington Post piece headlined "Believe it or not, it was a pretty good night for criminal-justice reform," the death penalty outcomes should be looked at in the context of other criminal justice reform measure that also got significant support from voters in both red and blue states. Here are excerpts from his piece with one word highlighted by me for commentary to follow:

The death penalty was on the ballot in three states last night, by way of four separate initiatives. In all of them, the death penalty won.... But it wasn’t just in red states. California voters weighed in on two death penalty initiatives — one to repeal it, and one to speed it up. The former failed, the latter passed.  This is a state that Hillary Clinton won by 28 points. Americans still revere the death penalty....

But there was also a lot of good news last night. Marijuana won in 8 of the 9 states in which it was on the ballot — including outright legalization in California, Massachusetts and Nevada. Those states all went blue in the presidential race, but red states Montana, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota all legalized medicinal marijuana. The lesson here appears to be that pot has finally transcended the culture wars, but the death penalty hasn’t.  [My other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is where I obsess on this reality.]

There are a couple of other important reform measures that passed.  Ironically, both were in states that strengthened the death penalty.  California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole (as opposed to prison) and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and lets judges (instead of prosecutors) determine whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts.  And in Oklahoma, voters approved of a measure to reclassify certain property and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  They also approved a measure that would use the money saved from reclassifying such crimes to fund rehabilitation, mental health treatment and vocational training for inmates. New Mexico voters passed a bail reform measure that, while poorly drafted, at least indicates that there’s an appetite in the electorate for such reforms.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think it "ironic"  that the very different states of California and Oklahoma with very different voters acted in the same way here.  Indeed, I think it quite sensible for voters to be eager to, at the same time while voting, express support for tougher sentencing for the very worst criminals (terrible murderers) and for smarter sentencing for the lesser criminals (nonviolent and drug offenders).  I make this point to stress not only that (1) these results make perfect sense to "average" voters at this moment in our national criminal justice discourse, but also that (2) it was practically shrewd for politicians in California and Oklahoma to put prison reforms in front of voters at the same time they were considering death penalty issues.

1. As a matter of political mood, I suspect the "average" voter now is not too troubled by historic problems with the administration of the death penalty, largely because some recent big capital cases involve mass murderer with no concerns about a possible wrongful conviction or terrible defense lawyering.  High-profile capital cases like James Holmes (the Aurora movie theater mass murderer), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Dylann Roof (the Charleston Church mass murderer) have all involved crimes in which guilt seems clear beyond any doubt and in which the defendants have had the benefit of spectacular defense lawyers.

At the same time, while the "average" voter is seemingly not keen on taking the death penalty completely off the table for mass murderers like Holmes, Tsarnaev and Roof, she seems to be growing much more keen on reducing reliance on incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenders.  National discussions of the expense and inefficacy of the drug war and other concerns about modern mass incarceration has, it seems, made prison reform for certain lower-level offenders politically popular even in a red state like Oklahoma.

2. As a matter of practical realities, especially in a state like California in which "tough on crime" prison initiatives have historically garnered vocal support from law enforcement groups and prosecutors and prison unions, I suspect having a death penalty initiative for the "tough-and-tougher" crowd to focus on created a window of opportunity for supporters of prison reforms to dominate the messaging for voters on "lower salience" issues like expanding parole eligibility or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors.  Though I was not in California or Oklahoma to experience their initiative campaigns directly, I know just from reading Crime & Consequences that Kent Schneidegger, a very effective tough-on-crime advocate, was much more focused on Prop 62 and 66 (the capital initiatives in California) than on Prop 57 (the parole initiative that he called "Gov. Brown's Jailbreak Initiative").

November 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Effective Marshall Project takes on Election 2016 and criminal justice now and in the future ... UPDATE: and another set of views via Crime & Consequences

The folks at The Marshall Project have four new articles that review and assess what this Election cycle says and suggests about the state and fate of criminal justice issues throughout the United States.  Here are links to these pieces:

UPDATE: For another informed and diverse perspective on criminal justice reform stories, I always check daily Crime & Consequences in addition to The Marshall Project.  Here are some of the early Election 2016 reaction posts from various folks at C&C: 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sentencing reform's (uncertain?) future after huge election wins for Republicans, the death penalty, marijuana reform and state sentencing reforms

It is now official that Republican have retained control of both houses of Congress, and it seems now a near certainty that Donald Trump will soon officially be our nation's President Elect.  What that might mean for the future of federal sentencing reform will be the subject of a lot of future posts.  For now, I just want to wrap up the story of dynamic state ballot initiatives in the states by spotlighting that they showcase a pretty consistent national criminal justice reform message for all local, state and national officials.

1.  The death penalty still has deep and broad support in traditionally conservative states like Nebraska and Oklahoma, and clearly still has majority support even in a deep blue state like California.

2.  Non-capital sentencing reform has deep and broad support in a deep blue states like California and can find majority in a traditionally conservative state like Oklahoma.

3.  Medical marijuana reform has deep and broad support seemingly everywhere after winning this year in Arkansas and Florida and Montana and North Dakota.

4.  Recreational marijuana reform has seemingly significant support in blue states after winning this year in California and Massachusetts and Nevada and probably Maine, but in the red state in Arizona it could not garner a majority this year.

November 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Nebraska voters resoundingly rejecting its legislature's abolition of state's death penalty

Though the votes are not all in, this official Nebraska election page has enough results and those results are lopsided enough that I feel comfortable concluding that Nebraskans have decided to preserve its death penalty.  The votes now in show 60% of voters deciding to repeal the legislation that abolished the death penalty in the state.  Together with the similarly strong pro-death penalty vote in Oklahoma, it is certainly clear that folks in the heartland are not eager to turn away from the ultimate punishment.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

In Oklahoma, ballot initiative on death penalty wins big and sentencing reform initiatives also win

Though hard to figure out from just looking at this official Oklahoma election page, it appears that all the sentencing ballot issues being considered by voters passed:

State Question 776 has won 66.5% to 34.5%, thereby amending the Oklahoma Constitution to guarantee the state’s power to impose capital punishment and set methods of execution.

State Question 780 has won 58% to 42%, thereby reclassifying certain state property offenses and simple drug possession as misdemeanor crimes.

State Question 781 as won 56% to 44%, thereby taking the savings from reclassifying certain offenses to fund rehabilitative programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

November 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should and will SCOTUS take up Rommell Broom's constitutional claim that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt?

SCOTUSblog recently posted here its list of "Petitions to Watch" from the Supreme Court's scheduled conference of November 10, 2016, and all five cases on the list involve criminal justice issues. But the last of the listed petitions concerns a remarkable Ohio capital case that has been previously discussed on this blog, and is described this way:

Broom v. Ohio, No. 16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but also why either a grant or a denial of cert at this stage of the litigation could prove quite interesting and controversial.  Rather than go off on such matters, however, I will be content for now to link to some of my prior posts on this this case:

November 8, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 07, 2016

Focus on the federal death penalty as capital trial begins for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

Today marks the start in Charleston, South Carolina of the highest-profile federal capital trial since the death sentencing of the Boston Marathon bomber.  Here are some local and national stores/headlines providing some context and a sense of what to expect in the courtroom:

Meanwhile, for those unsure what some in the traditional media think about this capital case, here are links to a recent Los Angeles Times editorial and a New York Times op-ed arguing against capital punishment even in this case of mass murder in which there is no doubt about guilt:

November 7, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Do we need to worry seriously about voter confusion in the states in which the future of the death penalty is on ballot?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent article from Governing headlined "As Voters Decide Death Penalty's Fate, Ballots Confuse Some: This year's proposals aren't as simple as marking whether you're for or against capital punishment."  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade.  Depending on the election, California and Nebraska could be next.  While voters in those two states decide whether to do away with capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — could strengthen their state's ability to carry it out....

[But] like the issue of capital punishment, this year's ballot measures on the topic are complicated.

In Nebraska, the state legislature overrode their governor to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the law never went into effect because opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.  If voters ultimately uphold the law, it would be the first state under GOP control to ban capital punishment since 1973.

But first, voters will have to figure out which side they stand on — something that could be difficult for many.  The ballot measure gives voters two options: "repeal" or "retain." People who choose "repeal," as confusing as it may be, won't be voting to repeal the death penalty — they'll be voting to repeal the legislature's repeal of the death penalty and thus keep the option of executions available.

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts is campaigning in favor of capital punishment and has contributed about $400,000 to the effort.  In his veto letter to state lawmakers last year, he said their vote on a death penalty ban “tests the true meaning of representative government.”  Though a bipartisan majority of legislators overrode his veto, Ricketts may be correct that the public is with him: An August poll found that about 58 percent of likely voters in Nebraska are in favor of the death penalty.

In California, the ballot features two conflicting propositions — one that would repeal the death penalty and another that would keep it.  If both measures earn a majority of votes, whichever gets more will go into effect.  Most polls suggest the pro-death penalty measure will pass.

And in Oklahoma, the legality of capital punishment isn't up for a vote. Instead, voters will decide whether to add a section to the constitution that affirms the state’s authority to carry out executions, regardless of which method is used.  After several botched executions, the state halted any future ones until further notice. Oklahoma's ballot measure would also exempt the death penalty — but not specific methods of execution — from being invalidated by courts as cruel and unusual punishment.  "It takes away the debate on whether or not we should have capital punishment," said state Rep. John Paul Jordan in an interview with The Oklahoman.  "It allows us to direct our attention as a Legislature towards how we implement it and how we do it in the most humane way possible.”

Critics of the Oklahoma ballot question say the constitutional amendment is unnecessary, undermines the authority of the courts and could invite expensive lawsuits.  Several civil rights experts have raised concerns that the measure would strip citizens of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  Nevertheless, a July poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters supported the constitutional amendment.

Although polling in all three states suggest that a majority of voters support the death penalty, there's evidence that the framing of the question makes a major difference in how people respond. I n Oklahoma, when likely voters were asked if they supported the death penalty, three-quarters said yes.  But when given the option of eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with a life sentence without parole, along with other financial penalties, a slight majority favored a ban on the death penalty.

November 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 04, 2016

Supreme Court (surprisingly?) grants last-minute stay of Alabama execution

As reported in this Washington Post article, the "Supreme Court stayed the execution Thursday night of an Alabama inmate who had been scheduled to die by lethal injection." Here is more about this interesting development and its context:

This marked the seventh time that Thomas D. Arthur — who was convicted of murder and is the second-oldest inmate on Alabama’s death row — had faced an execution date that was called off, according to the office of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. Arthur’s execution was scheduled for Thursday evening, but the uncertainty stretched into the night as officials in Alabama waited for the Supreme Court to consider his appeals.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — the Supreme Court justice assigned to the 11th Circuit, which includes Alabama — said in an order shortly before 10:30 p.m. that he was halting the execution until he or the other justices issued another order. Thomas referred the case to the full court, and shortly before midnight, the justices issued an order granting Arthur’s stay request. The order included a statement from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. explaining that while he did not believe this case merited a review from the Supreme Court, he had decided to vote for a stay anyway as a courtesy to his colleagues.

Roberts wrote that four of the other justices had voted in favor of staying the execution. “To afford them the opportunity to more fully consider the suitability of this case for review, including these circumstances, I vote to grant the stay as a courtesy,” he wrote. Roberts said Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito would have rejected the request; he did not explain why an eighth justice was not involved in the vote.

According to the court’s order, Arthur’s stay request would remain granted until the justices decide whether to consider the case. If they decide against it, the stay will be terminated. “We are greatly relieved by the Supreme Court’s decision granting a stay and now hope for the opportunity to present the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims to the Court,” Suhana S. Han, an attorney for Arthur, said in a statement.

Arthur, 74, was sentenced to death for the 1982 killing of Troy Wicker, described in court records as the husband of a woman with whom Arthur had an affair. According to a summary of the case from the Alabama Supreme Court, Arthur was serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a relative of his common-law wife and, while on work release, had an affair with Wicker’s wife before killing Wicker. After three trials, Arthur was sentenced to death. One of his executions was called off after another inmate confessed to the killing, though a judge ultimately dismissed that inmate’s claim.

In appeals filed Thursday, Arthur’s attorneys argued that Alabama’s “deficient lethal injection protocol” would have had “torturous effects,” pointing to the state’s planned use of the sedative midazolam, which has been used in at least three executions that went awry. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in a case that hinged in part on that sedative.

Arthur’s court filings also argued that the state should execute him by firing squad, arguing that “execution by firing squad, if implemented properly, would result in a substantially lesser risk of harm” than the proposed lethal injection method. Strange’s office, in its response, noted that under Alabama state law, the Department of Corrections is only allowed to carry out executions by injection and electrocution.

Strange criticized the justices for their action late Thursday. “With all due respect to the Supreme Court, tonight’s order undermines the rule of law,” Strange said in a statement. “While I agree with Chief Justice Roberts that ‘This case does not merit the Court’s review,’ in my view, there is no ‘courtesy’ in voting to deny justice to the victims of a notorious and cold-blooded killer.”...

There have been 17 executions in the United States so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and the country is on pace to have its fewest executions in a quarter-century. Arthur’s was one of four executions scheduled through the end of 2016, according to the center.

November 4, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Death row defendants come up just short in big circuit panel rulings about lethal injection protocols

Though I am saddened that the lovable baseball club from Cleveland came up just short against a lovable baseball club from Chicago very early this morning, there are some death row defendants and lawyers who I suspect are much more troubled by a much more serious legal matter in which their arguments to federal circuit panels came up just short yesterday.   Specifically, two court panels, one in the Sixth Circuit and one in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday handed down two split 2-1 rulings against death row defendants in Ohio and Alabama.  Here are links to the rulingsand the start of the majority opinions:

Phillips v. DeWine, No. 15-3238 (6th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

In this appeal, a group of inmates sentenced to death in Ohio challenge the constitutionality of the State’s newly enacted statutory scheme concerning the confidentiality of information related to lethal injection. The district court dismissed some of their claims for a lack of standing and the remainder for failure to state a claim. For the reasons stated below, we AFFIRM.

Arthur v. Alabama DOC, No. 16-15549 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

It has been 34 years since Thomas Arthur brutally murdered Troy Wicker. During 1982 to 1992, Thomas Arthur was thrice tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Wicker’s murder.  After his third death sentence in 1992, Arthur for the next 24 years has pursued, unsuccessfully, dozens of direct and post-conviction appeals in both state and federal courts.

In addition, starting nine years ago in 2007 and on three separate occasions, Arthur has filed civil lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the drug protocol to be used in his execution.  This is Arthur’s third such § 1983 case, and this current § 1983 case was filed in 2011.  For the last five years Arthur has pursued this § 1983 case with the benefit of lengthy discovery. The district court held a two-day trial and entered two comprehensive orders denying Arthur § 1983 relief.  Those orders are the focus of the instant appeal.

After thorough review, we conclude substantial evidence supported the district court’s fact findings and, thus, Arthur has shown no clear error in them.  Further, Arthur has shown no error in the district court’s conclusions of law, inter alia, that: (1) Arthur failed to carry his burden to show compounded pentobarbital is a feasible, readily implemented, and available drug to the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) for use in executions; (2) Alabama’s consciousness assessment protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause; and (3) Arthur’s belated firing-squad claim lacks merit.

November 3, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

How should Californians, as taxpayers, think about the state's competing death penalty initiatives?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Los Angeles Times article headlined "Will ending the death penalty save California more money than speeding up executions?". Here are excerpts:

Past efforts to repeal the death penalty in California have centered on moral or ethical objections.  This year, proponents of Proposition 62, which would replace the punishment with life in prison without parole, are focusing on economics. Prominent supporters of the measure have repeatedly pointed out that the state’s taxpayers have spent $5 billion on the executions of only 13 people in almost 40 years. Online ads have urged voters to end a costly system that “wastes” $150 million a year.

“Sometimes, something is so broken it just can’t be fixed,” a voiceover says in one commercial, as a blue-and-white china vase shatters to the ground. “Let’s spend that money on programs that are proven to make us safer,” a crime victim pleads in another.  

But as voters weigh two dueling death penalty measures on the Nov. 8 ballot — one to eliminate executions, another to speed them up — researchers are at odds over the actual costs and potential savings of each. Independent legislative analysts, meanwhile, believe Proposition 62 could save taxpayers millions, while concluding that the fiscal impact of Proposition 66’s attempt to expedite death sentences is unknown.

Death penalty cases are often the most expensive in the criminal justice system because the costs associated with capital punishment trials and the incarceration of death row offenders are vastly higher. The expenses begin to accrue at the county level. Capital cases require two trials, one to decide the verdict and another the punishment. They require more attorneys, more investigators, more time and experts and a larger jury pool.

The costs grow as the state must pay to incarcerate inmates during a lengthy appeals process: The average cost of imprisoning an offender was about $47,000 per year in 2008-09, according to the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office. But housing a death row inmate can lead to an additional $50,000 to $90,000 per year, studies have found.

Paula Mitchell, a professor at Loyola Law School who is against the death penalty and has advised the Yes on Prop. 62 campaign, puts the cost of the entire death penalty system since 1978 at about $5 billion. That figure, updated from data compiled in a 2011 report, includes 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated through a 1978 ballot measure and suspended in 2006 due legal challenges over its injection protocols. It also includes the cost of trials, lengthy appeals and the housing of nearly 750 inmates on California’s death row. The initial study estimated taxpayers spent $70 million per year on incarceration costs, $775 million on federal legal challenges to convictions, known as habeas corpus petitions, and $925 million on automatic appeals and initial legal challenges to death row cases.

Mitchell and other researchers said Proposition 62, which would retroactively apply life sentences to all death row defendants, would save the state most of that money. “It is sort of a fantasy that this system is ever going to be cost efficient,” said Mitchell, who has been named the university’s executive director of the Project for the Innocent.

But proponents of Proposition 66 argue the system can be reformed. The ballot measure would designate trial courts to take on initial challenges to convictions and limit successive appeals to within five years of a death sentence. It also would require lawyers who don’t take capital cases to represent death row inmates in an attempt to expand the pool of available lawyers.

In an analysis for its proponents, Michael Genest, a former budget director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, contends such changes would save taxpayers $30 million annually in the long run. Proposition 62, in comparison, would cost taxpayers more than $100 million due to this “lost opportunity” over a 10-year period.

But independent researchers with the legislative analyst’s office found plenty of factors could increase or reduce the chances of either ballot measure saving taxpayers money. Overall, they found Proposition 62 was likely to reduce net state and county costs by roughly $150 million within a few years.

The actual number could be partially offset if, without the death penalty, offenders are less inclined to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence in some murder cases. That could lead to more cases going to trial and higher court costs, according the legislative office. Yet over time, the state could see lower prison expenses, even with a larger and older prison population, since the costs of housing and supervising death row inmates is much higher than paying for their medical bills, analysts said.

“If Prop. 62 goes into effect, they can be housed like life-without-parole inmates, some in single and some double cells,” legislative analyst Anita Lee said. “It would fall to [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to do an evaluation of risks.”

Calculating the fiscal impact of Proposition 66 is much more complicated, the office found, as the measure leaves more open questions on implementation, such as how the state will staff up with additional private attorneys. Legislative analysts said the costs in the short term are likely to be higher, as the state would have to process hundreds of pending legal challenges within the new time limits. Just how much is unknown, but the actual number could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually for many years.

Also unknown, analysts said, is the proposition’s effect on the cost of each legal challenge. The limits on appeals and new deadlines could cut the expenses if they result in fewer, shorter legal filings that take less time and state resources to process. But they could increase costs if additional layers of review are required for habeas corpus petitions, the initial legal challenges in criminal cases, and if more lawyers are needed....

Mitchell said it was “pretty much delusional” to expect Proposition 66 to ever save the state money. For that to happen, she said, California would have to execute “one person every week, 52 people a year for the next 15 years, assuming they are all guilty.” But Kent Scheidegger, author of the proposition and legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, argued the legislative office’s numbers were skewed, while security costs for dangerous inmates would likely have to remain just as high. “They don’t become any less dangerous if you change their sentence from death row to life without parole,” he said.

UPDATE: The article excerpted here has generate this series of notable posts (by a number of authors) at Crime & Consequences:

November 2, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Terrifically timed Northwestern JCLC symposium to ask "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"

Sent_yearI am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that at the end of next week — and less than 100 hours after the most significant and consequential elections for the future of the American death penalty — I am going to have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Notherwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers.  Here is how the web coverage introduced the event while also providing this quote from a notable recent SCOTUS dissent:

The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, with the significant support of the Irving Gordon Symposia Fund, is proud to announce the upcoming symposium, entitled "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"  Since the 1970's, the existence and implementation of the death penalty has changed and evolved, as has the way the legal system and its various actors view and talk about the issue.  This symposium, which includes a diverse group of some of the foremost scholars on the death penalty, will explore recent developments and attempt to provide a prognosis on the future application of the death penalty in the United States.  Attendees will be eligible for up to 5 CLE credits, and no registration is necessary.  Please direct any questions to our Symposium Director, Erica Stern, who can be reached at ebstern@nlaw.northwestern.edu.

Friday, November 11, 2016, 9:00 a.m. - 5: 00 p.m.

Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

“Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court's view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty's application have changed radically since then. Given those changes, I believe that it is now time to reopen the question.” ~ Justice Stephen Breyer, Dissenting Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015).

Though I am not yet sure about exactly what I will have say at this event, one theme I will be eager to stress in my comments is my strong belief that modern "evidence" concerning "the death penalty's application" actually suggests that this punishment is being imposed much more reliably and much less arbitrarily since President William J. Clinton left office.

As this DPIC chart and data reveal, during the William J. Clinton years (from 1993 to 2001), the United States averaged over 280 death sentences annually nationwide.  Over the course of the next eight years (the George W. Bush years), the annual number of death sentences imposed throughout the United States declined by about 50% down to around 140 death sentences per year.  And, over the last eight years (the Barack H. Obama years), we have seen yet another 50% reduction in annual death sentences imposed as we approach a BHO-term average of around 70 death sentences per year.  The year 2015 hit a remarkable historic low of only 49 total death sentences imposed nationwide, and I believe 2016 is going to see a similar or even smaller number of total death sentence once the year's accounting gets completed.

For a bunch of reasons I hope to explain at this symposium, Justice Breyer's sincere concerns about death sentences being often imposed arbitrarily and unreliably seem to me to have been especially trenchant when he was first appointed to SCOTUS.  At that time, states throughout our nation were imposing, on average, five or six death sentences every week.  Fast forward more than two decades, and the evidence of death sentencing reveals that, circa 2016, states throughout the nation are now imposing less than a single death sentence every week.  I strongly believe our death sentencing systems have become much, much more reliable and much less arbitrary as we have gotten much, much more careful about how gets subject to capital prosecution and about who ultimately gets sent to death row.

October 31, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mizzou State Representative wants to consider showing repeat sex offenders to execution chamber

As reported in this local article, headlined "State Rep. wants death penalty as option for repeat sex offenders," a local elected official has a notable idea for punishing certain sex offenders. Here are the details:

It’s the one issue in Jefferson City that State Representative Randy Pietzman says nobody likes to talk about. “This is not a popular topic to talk about if you’re just trying to get re-elected,” he said.  But that’s not going to stop him from tackling it head on because he says it concerns the safety of every Missouri child. “We need to change something. We need to do something to curb this problem,” he said.

And it’s especially relevant for Lincoln County, where the Republican is running unopposed for his second term this November. The rural county, about an hour to the northwest of St. Louis, has a disproportionately high number of sex offenders and sex crimes against children. “If you compare us with other counties in the surrounding area, per capita, we have substantially more sex offenders,” said Detective Sean Flynn with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. “There’s something attracting them here,” Pietzman said.

But whatever the reason for the unwanted popularity, it’s having an impact on multiple levels. “It seems these crimes are impacting people across the socioeconomic spectrum,” Flynn said.... “It’s impacted the department in a way that my time is monopolized by this. Really, we’re at the point where we need more people to investigate,” Flynn said.

And some in law enforcement go a step further to say the situation might be beyond repair. Captain Michael Merkel with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said, “I don’t think stopping it is an option. I think slowing it down is something we could do.”  One way of going about that, he said, is to strengthen the penalties statewide for what’s considered to be some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. “It’s not acceptable that somebody can pass a bad check and be punished more harshly than someone who has victimized a child,” Merkel said.

Capt. Merkel also suggests improving their ability to investigate child sex crimes. Right now, detectives in Missouri can only interview juvenile victims if their parents give permission.  And the problem?  “What we run into is we have a parent or family member who’s a suspect.  And they’re the only ones who can authorize the interview,” Merkel explained.

It’s a loophole in state law that Rep. Pietzman said could help his county, and the state, if it was closed. “We’re talking about our kids. If the punishment doesn’t match the crime, then it’s going to keep continuing,” he said.

That’s why, following our initial report, Pietzman is working on a number of reforms, including one that would make the death penalty a possible punishment for repeat offenders. “That seems cruel when you think about it," he said, "but you got to think about what these guys have done. We’re talking about grown men having sex with kids as young as 3- or 4-years-old.”

There are several cases and states that have pushed for similar measures, but capital punishment in America right now is almost exclusively reserved for the crime of murder. Pietzman said at the very least, he hopes to start a conversation in the legislature that some in law enforcement say is long overdue.

I am eager to help State Representative Randy Pietzman start this conversation about making repeat sex offenders eligible for the death penalty. The first critical point in such a conversation, however, has to be about the Supreme Court's Kennedy ruling which seemingly declared the death penalty unconstitutional for any and all crimes of rape. An argument might be developed that the Kennedy ruling applied formally addressed a first-offense child rapist, and so perhaps a capital statute focused on only the worst of the worst repeat child rapists could be legally viable (and, of course, because Eighth Amendment doctrines evolve perhaps Eighth Amendment precedents have less stare decisis force).

Also important to consider here is the concern expressed by Capt. Merkel about challenges he faces investigating child sex crimes. I suspect and fear that making some sex offenders eligible for the death penalty could actually end up aggravating rather than mitigating this problem as family members fearing a capital prosecution may be uniquely unwilling to cooperate with authorities.

October 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Defense attorneys assert Ohio's new execution protocol is akin to "burning at the stake"

As reported in this local AP article, capital defense attorneys in Ohio are not so impressed with the state's recently announced new execution protocol. The piece is headlined "Lawyers: Ohio Execution Plan Like Burning Inmates at Stake," and here are excerpts:

Ohio's new lethal injection system is akin to burning inmates at the stake or burying them alive, say federal defense lawyers rushing to stop the state's first execution in three years.

Ohio's three-drug method, announced Oct. 3, is worse than a similar procedure used years ago, and multiple problems remain with the way the state prepares and carries out executions, federal public defenders said in a Wednesday court filing.

The filing attacks the first drug in that process — midazolam, meant to sedate inmates — as unlikely to relieve an inmate's pain. The drug was used in problematic executions in Arizona and Ohio in 2014. But the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the use of midazolam in executions in a case out of Oklahoma.

According to the filing, because midazolam is not a barbiturate and cannot relieve pain, inmates are likely to experience "severe physical pain," mental suffering and anguish, As a result, "such an execution would be inhuman and barbarous, akin in its level of pain and suffering to being buried alive, burning at the stake, and other primitive methods long since abandoned by civilized society," the filing said.

Executions have been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when death row inmate Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted during the 26 minutes it took him to die. It was the longest execution since Ohio resumed putting inmates to death in 1999. The state used a 2-drug method with McGuire, beginning with midazolam, but then discontinued it. Afterward, Ohio struggled for years to find new supplies of drugs, which have been placed off limits for executions by drug makers. Now the prisons agency says it will use midazolam; rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

On Jan. 12, Ohio is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. The state also plans to carry out executions on Feb. 15 and March 15. But the federal defense lawyers say the new procedures are unconstitutional and executions in Ohio should be put on hold. The state will respond with its own filing, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Prior related post:

October 27, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (7)

Looking into nuanced reality of death penalty perspectives in deep blue California

The always interesting Charles Lane has this interesting new Washington Post opinion piece headlined ""Most Americans don’t like the death penalty, right? Wrong." Here are excerpts:

You’d think Proposition 62, a referendum to abolish California’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole, including for the 749 current occupants of death row, would win easily on Nov. 8.  Democrats dominate this state; their 2016 national platform advocated an end to capital punishment. Former president Jimmy Carter, left-populist icon Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the state’s major labor unions and 38 newspaper editorial boards are urging a “yes” vote.

California’s death row costs millions to maintain but the state has only executed 13 people since restoring capital punishment in 1978, mainly due to lengthy appeals processes, including recent successful challenges to its lethal-injection protocol. “Replace the Costly, Failed Death Penalty,” read the yellow-and-black “Yes on 62” sign I saw planted in a well-kept Brentwood yard.

And yet, 12 days before Election Day, Prop 62’s prospects are uncertain.  Of five statewide polls since Sept. 1, only one, a Field Poll, showed Prop 62 ahead, 48 percent to 37 percent.  Measures that poll below 50 percent tend not to win, even if they are leading, according to Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.  Meanwhile, four other polls showed “no” up by an average of 50 to 37.  Survey USA, which has polled on Prop 62 twice, predicts flatly that it is “headed for defeat” — just like a similar anti-death-penalty measure that lost 52 to 48 in the state in 2012.

Prop 62 faces various local political headwinds — including competition for financial resources, and public attention, from more than a dozen other ballot measures, such as marijuana legalization and Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet project, parole reform.  Given Prop 62’s potential impact — in one stroke, it would reduce America’s total death-row population of 2,905 by 26 percent — the debate about it is remarkably low-profile. There are next to no ads on TV; the Brentwood yard sign was the only one I saw in three days on the West Coast.

The main lesson, though, has to do with public opinion about the death penalty, which is much more nuanced than media coverage generally reflects....

Long-term Gallup trends suggest that the very high support for the death penalty of the mid-1990s — up to 80 percent one year — was an anomaly, probably a reaction to the soaring violent crime rates of the time.  Now that crime has fallen, Gallup’s pro-death-penalty majority is reverting to historical norms; it may go lower still, unless this year’s spike in violent crime turns into a wave.  

Another new Gallup survey intriguingly shows decreasing punitive sentiment: 45 percent say the justice system is “not tough enough” on crime, down 20 points since 2003.  Meanwhile, 50 percent believe the death penalty is applied “fairly,” and 67 percent say it is imposed either “the right amount” or “not often enough.”

Gallup asks about capital punishment for “murder.” In 2013 and 2015 Quinnipiac interestingly asked whether “murder during acts of terrorism” should be punished by life without parole or death. Both times, about three-fifths said “death” — remarkably high, given that offering life without parole as an alternative usually reduces the number of poll respondents opting for capital punishment.

A rough summary of most Americans’ views of the death penalty might be: “Yes, though it depends.” It depends on what’s going on in society. It depends on the specific crime. It depends on whether you’re asking me in the abstract, as a juror or as a voter.

The very fact the Prop 62 campaign focused on what spokesman Jacob Hay calls a “cost-effectiveness message” implies that categorical moral opposition cannot command a majority, even in a deep-blue state. And two can play at the cost-effectiveness game. California’s pro-death-penalty forces, led by prosecutors and police unions, are promoting Proposition 66, which would deal with the system’s notorious backlog not by abolishing executions but by facilitating them, through streamlining the appeals process.

Both conflicting measures might lose, essentially perpetuating the status quo; California would continue having whatever satisfaction comes with sentencing people to death, without whatever risks come from actually executing them. Also, both might get a majority — Californians could vote yes and no on the death penalty — in which case the one with the most votes becomes law, and the nation’s largest death row would start shrinking, one way or the other.

UDPATE: This new Los Angeles Times opinion piece strikes similar notes under the headline "Despite optimism by abolitionists, the death penalty isn't on the ropes – yet." - ‎9 hours ago‎

October 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is the death penalty in the United States really "nearing Its end"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times editorial headlined "The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End."  Here is the full text of the editorial:

Although the death penalty is still considered constitutional by the Supreme Court, Americans’ appetite for this barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year.  The signs of capital punishment’s impending demise are all around.

For the first time in nearly half a century, less than half of Americans said they support the death penalty, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.  While that proportion has been going down for years, the loss of majority support is an important marker against state-sanctioned killing.

At the same time, executions and new death sentences are at historic lows, and each year they go lower. In 2015 only 49 new death sentences were handed down, the lowest one-year total since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Since there were about 14,000 murders around the country last year, it’s easy to imagine that the small number of newly condemned people shows that the justice system is focusing on the “worst of the worst.”  But that’s wrong. In fact the crimes of the people sentenced to death are no worse than those of many others who escape that fate. Rather, nearly all of last year’s death sentences came from a tiny fraction of counties with three common features: overzealous prosecutors; inadequate public defenders; and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. This was the key finding of a two-part report recently issued by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.

Even in the most death-friendly counties, public support appears to be fading. In two of the worst — Duval County in Florida and Caddo Parish in Louisiana — local prosecutors lost elections at least partly due to voters’ concerns about their stance on the death penalty. In other counties around the country, prosecutors are finding that aggressive advocacy for death sentences isn’t the selling point with the public that it once was.

In some of the biggest states, death-penalty systems are defunct or collapsing. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a terrible state law that allowed nonunanimous juries to impose death sentences — increasing the likelihood that innocent people and those with intellectual or mental disabilities would be condemned.  A large number of Florida’s 386 death-row inmates could now receive new sentencing trials, or have their sentences thrown out altogether.

In California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 even though more than 740 inmates sit on death row, voters will decide in November whether to eliminate capital punishment for good. A similar ballot initiative in 2012 was narrowly defeated. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state’s decades-long delays in capital cases violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The decision was overturned by an appeals court on technical grounds the following year.)

While capital punishment is used rarely and only in some places, only a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court will ensure its total elimination. How close is the court to such a ruling? In recent dissenting opinions, three of the justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor — have expressed deep misgivings about the death penalty’s repeated failure to meet the requirements of due process and equal protection. Justice Breyer has said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” and has called for the court to consider whether it is constitutional at all.

The death penalty has escaped abolition before, but there are no longer any excuses: The nation has evolved past it, and it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion.

I wonder if anyone who is a strong supporter of capital punishment will write (and get published) a response to this editorial which might be headlined something like "The Death Penalty, Poised for a Big Comeback."  That response might highlight that, according to polls in deep blue California, voters there are seemingly going to provide "majority support" for making more efficient in California "state-sanctioned killing."  That response might highlight that, in swing state Ohio, executive officials have been working extra hard to get the state's machinery of death operative again and have execution dates scheduled for nearly two dozen condemned murderers in 2017 and 2018.  That response might highlight that, in swing state Florida, the state legislature has been quick and eager to retain and revise its death penalty statutes every time a court has found constitutional problems with its application.  That response might highlight that, in deep blue Massachusetts, a federal jury in 2015 wasted little time in deciding that “worst of the worst” capital defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be condemned to die for his crime.  And that response might highlight that, in the most liberal national criminal justice administration of my lifetime, federal prosecutors of the Obama Administration were seemingly eager to pursue capital charges against the Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof.

I could go on and on (mentioning, inter alia, developments in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and elsewhere), but my main point here is highlight the critical reality that the description of "death-penalty systems [as] defunct or collapsing" is largely a product of effective litigation by abolitionists and the work of courts, not really a reflection of a sea-change in public opinion or radical changes in the work of most legislatures and prosecutors in key regions of the United States.  The NYTimes editorial board my be right that we may soon see litigation by abolitionists achieve the ultimate success in the courts by having the Justices of the Supreme Court declare the death penalty per se unconstitutional.  But, absent some surprising political and social developments over the next few years, would-be abolitionists ought to be careful about counting chickens too soon.

October 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Anyone eager to predict the exact results of Nebraska Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum"?

Images (15)Practically and politically, the most important vote this fall concerning the present and future of the death penalty will be taking place in California where voters will weigh in on competing initiatives offering to end or to mend capital punishment in the state.  But as highlighted effectively by this recent Marshall Project article, there are notable death penalty ballot questions before voters in two other states.  This article, headlined "Three States to Watch if You Care About the Death Penalty: Nebraska, Oklahoma, and California will test the prospects of abolition," provides an astute review of all the measures and it ends this way:

Pew’s national poll numbers aside, the death penalty for years now has been a regional punishment, not a national one, largely confined to the South and West, where skirmishes over its application will continue to play out the way we see it this election.  A mixed verdict on the four measures won’t change the national narrative reflected in the latest polls. But if the death penalty is restored in Nebraska, protected in Oklahoma, and expedited in California, we’ll know there are clear popular limits to the abolitionist movement.  And if voters choose to keep the death penalty dead in Nebraska, kill it in California and leave it be in Oklahoma, the latest poll numbers will look more like a trend. Either way, these local battles, and not some grand pronouncement from the Supreme Court in Washington, are how the future of capital punishment will be decided.

There has been a good bit of (not-so-clear) recent polling on the death penalty issues in California, and Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequence unpacks the latest polling in this new post speculating that the "mend-the-death-penalty" initiative might win in a landslide.  Meanwhile, I cannot find any recent polling from Nebraska on its Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum."  That reality has prompted the question in the title of this post, along with this notable new local article from the Cornhusker state headlined "Catholic Church intensifies effort to abolish Nebraska’s death penalty."

I am inclined to predict that Nebraska voters will end up reversing the repeal of the death penalty in the state.  This prediction is based not only on Nebraska's status as a solid "red state," but also on the reality that pro-capital-punishment forces in the state have significant resources and a high-profile leader thanks to Gov. Pete Ricketts. (This recent article discusses some recent campaign funding realities under the headlined "Gov. Ricketts gives another $100,000 — for a total of $300,000 — to pro-death penalty group.")  

For a variety of symbolic and practical reasons, I think the exact voting percentages on Referendum 426 could be nearly as important as which side prevails.  If the vote end up reasonably  close either way (e.g., if the winning side gets less than 60% of the vote), I suspect the losing side can and will suggest that it could have prevailed with more resources and more time to educate voters.  But if one side wins big after this issue has been garnering attention in the state, I think the vote will be (perhaps rightly) viewed by national advocates as a very  clear indication of what folks in the heartland think about the present and future of capital punishment.

Helpfully, some media in Nebraska are do their part seeking to educate voters as revealed by these links to special coverage:

October 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Georgia completes its seventh execution of 2016, bringing national execution total for year to 17

While many traditionally active death penalty states, such as Ohio and Oklahoma, have had their machineries of death inoperative in 2016 because of problems with lethal injection drugs or protocols, Georgia has had a record-setting peach of a year when it comes to carrying out executions.   This CBS/AP story reports on the latest Peach State execution and provides a little numerical and historical context for it:   

A man convicted of killing an Atlanta police officer and wounding a second officer with an AR-15 rifle was executed late Wednesday, becoming the seventh inmate put to death in Georgia this year. Gregory Paul Lawler, 63, was pronounced dead at 11:49 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson after he was injected with the barbiturate pentobarbital.  He was convicted of murder in the October 1997 slaying of Officer John Sowa and of critically wounding Officer Patricia Cocciolone.

The Georgia Supreme Court said in a statement Wednesday it had unanimously denied defense requests to halt the execution, originally set for 7 p.m.  Defense attorneys later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also declined to stop the execution late Wednesday night.

Lawler didn’t make a final statement and refused an offer of a prayer.  Then he lay on the gurney with his eyes closed as the lethal drug flowed, taking several deep breaths and yawning before becoming still.  Cocciolone arrived in a wheelchair and sat in the front row of the witness area, as did Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office prosecuted Lawler.

The seven executions in Georgia this year are the most in a calendar year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated nationwide in 1976.  Georgia executed five inmates last year and five in 1987.

Georgia is one of five states that have carried out executions this year for a total of 17 nationwide.  Texas has executed seven inmates, while Alabama, Florida and Missouri have executed one apiece.

October 20, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is Florida really going to conduct full post-Hurst resentencings for hundreds of condemned murderers?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Death penalty ruling could mean new sentencing for 386 murderers in Florida."  Here are excerpts:

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision last week to require unanimous jury votes for executions has thrown the state’s death penalty into disarray. In a Friday ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, the justices eliminated part of Florida’s death sentencing laws, but lawyers and legislators disagree about what comes next.

Some say that it could lead to sentences being thrown out for nearly 400 convicted murderers awaiting execution at Florida State Prison, and that it may cripple the state’s death penalty long term. Others say the only thing that has changed is that a jury must now vote unanimously in favor of the death penalty. What’s clear is this: Even with the case decided, Florida’s legal fights over capital punishment are far from over.

Death-row defense lawyers say the Hurst decision leaves Florida without a functioning death penalty until the state Legislature can convene and rewrite the law. “This is so big,” said Martin McClain, a Broward County lawyer who represents death-row inmates appealing their sentences. “I don’t know of a way to overstate the significance.”

But legislative leaders say that such action won’t be necessary. “With Friday’s ruling, imposing the death sentence will require a unanimous verdict with or without legislative action,” said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “In the past, the Senate has been supportive of the unanimous verdict requirement.”

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys, agrees that no legislative action is necessary. “The death penalty is certainly still legal in Florida,” he said. “The procedure is what the Supreme Court reacted to.”

The court’s ruling has raised other questions about how the state should handle the 386 inmates on death row under old sentencing rules that have since been thrown out. The Supreme Court has not indicated which inmates could be eligible to have their sentences changed. Even the most experienced death-row defense lawyers don’t know what to expect. McClain said he thinks the court will issue a ruling about which cases are going to be treated like that. “Until we have that sort of broad picture,” McClain said, “we’re kind of stuck waiting.”

Some death-row inmates — including Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of killing a co-worker in Pensacola in 1998 — will have new sentencing hearings. The court will bring in a new jury to hear evidence and decide whether Hurst should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. But not all death penalty cases are the same. So it’s possible the court could decide that certain kinds of cases are eligible for a re-sentencing and others are not.

For example, the court could throw out sentences from time periods when the death penalty laws were overturned as unconstitutional, or they could only allow a new jury for death-row inmates who raised certain complaints in their appeals. But Maria DeLiberato, a defense lawyer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, warns that could be seen as an “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement of the law and raise new allegations that Florida’s death sentences flout the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

She’s hopeful that the court would allow all inmates a new sentencing hearing, not just some of them. The state attorneys worry about the high costs of a small wave of re-sentencing hearings, let alone 386 cases. “We do not have the manpower to do that,” said Jacobs. “We’d have to get assistance to do that from the Legislature.”

October 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Oregon Gov pledges to continue moratoriaum on executions if elected to a new term

As reported in this local article from Oregon, headlined "Brown to maintain death penalty moratorium," the chief executive in the Beaver State is promising not to execute those laws calling for excutions of condemned murderers. Here are the details:

The governor plans to continue a state moratorium on capital punishment that would extend through her upcoming term if elected, a spokesman said Monday morning. "Gov. Kate Brown has made clear her personal opposition to the death penalty and her support of the current moratorium on Oregon executions," spokesman Bryan Hockaday told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Former Gov. John Kitzaber announced the moratorium two weeks before the scheduled 2011 execution of Gary Haugen, who then sought to speed his execution after waiving all appeals.  After Brown took over the state's top office in February 2015, she said she would continue the stoppage of public executions until further study.

"Gov. Brown directed her General Counsel to conduct a review of the policy and practical implications of Oregon's capital punishment law," Hockaday said. "Though no executions are imminent, Gov. Brown will continue the death penalty moratorium, because after thoroughly researching the issues, serious concerns remain about the constitutionality and workability of Oregon's capital punishment law." Hockaday declined to immediately release, pending a records request, any study or records related to how the governor made her decision.

Reasons for her decision include the "uncertainty of Oregon's ability to acquire the necessary execution drugs required by statute," Hockaday said by email. "Looking nationally, America is on the verge of a sea change both by legislation and, more profoundly, through court decisions. The past few years have already seen a major shift in the landscape on capital punishment law, and Gov. Brown expects more changes are on the horizon."

Oregon voters approved the death penalty in 1984, and the state and U.S. Supreme Courts have repeatedly upheld its legality. Oregon's death row has 34 prisoners, all of whom stay in their cells 23 hours a day. In the past five decades, the state executed two men -- both in the 1990s. Those men had essentially volunteered for the death penalty after waiving their rights to appeal before their deaths.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, an outspoken supporter of the death penalty in Oregon, a month ago met with Brown counsel Ben Souede about the issue. After hearing the news Monday, Marquis said he was seething. "If she really believes the death penalty is so wrong, then she should have the guts to commute all those sentences," Marquis said.

If she were to take that extraordinary step, Marquis said about six or seven prisoners on death row could be released to the public within a year because they would qualify for an immediate parole hearing. He said those prisoners were sentenced after voters approved the death penalty and before the state adopted life sentences without parole in the early 1990s.

No executions may be imminent, Marquis argued, but at least three cases are pending in Oregon where defendants face aggravated murder charges, which bring a death penalty sentencing option if convicted. Brown's announcement could make it easier for defense attorneys to persuade jurors not to impose the death penalty, he said.

October 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Highlighting how death is different when it comes to SCOTUS dissents from denial of certiorari

Adam Feldman has this notable new post at the Empirical SCOTUS blog titled "Dissents from Denial of Cert (2010-2015)." The whole post is an interesting read for SCOTUS aficionados, but these concluding passages struck me as especially noteworthy (though not all that unsurprising) for sentencing fans:

Justices Thomas and Sotomayor are also the only Justices that have at least one dissent from denial for each Term in this set. Additionally, Justices Thomas, Alito, and Breyer all have clear upswings in their charts.  Is this due to frustration with the rest of the Justices’ choice of case selection? Is it to put certain cert denials in the spotlight?

Some additional clarity is shed by examining the issues at the heart of the denied petitions. Five of Justice Breyer’s six authored dissents from denial for this period and all four from 2015 came in death penalty cases.  A majority of Justice Sotomayor’s dissents come from death penalty cases as well and all stemmed from criminal matters.  As the Court dealt with several capital cases in 2015 and has several more on the 2016, perhaps these Justices that routinely vote against the death penalty seek greater reform on this issue, are attempting to spotlight specific cases they feel were unjustly decided by the lower courts, or are conveying alternative ways for lawyers to frame these such issues in their arguments.

Justices Alito and Thomas’ dissents are from cases composed of a more varied set of issues ranging from First Amendment and discrimination concerns to criminal matters in the form of habeas corpus relief.  Absent from their dissents are any capital cases. While it is difficult to read too much into this lack of a clear pattern, these Justices’ general trends towards more such dissents is notable.  The next Justice confirmed to the Court and the effect that this Justice has on the Court’s choice of cases will inevitably have a deep and prolonged impact on this form of behavior from all Justices, as the new ninth Justice will have a large say in what cases the Court hears as well as in the Court’s merits decisions.

October 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Interesting lengthy dissent from SCOTUS cert denial from Justice Sotomayor joined (only) by Justice Ginsburg

There is a bit of interesting news with today's otherwise dull SCOTUS order list in the form of a lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari penned by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justice Ginsburg.  The dissent in Elmore v. Holbrook is available here, and it gets started and ends this way:

Petitioner Clark Elmore was convicted of murder in 1995 and was sentenced to death.  His court-appointed lawyer, who had never tried a capital case before, knew that Elmore had been exposed to toxins as a young adult and that he had a history of impulsive behavior.  A more experienced attorney encouraged Elmore’s lawyer to investigate whether Elmore had suffered brain damage as a young man. Instead of doing so — indeed, instead of conducting any meaningful investigation into Elmore’s life — Elmore’s lawyer chose to present a one-hour penalty-phase argument to the jury about the remorse that Elmore felt for his crime.  As a result, the jury did not hear that Elmore had spent his childhood playing in pesticide-contaminated fields and had spent his service in the Vietnam War repairing Agent Orange pumps.  The jury did not hear the testimony of experts who concluded that Elmore was cognitively impaired and unable to control his impulses. The jury heard only from an assortment of local judges that Elmore had looked “dejected” as he pleaded guilty to murder, not from the many independent witnesses who had observed Elmore’s searing remorse.

The Constitution demands more.  The penalty phase of a capital trial is “a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death.” Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, 304 (1976).  It ensures that a capital sentencing is “humane and sensible to the uniqueness of the individual.”  Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110 (1982). Elmore’s penalty phase fell well below the bare minimum guaranteed by the Constitution.  His lawyer acted deficiently in choosing a mitigation strategy without fully exploring the alternatives and in failing to investigate the mitigation strategy that he did choose to present. And had the jury known that Elmore — who had never before been convicted of a crime of violence and felt searing remorse for the heinous act he committed — might be brain damaged, it might have sentenced him to life rather than death.

This Court has not hesitated to summarily reverse incapital cases tainted by egregious constitutional error, particularly where an attorney has rendered constitutionally deficient performance. See, e.g., Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U.S. ___ (2014) (per curiam); Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945 (2010) (per curiam); Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30 (2009) (per curiam). This case plainly meets that standard. For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari....

All crimes for which defendants are sentenced to death are horrific. See Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 14); id., at ___ (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 6–10).  But not all defendants who commit horrific crimes are sentenced to death.  Some are spared by juries.  The Constitution guarantees that possibility: It requires that a sentencing jury be able to fully and fairly evaluate “the characteristics of the person who committed the crime.” Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).  That guarantee is a bedrock premise on which our system of capital punishment depends, and it is a guarantee that must be honored — especially for defendants like Elmore, whose lives are marked by extensive mitigating circumstances that might convince a jury to choose life over death.  Only upon hearing such facts can a jury fairly make the weighty — and final — decision whether such a person is entitled to mercy.  I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

UPDATE: In the comments, Cal. Prosecutor highlights this notable new post by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences to provide more context for understanding this lengthy dissent from a SCOTUS cert denial.  Here is how that post gets started and ends:

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review the case of Washington State murderer Clark Elmore.  Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented in an opinion castigating the defense lawyer at trial.  If the lawyer was so bad, one might ask, why did the Washington Supreme Court deny relief?  That court has certainly had no difficulty ruling in favor of murderers in past capital cases.  It is one of the country's more criminal-friendly forums.  If the lawyer was so bad, why did six of the eight Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court decline to join Justice Sotomayor's vigorous dissent?

There is, of course, more to the story.  After the break, I have copied an extensive portion of the Brief in Opposition written by Senior Counsel John Samson for the Washington AG's office....

Defending people who have committed horrible crimes is not easy.  Frequently tough choices must be made.  If the defendant is sentenced to death, as people who commit horrible crimes frequently are and should be, the capital appeal defense cult stands ready to say that the trial lawyer was incompetent for taking the path that he did at each fork in the road, regardless of which one he took.

October 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

New Equal Justice Initiative animated video explores explores America’s lynching history

Via email I received recently a promotion of a notable new video produced by the Equal Justice Initiative titled "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror."  Here is a description of the video and embedded below is five minutes of fascinating content and animation thanks to EJI:

The video portrays the violent aftermath of the Civil War, when racial terror and lynching were used to create racial hierarchy, disenfranchisement, and oppression against African Americans despite emancipation.

Narrated by widely acclaimed public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the five-minute video illustrates the widespread violence and racial terror created by lynching and mass atrocities perpetrated against African Americans, frequently with support from government officials. The threat of lynching forced millions of black people to flee the American South to the urban North and West as refugees from violent racism during the first half of the 20th century.

EJI has documented over 4000 racial terror lynchings of black men, women, and children, who were hanged, burned alive,shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Until EJI announced its plans earlier this year to build a national memorial commemorating the thousands of African American lynching victims during this era, very little public recognition of this period of racial terror was in evidence despite the presence of thousands of Confederate plaques, statues, and monuments across the American South.

“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule oflaw and to equal justice,” Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of EJI, said. “We all must engage this history more honestly.” Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror is part of EJI’s Race and Poverty project, which explores racial history and uses innovative teaching tools to deepen our understanding of the legacy of racial injustice. By telling the truth about our past, EJI believes we can create a different, healthier discourse that will lead to different choices and practicesthat can address America’s history of racial inequality.

October 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 14, 2016

In twin post-Hurst rulings, the Florida Supreme Court concludes capital sentencing requires jury unanimity

I was not planning to blog anymore today as I continued participating in this terrific symposium. But big death penalty rulings by the Florida Supreme Court changed my plans. This local report, headlined "Florida Supreme Court rules death penalty juries must be unanimous," provides the basics:

"We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida's capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty," the court wrote in a 5-2 ruling, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting.

Their ruling comes just months after the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional because juries played only an advisory role in recommending life or death. The court said in that case, known as Hurst vs. Florida, Florida's system was a violation of a defendant's right to a jury trial.

Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, requiring a 10-2 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The new law also requires juries to unanimously determine "the existence of at least one aggravating factor" before defendants can be eligible for death sentences.

In a separate ruling in the case of Perry vs. Florida, also issued Friday, the Florida Supreme Court found the new statute cannot apply to cases still pending in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. That leaves the state legislature with the task of having to again rewrite the statute to comply with the court's ruling. It is unclear how soon that might happen or whether prosecutors could then continue to seek the death penalty in pending cases....

The court's opinions did not address the issue of whether their findings would apply retroactively. Florida has 385 inmates on death row. It was not clear how many prisoners will be entitled to new sentencing hearings. The retroactivity issue will likely be decided by two other cases — Lambrix vs. Florida and Asay vs. Florida — still pending before the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has said that as many as 43 death row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings as a result of the Hurst decision. Those 43 inmates are those who are entitled to automatic post-Hurst reviews of their cases under the state Constitution. Of those cases currently before the court, Bondi's office argued, death sentences should be carried out.

Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida, which intervened in the case, said he was not surprised by the court's decision: "This is what we have been warning the Legislature about for years. The Legislature can complain all they want about the court's running the government, but when the Legislature ignores the warnings from the court, they should not be surprised by this ruling."

He said that it is not clear if every inmate on death row will be entitled to a new sentencing trial. "Now I think it's a moral issue,'' he said. "If someone was sentenced to death by less than an unanimous it is unconscionable to put them to death now without a unanimous verdict."

I fear I will not get a chance to read these opinions in full until well into the weekend, but here are links to the full opinions. I would be grateful to hear from readers about what they consider especially important aspects of these rulings:

Hurst vs. Florida, No. SC12-1974 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

Perry vs. Florida, No. SC16-547 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

October 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Remembering notable pre-modern moment of great concern over California capital case

Caryl_Chessman_Time_magazineThis local article from California discussing a new play, headlined "'Chessman' explores crucial moment for Brown family, California death penalty," spotlights a California capital case more than a half-century ago that generated widespread attention. Here are excerpts from the article:

Buck Busfield is pondering the finer points of one of the most important phone calls in California political history. It was Feb. 18, 1960, the eve of the long-delayed execution of Caryl Chessman. A 21-year-old Jerry Brown, recently departed from the seminary and now a student at UC Berkeley, called his father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, asking him to grant a reprieve for the condemned inmate.

Across the world, millions awaited the fate of a man they had taken up as the poster boy for ending the death penalty. The freighted decision tore at Pat Brown, whose Catholic faith taught him that execution was immoral.

At the moment, however, Busfield is more concerned about the type of telephone Jerry would have used. During a recent rehearsal for “Chessman,” a new play about the case debuting this week at the B Street Theatre, director Busfield asked his stage manager whether they could hang a phone on the wall for the pivotal scene....

“Chessman” [is] a side project of political consultant Joe Rodota. The production attempts to capture the international, O.J. Simpson-like frenzy and divisiveness that surrounded Chessman for more than a decade, while also asking the audience to look beyond its cast of iconic California figures to a family split by a deeply personal, ethical dilemma.

It also strives to keep a neutral distance and a historical sheen on one of California’s most inflammatory political issues, just as voters are weighing two November ballot measures on capital punishment: one to abolish it and one to expedite the process. “This is not a documentary for or against the death penalty,” Rodota said....

Caryl Chessman was 27 and already a convicted felon when he was found guilty in 1948 of a series of robberies and rapes around Los Angeles. The “Red Light Bandit,” as the perpetrator was dubbed, had visited lovers’ lanes pretending to be a policeman and mugged couples in their cars.

On several occasions, Chessman took the young women back to his vehicle and sexually assaulted them. Under California’s since-discarded “Little Lindbergh Law,” named for the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, Chessman was sentenced to death for kidnapping with bodily harm, though he had killed no one.

Chessman maintained his innocence and continued to fight his conviction. By 1954, he had been on death row for six years, longer than anyone in California history until that point. The unusual delay for his execution was gaining notice, and it would soon explode into sensation with the publication that year of his first memoir, written secretly and smuggled out of prison.

Translated into more than a dozen languages and adapted into a movie, “Cell 2455, Death Row: A Condemned Man’s Own Story” captured the public’s imagination with its searing and brutal dispatch from inside San Quentin State Prison....

The controversy also came at a relative highwater mark for opposition to the death penalty, when Americans were about evenly split on the issue. This allowed Pat Brown to openly grapple over Chessman’s fate without committing “automatic political suicide,” the biographer Rarick noted at a recent panel on the case.

Because Chessman had prior felonies, Pat Brown could not commute his sentence without the approval of the California Supreme Court, which voted 4-3 to uphold the conviction. Chessman was going to die.

But the night before the execution was scheduled to proceed, Jerry Brown called his father urging him to grant a 60-day reprieve and pursue a moratorium on the death penalty in the Legislature. As Pat recounted in “Public Justice, Private Mercy,” he believed there was not “one chance in a thousand” that lawmakers would act. “Then Jerry said, “But Dad, if you were a doctor and there was one chance in a thousand of saving a patient’s life, wouldn’t you take it?’

“I thought about that for a moment. You’re right, I finally said. I’ll do it.” For his decision, Pat Brown received a slew of negative responses – and a 16-page letter from a “surprised and grateful” Chessman.

With his usual aplomb about the social significance of his case – “the burning hope that my execution would lead to an objective reappraisal of the social validity or invalidity of capital punishment” – Chessman suggested that Brown put forth a proposal excluding him from the mercy granted to others, if it would persuade the Legislature to end the death penalty. “I do not overstate when I say I gladly would die ten thousand gas chamber deaths if that would bring these truths into hearts and minds of those who make our laws,” he wrote.

Lawmakers, however, had little interest in taking such a decisive step, particularly in an election year. Brown’s bill to abolish the death penalty was quickly swatted down in the Senate Judiciary Committee after a lengthy and highly publicized committee hearing.

Chessman was eventually gassed to death on May 2, 1960, his ninth scheduled execution date. The story appeared on the front page of newspapers from Italy to Brazil. Pat Brown ultimately believed he suffered greatly for his choice, blaming it in part for his loss to Ronald Reagan while running for a third term in 1966.

October 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fair Punishment Project releases second part of report on small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty

In this post earlier this year, I noted the significant new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   And in this post a couple of months ago, I highlighted the new big project and first part of a report from the the FPP providing an in-depth look at how the death penalty is operating in the handful of counties still actively using it.  The second part of this report has now been released under the title "Too Broken to Fix, Part II: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties," and it is available at this link. Here is its introduction:  

As we noted in Part I of this report, the death penalty in America is dying.

In 2015, juries only returned 49 death sentences — the fewest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  Of the 31 states that legally retain the death penalty, only 14 — or less than half — imposed a single death sentence in 2015.  When we look at the county level, the large-scale abandonment of the death penalty in the country becomes even more apparent.  Of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States, only 33 counties — or one percent — imposed a death sentence in 2015. Just 16 — or one half of one percent — imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.  Among these outliers, six are in Alabama (Jefferson and Mobile) and Florida (Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, and Pinellas)—the only two states that currently permit non-unanimous death verdicts.  Of the remaining 10 counties, five are located the in highly-populated Southern California region (Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino). The others include Caddo Parish (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX), and Maricopa (AZ). As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his 2015 dissent in Glossip v. Gross, “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.”

In this two-part report, we have endeavored to figure out what makes these 16 counties different by examining how capital punishment operates on the ground in these outlier death-sentencing counties. In Part II, we highlight Dallas (TX), Jefferson (AL), San Bernardino (CA), Los Angeles (CA), Orange (CA), Miami-Dade (FL), Hillsborough (FL), and Pinellas (FL) counties.

Our review of these counties, like the places profiled in Part I, reveals that these counties frequently share at least three systemic deficiencies: a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. These structural failings regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities.

This is what capital punishment in America looks like today. While the vast majority of counties have abandoned the practice altogether, what remains is the culmination of one systemic deficiency layered atop another.  Those who receive death sentences do not represent the so-called “worst of the worst.”  Rather, they live in counties with overzealous and often reckless prosecutors, are frequently deprived access to competent and effective representation, and are affected by systemic racial bias.  These individuals are often young, and many have significant mental impairments. Some are likely innocent.  This pattern offers further proof that, whatever the death penalty has been in the past, today it is both cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Prior related posts:

October 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"The Challenges of 'Improving' the Modern Death Penalty"

I had the opportunity and honor of speaking at a Duke Law School symposium about the death penalty earlier this year, and the follow-up essay has now been published and can be accessed here via SSRN. The essay has the same title as the title of this post, and here is the SSRN abstract:

In his dissent in McCleskey v. Kemp, Justice William Brennan turned a famous phrase that has long resonated with criminal justice reformers. In upholding Georgia’s capital sentencing system, the majority expressed concern about Eighth Amendment claims based on statistics revealing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty, fearing that such claims “would open the door to widespread challenges to all aspects of criminal sentencing.” Justice Brennan lamented that “on its face, such a statement seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”

Disconcertingly, almost everyone seriously involved in debates over the modern administration of death penalty seemingly has a fear of too much capital justice. This essay seeks to explain this practical reality of modern death penalty advocacy in order to spotlight the problems it necessarily creates for any sustained efforts to improve the modern death penalty. By unpacking the fear of too much capital justice among capital punishment’s active supporters and ardent opponents, this essay seeks first to expose an enduring disconnect between lay interest and insider advocacy concerning death penalty reform, and second to explain my pessimistic concern that even moderate and modest efforts to improve the modern administration of capital punishment may, more often than not, constitute something of a fool’s errand.

After discussing these dynamics surrounding modern capital punishment advocacy and reform, this essay closes by admitting uncertainty concerning what enduring lessons should be drawn from my observations for the future of the death penalty in the United States. It may be tempting to conclude simply that it would be far wiser for existing death penalty jurisdictions to try to end, rather than just mend, their modern capital punishment systems. But in an effort to provide a silver lining to what may otherwise seem like a dark story, this essay concludes by noting some unique potential benefits for American criminal justice systems when capital jurisdictions try (and fail) to achieve “too much justice” in their death penalty systems.

October 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fascinating SCOTUS per curiam summary opinion stresses that Eighth Amendment still limits victim testimony in capital cases

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes a little and very interesting summary opinionin Bosse v. Oklahoma, No. 15-9173 (S. Ct. Oct. 11, 2016) (available here). The order rules in favor of Shaun Michael Bosse, who was convicted and sentence to death by a jury "of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Katrina Griffin and her two children." Here is the per curiam Bosse ruling account of the problem below and its consequences:

Over Bosse’s objection, the State asked three of the victims’ relatives torecommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended death, and the jury agreed. Bosse appealed, arguing that this testimony about the appropriate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment under Booth. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence, concluding that there was “no error.” 2015 OK CR 14, ¶¶ 57–58, 360 P. 3d 1203, 1226–1227. We grant certiorari and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and now vacate the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

“[I]t is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents.” United States v. Hatter, 532 U. S. 557, 567 (2001) (quoting State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997); internal quotation marks omitted); see Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/American Express, Inc., 490 U. S. 477, 484 (1989). The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has recognized that Payne “specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect” Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. Ledbetter, 933 P.2d at 890–891. That should have ended its inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; the court was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. “Our decisions remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Hohn v. United States, 524 U. S. 236, 252–253 (1998).

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remains bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence unless this Court reconsiders that ban.  The state court erred in concluding otherwise. 

The State argued in opposing certiorari that, even if the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals was wrong in its victim impact ruling, that error did not affect the jury’s sentencing determination, and the defendant’s rights were in any event protected by the mandatory sentencing review in capital cases required under Oklahoma law. See Brief in Opposition 14–15. Those contentions may be addressed on remand to the extent the court below deems appropriate.

Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) added this one paragraph concurring opinion:

We held in Booth v. Maryland, 482 U. S. 496 (1987), that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a court from admitting the opinions of the victim’s family members about the appropriate sentence in a capital case. The Court today correctly observes that our decision in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), did not expressly overrule this aspect of Booth.  Because “it is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents,” State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997), the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals erred in holding that Payne invalidated Booth in its entirety.  In vacating the decision below, this Court says nothing about whether Booth was correctly decided or whether Payne swept away its analytical foundations. I join the Court’s opinion with this understanding.

October 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Detailing how litigation over lethal injection methods has shut down Mississippi's machinery of death for now a half-decade

I had the great fortune of having the Assistant Chief Counsel for Ohio Governor John Kasich come speak to my OSU Moritz College of Law Sentencing Class about the decade-long litigation in Ohio over the state's various lethal injection protocols (which, as this post explains, is now poised to kick into yet another new phase).  With that class freshly in mind, I was intrigued to see this notable new local AP story headlined "Death penalty stalls in Mississippi."  Here are excerpts:

With sprawling litigation over Mississippi’s use of execution drugs now scheduled to stretch into 2017, the state could go five years without executing a death row inmate. That would be the longest gap between executions in Mississippi in 15 years.

Mississippi has executed 21 people, all men, since the death penalty resumed. That includes a 13-year gap between the 1989 execution of Leo Edwards and the 2002 execution of Tracy Edwards.  During that time, executions stalled out over concerns about adequate legal representation for the condemned.  That’s also when Mississippi switched it execution method from the gas chamber to lethal injection.  Multiyear gaps remained even after 2002, but the state picked up the pace, executing 11 people in a 25-month span ending in 2002.  Then, just as it became routine, the death penalty sputtered out.

That halt is in some ways a tribute to lawyer Jim Craig.  He’s tying state government in knots fighting Mississippi’s plan to use a new drug to render prisoners unconscious before injecting additional drugs to paralyze them and stop their hearts.   Craig, of the MacArthur Justice Center, says the litigation isn’t aimed at overturning the death penalty in Mississippi, only at seeking a better way of executing people.  But he’s doing a good job of keeping his clients alive.

On behalf of Richard Jordan, Ricky Chase and Charles Ray Crawford, Craig argues Mississippi can’t use midazolam as a sedative because it doesn’t meet state law’s specification for an “ultra-short-acting barbiturate” Until 2012, the state used pentobarbital. But drug makers have choked off supplies of the drug for executions.

Midazolam doesn’t render someone unconscious as quickly as a barbiturate. Craig argues midazolam leaves an inmate at risk of severe pain during execution, violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 upheld as constitutional Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, but Craig’s lawsuit is based in part on his claims about Mississippi state law. He’s also trying to reopen other issues surrounding midazolam.

One part of Craig’s legal offensive is a federal challenge to the drug’s use. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate had issued a preliminary injunction freezing executions, but executions didn’t resume when appeals judges lifted the freeze in July. Last month, Craig and lawyers for Attorney General Jim Hood extended that lawsuit into next year, setting a trial for May. Craig rates it unlikely that the state Supreme Court will green-light executions with that case unresolved. “They aren’t stayed automatically,” Craig said. “But I think the Mississippi Supreme Court will respect the federal process and thus will not set execution dates while the federal case is active.”

To aid that case, Craig is also fighting Missouri, Georgia and Texas in court, arguing they must say who’s still supplying them with pentobarbital, so he can argue Mississippi has alternatives to midazolam and could return to its old drug. Mississippi said it destroyed all its pentobarbital and can’t get more.

There are also three cases before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Crawford is challenging the state’s ability to execute him with a drug compounded from raw ingredients, how other states are likely getting pentobarbital. Meanwhile, Jordan and Gerald Loden are fighting use of midazolam based on the barbiturate requirement.

Hood says he’s working to resume executions, but acknowledges Craig’s efforts are gumming the works. “The Mississippi Supreme Court’s resolution of those pending petitions will determine when any executions will be re-set,” Hood said in a statement. “Any delay in the federal lawsuit has been the result of the Jordan plaintiffs’ strategic decisions.”

October 10, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Reviewing the nature and stakes for death penalty ballot initiatives in three states

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Repeal or Reform? Death Penalty Voter Decisions for 3 States," provides a useful rundown of the capital punishment issues coming before voters next month in three states. Here is how the article gets started:

California's dysfunctional death penalty faces a fate in November that seems fitting: voters can put it out of its misery, or fix it so it does what it promises. The state is among three where voters will make decisions on capital punishment. California's ballot initiatives — one would repeal capital punishment, the other would speed up appeals so convicted murderers are actually executed — are fueled by those who agree only that the current system is broken, leaving murder victims' kin grieving and the condemned languishing on death row.

Meanwhile, voters in Nebraska will be asked whether they want to reinstate the death penalty and Oklahoma residents will decide whether to make it harder to abolish it.

In California, more than 900 convicted murderers have been sent to death row since 1978 — but only 13 have been executed in the state. Many more have died of natural causes and no one has been put to death in more than a decade after a judge ordered an overhaul to the state's lethal injection procedure.

The votes for the three states come amid an evolution for capital punishment in the U.S. Executions have mostly been in decline since the turn of the century and last year reached their lowest level in 25 years, with 28 prisoners killed. Capital punishment has been either legislatively or judicially repealed in eight states since 2000, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

October 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Texas completes first US execution in nearly three months and only third since April

As noted in this post last month, titled "A not-so-deadly summer: only one US execution from Memorial Day to Labor Day," and as detailed on this DPIC executions page, there was almost a quasi-moratorium on executions throughout the United States this past summer as there was only one completed execution in the months of June, July and August.  But yesterday a mini-de-facto execution moratorium in the US ended thanks to, as reported here, Texas finally getting around to giving a lethal injection to a man who slaughtered his neighbors 13 years ago and then sought out his death sentence.  Here are the details:

An East Texas man who pleaded guilty to killing a neighbor couple during a shooting rampage 13 years ago and said he wanted to be put to death for the crime was executed Wednesday evening. Barney Fuller Jr., 58, had asked that all his appeals be dropped to expedite his death sentence.

Fuller never made eye contact in the death chamber with witnesses, who included the two children of the slain couple. Asked by Warden James Jones if he had any final statement, Fuller responded: “I don’t have anything to say. You can proceed on, Warden Jones.”

Fuller took a deep breath as Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials injected a lethal dose of pentobarbital into each arm, then blurted out: “Hey, you fixin’ to put me to sleep.” He took a couple of breaths, then began snoring. Within 30 seconds, all movement stopped.

Fuller was pronounced dead 38 minutes later, at 7:01 p.m. CDT. The time between when the drug was injected and when he was pronounced dead was somewhat longer than normal. “Each person is unique in how his body shuts down,” prison agency spokesman Jason Clark said, explaining the extended time.

Fuller became the seventh convicted killer executed this year in Texas and the first in six months in the nation’s most active capital punishment state.

Fuller surrendered peacefully at his home outside Lovelady, about 100 miles north of Houston, after a middle-of-the-night shooting frenzy in May 2003 that left his neighbors, Nathan Copeland, 43, and Copeland’s wife, Annette, 39, dead inside their rural home.  The couple’s 14-year-old son survived two gunshot wounds, and their 10-year-old daughter escaped injury because Fuller couldn’t turn the light on in her bedroom.

Court records show Fuller, armed with a shotgun, a semi-automatic carbine and a pistol, fired 59 shots before barging into the Copeland home and opening fire again. He had been charged with making a threatening phone call to Annette Copeland, and the neighbors had been engaged in a 2-year dispute over that. The Reuters news agency reports the gun was an AR-15 assault weapon and that the Copelands had also complained to police that Fuller had shot their dog, according to court documents.

Fuller pleaded guilty to capital murder. He declined to appear in court at his July 2004 trial and asked that the trial’s punishment phase go on without his presence. He only entered the courtroom when jurors returned with his sentence. Last year, Fuller asked that nothing be done to prolong his time on death row. “I do not want to go on living in this hellhole,” he wrote to attorney Jason Cassel.

A sheriff’s department dispatcher who took Annette Copeland’s 911 call about 1:30 a.m. on May 14, 2003, heard a man say: “Party’s over, bitch,” followed by a popping sound. Annette Copeland was found with three bullet wounds to her head. On Wednesday evening, one of her sisters who watched Fuller die said as she left the death chamber: “Party’s over, bastard.”

Cindy Garner, the former Houston County district attorney who prosecuted Fuller, described him as mean and without remorse. “It’s not a cheerful situation,” she said of the execution. “I just regret that this little, plain, country, nice, sweet family — bless their heart — moved in next door.”

Fuller’s execution was only the 16th in the U.S. this year, a downturn fueled by fewer death sentences overall, courts halting scheduled executions for additional reviews, and some death penalty states encountering difficulties obtaining drugs for lethal injections.

October 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Racial issues in death sentencing (and insider trading and malicious prosecution) next up for SCOTUS oral argument

As I noted in this recent post, the Supreme Court is back in action with a new fall season chock full of cases involving criminal justice issues.  Today's first official day of oral argument, as noted here, involved case on how to interpret the federal bank-fraud statute and on how to apply the Double Jeopardy Clause.  And the SCOTUS action gets extra exciting for sentencing fans with the first big capital case of the season, Buck v. Davis, to be heard on Wednesday.  Here are excerpts from Amy Howe's lengthy overview of the case at SCOTUSblog, "Argument preview: Justices to consider role of racial bias in death penalty case":

Even Duane Buck’s attorneys describe the facts of his crime as “horrific.” Buck believed that his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, was in a romantic relationship with another man, Kenneth Butler. On July 30, 1995, he went to Gardner’s Houston home, where he shot and killed both Gardner and Butler. Buck also shot his step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, in the chest at point-blank range; the bullet missed her heart by only an inch, but she survived.

A Texas trial court appointed two lawyers to represent Buck at his trial.  One of those lawyers, Jerry Guerinot, has been described as the worst capital defense lawyer in the country: Twenty of his clients have been sentenced to death. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Buck’s case next week, the decision by those attorneys to present racially inflammatory testimony by a defense expert will be at the heart of the debate.

A key issue at Buck’s trial was whether he would be dangerous in the future: Unless the jury unanimously concluded that he would be, it could not sentence him to death under Texas law. One of Buck’s former girlfriends, Vivian Jackson, testified that he had repeatedly abused her, but that fear had kept her from going to the police. However, Buck did not have any convictions for violent crimes, and a psychologist testified that he was unlikely to be dangerous in the future.

Buck’s lawyers also retained another psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano. Quijano provided the defense team with a report in which he indicated that, as a statistical matter, Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black. That report was admitted into evidence, at the request of Buck’s lawyers. After two days of deliberations, the jury concluded that Buck was indeed likely to be dangerous in the future and sentenced him to death....

There are several points of contention in the Supreme Court. The first is the merits of Buck’s argument that his trial counsel violated his constitutional right to an effective attorney when he introduced Quijano’s opinion.

Buck emphasizes that Quijano’s “testimony was so directly contrary to Mr. Buck’s interests, no competent defense attorney would have introduced it.” And the introduction of that evidence, he contends, likely “tipped the balance in the prosecution’s favor”: Although the key question before the jury was whether Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future, prosecutors failed to provide any evidence that Buck “had been violent outside the context of romantic relationships with two women, and the jurors learned that he had adjusted well to prison.” Moreover, he notes, the jury apparently “struggled to determine the appropriate sentence” for Buck, which suggests that, if Quijano’s testimony had not been admitted, at least one juror — all that would be necessary — might have voted against a death sentence.

The state concedes both that “race is an arbitrary, emotionally charged factor that has nothing to do with individual moral culpability” and that the introduction of Quijano’s opinion “was at least debatably deficient performance” by Buck’s trial lawyers.  But, the state contends, Buck had failed to show that the jury might have reached a different decision if the opinion had not been introduced, because there was plenty of evidence that Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future.  The state further downplays the significance of Quijano’s opinion that Buck was statistically more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black, asserting that it “played only a limited role at trial,” particularly when the psychologist’s “ultimate conclusion” was that Buck “would likely not be a future danger.”

The other issues before the Court are more technical, but no less important: whether Buck’s case presents the kind of extraordinary circumstances that would justify relief under Rule 60(b)(6) and whether the lower courts made a mistake when they rejected his application for a certificate of appealability....

In many of the court’s recent death penalty cases, the justices have been deeply divided. Two justices — Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have even suggested that the court should consider whether the death penalty is constitutional at all. That question is not before the court in Buck’s case, but ... oral arguments could nonetheless elicit strong opinions on the administration of death penalty from the eight-member court.

Though the Buck case is likely to garner the most media attention, there are other big legal and practical issues before Justices in two other criminal cases tomorrow.  Again, SCOTUSblog provides helpful resources for these cases:

Salman v. United States

Argument preview: Justices to consider what constitutes a “personal benefit” in insider trading

Manuel v. City of Joliet

Argument preview: Does the Fourth Amendment govern a “malicious prosecution” claim, and if so, how?

October 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29)

On eve of VP debate, a deep dive into "Tim Kaine’s Long, Conflicted History With The Death Penalty"

Tim_Kaine,_official_113th_Congress_photo_portraitBuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner (who just happens to be one of my favorite former students) did some important yeoman's work recently by looking closely at Democratic VP candidate's long professional engagement with capital punishment. The subheadline of BuzzFeed's lengthy report highlights its themes: "As a lawyer, the Democratic vice presidential nominee took cases defending death-row inmates, arguing that parts of Virginia’s death penalty process made the system 'shockingly unequal.' When he was governor, however, he allowed executions to proceed, even when some of those issues were raised again." I recommend the piece in full, and here is how it gets started:

In 2005, Tim Kaine faced a tight race for governor. He was running against Jerry Kilgore, then the state’s attorney general, and Kilgore was hitting him hard on the death penalty.

Two decades earlier, Kaine had arrived in Virginia a new lawyer who immediately called up the ACLU and asked how he could help. When he was asked to take over a death penalty appeal, he initially turned it down — but then changed his mind, believing that he had to put his principles to work. “The essence of human life is probably suffering and pain,” he would tell the Richmond Times-Dispatch, discussing the death penalty and his Catholicism. “The thing that redeems that is the presence of God in every person.”

Kaine took on representation of Richard Whitley — sentenced to death for a brutal murder in 1980 — and spent more than two years trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to stop his execution. For Kaine, it wasn’t just about making sure an adversarial system worked properly — he called the death penalty in America “outrageous” in the extensive interview with the Times-Dispatch. Whitley was just the first of a handful of death row inmates that Kaine would try to keep from execution over the course of 15 years, working on behalf of the kind of convicted murderers whose stories do not make for sympathetic coverage.

And, in 2005, Kilgore reminded voters of just that. His campaign produced television ads that featured the family members of people killed in Virginia. In one, the wife of a police officer killed by “a drug dealer illegally in this country” who was on death row, expressed a concern that Kaine would put in place a death penalty moratorium. In another, the father of the man killed by one of the death row inmates who Kaine had represented said that Kaine’s death penalty opposition was so extreme that the would-be governor wouldn’t support the death penalty for Adolf Hitler.

Kaine had made a decision early on in his campaign that the response would be to reiterate his personal opposition to the death penalty, to explain that the position was informed by his Catholic faith, and then to say that he would follow the law and enforce the death penalty as governor. When the attack ads ran, the response ad had already been prepared. The attack didn’t appear to do any damage in the long run, and it may even have turned some voters against Kilgore because the ads were seen as unfair — or even as attacking Kaine’s faith. Kaine ultimately won the race on Election Day, 52%-46%, and took office on Jan. 14, 2006.

Less than three months later, Kaine would be faced with the convergence of two threads in his life — his work as a capital defense lawyer and his promise to enforce the death penalty — when he received a petition seeking executive clemency for Dexter Lee Vinson on April 13, 2006. Vinson was scheduled to be executed two weeks later, and his lawyers, including those from the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, held out hope that the new governor would take action to halt the scheduled execution.

In the clemency petition, obtained by BuzzFeed News, the lawyers wrote, “If this execution is carried out as scheduled, troubling questions about whether Vinson is innocent of the crimes for which he will be put to death will remain unresolved.” Specifically, the lawyers wrote, “The unique combination of newly discovered evidence, undeveloped evidence, and singular circumstances of Vinson’s case rattle the confidence the Commonwealth must have before taking an irremediable action like execution.”

Kaine denied clemency to Vinson and his execution took place on April 27, 2006, the first of 11 executions that took place under Kaine’s governorship. In that time, Kaine only commuted one death sentence, that of Percy Walton, who faced the death penalty for three murders. In 2008, Kaine concluded Walton was not mentally competent to face execution and commuted his sentence to life in prison.

“What I told Virginians was, ‘I’m against the death penalty, but I’ll uphold the law,’ and I did that,” Kaine said this June in a C-SPAN interview about his life and career. Of considering, and ultimately rejecting, most of the clemency petitions that came before him, he said, “Very, very difficult — the hardest thing in public life I’ve had to do was that. … I grappled with the cases, but only gave relief to people who I felt had made a case that they were entitled to clemency.”

Over the course of the past three decades, Tim Kaine’s experience with the death penalty is far more complex and nuanced than that of any other major party candidate for the presidency or vice presidency in the modern era of the death penalty. Kaine has represented multiple people on death row, seeking to highlight what he has described as a “shockingly unequal” system, and he also has governed one of the few states that has continued to carry out executions regularly over the past decade.

The questions Kaine raised as a defense lawyer were mostly related to process — from the time given for federal court review of cases and the rules that Virginia state courts had for review of capital cases to the quality of the lawyers provided to criminal defendants in those cases and the way those lawyers carried out that defense — but that process, as Kaine said at the time, is sometimes the difference between life and death.  “If you had enough money to pay” for a top-tier criminal defense attorney at trial, he said at the time of Whitley’s execution, “you’re not going to get the death penalty.”

And yet, a decade later, in his four years as governor, Kaine found himself in the position of denying clemency requests in cases where those and other similar issues were being raised by people facing execution under his watch.

October 4, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Ohio planning to use new three-drug execution protocol to get its machinery of death operative in January 2017

Long-time readers and/or hard-core death penalty fans perhaps recall that my own great state of Ohio way back in Fall 2009, in the wake of some problems administering the then-universal three-drug lethal injection approach, pioneered a new one-drug execution protocol.  This one-drug approach to executions seemed to work reasonably well for the Buckeye state for a period, as the state completed 19 executions in the period from 2010 to 2013.  But when Ohio struggled to get the needed supply of the drug being used in its one-drug protocol, the state in January 2014 tried a two-drug approach that did not seem to work our so well (as reported in this prior post).

Since January 2014, Ohio has been a de facto death penalty moratorium state because Ohio Gov John Kasich repeatedly delayed a long list of scheduled executions while the state sought to figure out how best to acquire drugs for conducting lethal injections.  (During this period, the Ohio legislature enacted a law to shield the identity of some who helped the state move forward with executions (background here), and some advocates started calling for the state to consider nitrogen gas as an alternative way to carry out death sentences (details here).  But today, as this new AP article reports, Ohio has now revealed that it is planning to get its machinery of death up-and-running again come January 2017 by returning to a (new kind of) three-drug execution protocol.  Here are the details and context:

Ohio plans to resume executions in January with a new three-drug combination after an unofficial three-year moratorium blamed on shortages of lethal drugs, an attorney representing the state told a federal judge Monday.

Thomas Madden with the Ohio attorney general's office said the state will use the drugs midazolam, which puts the inmate to sleep; rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. He said the drugs are not compounded and are FDA approved. Madden told Columbus federal Judge Edmund Sargus that a new execution policy will be announced at the end of the week....

The development opens the way for the execution of Ronald Phillips for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. Ohio hasn't put anyone to death since January 2014, when Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted during a 26-minute procedure using a never-before-tried two-drug combo.

The state also used midazolam in McGuire's execution, making it disappointing that Ohio would again turn to that drug, said Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender representing several death row inmates.

The state has more than two dozen inmates with firm execution dates sitting on death row, with executions scheduled out as far as October 2019.

After McGuire's execution, the longest ever in Ohio using lethal drugs, the prisons agency changed its policies to allow for single doses of two alternative drugs. Complicating matters, neither of those drugs — sodium thiopental and pentobarbital — is available in the United States after their manufacturers put them off-limits for executions. The state has unsuccessfully tried to find compounded or specially mixed versions.

Last year, Republican Gov. John Kasich ruled out looking for alternative methods, such as the firing squad or hanging. In 2014, Kasich signed a bill into law shielding the names of companies that provide the state with lethal injection drugs.

Supporters said such confidentiality is necessary to obtain supplies of the drugs, and the measure is needed to restart Ohio executions. Opponents said it was naive to think the bill could truly protect companies' names from being revealed.

In 2014, former federal Judge Gregory Frost sided with the state, saying the prisons agency's need to obtain the drugs outweighed concerns by death row inmates that the information was needed to meaningfully challenge the source of the drugs.

October 3, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Dignity and the Death Penalty in the US Supreme Court"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Bharat Malkani now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly invoked the idea of dignity in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, particularly in cases involving capital punishment.  However, it has never articulated a clear and consistent conception of dignity.  The first half of this paper examines the Court's inconsistent use, and highlights how various justices have used different conceptions of human dignity, communitarian dignity, and institutional dignity to uphold the constitutionality of capital punishment.  This stands in contrast to how foreign and international authorities have used the idea of dignity to advance abolition.

The second half of this paper uses the Supreme Court's own accounts of dignity, and philosophical approaches to dignity, to argue that respect for dignity must pull towards a finding that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  Respect for dignity, it is argued, requires a consideration of how human, communitarian, and institutional dignity inter-relate and inform one another.  For example, it makes little sense to examine the death penalty and the dignity of the legal system without considering the human dignity of the people involved in administering capital punishment.  When these three dignities are considered together, it becomes clear that the death penalty cannot comport with respect for dignity, as required by the Eighth Amendment.

October 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Untroubled by SCOTUS Hurst ruling, unanimous Alabama Supreme Court upholds state's capital punishment procedures

6a00d83451574769e201bb08b85699970d-320wiAs reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme," a top state court has concluded that its capital punishment law is not to be consumed by the post-Hurst hydra.  "post-Hurst hydra"  (As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.)  Here are the basics and the context for this significant ruling:

The Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme, which signifies Alabama as the last state in the country that allows for this type of scheme.  The ruling allows for judicial override, which means a judge can impose the death penalty even after a jury has recommended a lesser sentence.

This happened in Montgomery county in 2008, when Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs overrode a jury’s decision to sentence Mario Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Montgomery police officer Keith Houts.  After finding him guilty, the jury recommended life in prison without parole, “But Hobbs said the 34-year-old should die for killing Houts in September 2006,” the Advertiser reported at the time of the sentencing.

In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd ruled that the judicial override sentencing scheme was unconstitutional in light of Hurst v. Florida — a January U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Florida’s sentencing scheme, which also incorporated a judicial override system, was unconstitutional.  Florida’s scheme left it to the judge to find the aggravating factors, not the jury.

The case that sparked Alabama's judicial override appellate process stems from a case involving four men who were charged with three capital murders.  Defense attorneys argued the men should be barred from receiving the death penalty based on that the Supreme Court of the United States' decision.

Todd ruled in their favor, which barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  In her 28-page ruling, Todd called the judicial override practice a “life-to-death override epidemic” and questioned Alabama’s partisan judicial elections. “There is a time and place for diplomacy and subtlety,” Todd wrote. “That time and place has been expunged by the dire state of the justice system in Alabama.  It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect.”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Todd’s order shortly after it was issued.  In June the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals vacated her decision, stating that Alabama’s scheme differs from Florida’s because in Alabama the jury determines the aggravating factors before deciding the sentence.

Jerry Bohannon, one of the defendants challenging Alabama's sentencing scheme, subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  Upon review, Alabama Supreme Court Justices echoed points made by the Court of Criminal Appeals. "Because in Alabama a jury, not the judge, determines by a unanimous verdict the critical finding that an aggravating circumstance exists beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death-eligible, Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment," wrote acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart....

Strange praised the court’s decision, stating “Today’s ruling is an important victory for victims and for criminal justice.  The Hurst ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty, which has been upheld numerous times.”  Since Hurst, The United States Supreme Court has told the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider appeals filed on behalf of at least three Alabama death row inmates.

The full opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court is available at this link. I would call it a near certainty that some Alabama death row defendants will continue to seek certiorari review based on Hurst, and I suspect SCOTUS review will eventually be more a question of when rather than whether.

October 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Pew survey indicates "Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades"

FT_16.09.29_deathpenaltyPartyThis new item from the Pew Research Center reports based on a new survey that "the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades."  Here is more:

Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.

Though support for the death penalty has declined across most groups, a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 among 1,201 adults finds that most Republicans continue to largely favor its use in cases of murder, while most Democrats oppose it. By more than two-to-one, more Republicans (72%) than Democrats (34%) currently favor the death penalty.

Two decades ago, when majorities in both parties favored the death penalty, the partisan gap was only 16 percentage points (87% of Republicans vs. 71% of Democrats). And, for the first time in decades, independents are as likely to oppose the use of the death penalty (45%) as they are to favor it (44%). The share of independents who support capital punishment has fallen 13 points since last year (from 57%)....

Even as support for the death penalty has declined across nearly all groups, demographic differences remain: Men are more likely to back the use of the death penalty than women, white Americans are more supportive than blacks and Hispanics, and attitudes on the issue also differ by age, education and along religious lines. More than half of men (55%) say they are in favor of the death penalty and 38% are opposed. Women’s views are more divided: 43% favor the death penalty, 45% oppose it.

A 57% majority of whites favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder (down from 63% last year). But blacks and Hispanics support it at much lower rates: Just 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics favor capital punishment.

There are only modest difference by age and education in support for the death penalty, with 18- to 29-year-olds somewhat less likely to support it (42% favor) than those in older age groups (51% of those 30 and older). Those without a college degree are more likely than those with at least a college degree to favor the use of the death penalty in cases of murder (51% vs. 43%).

White evangelical Protestants continue to back the use of the death penalty by a wide margin (69% favor, 26% oppose). White mainline Protestants also are substantially more likely to support (60%) than oppose (31%) the death penalty. But among Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, opinion is more divided: 43% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 46% oppose it. And while 50% of those who are religiously unaffiliated oppose the death penalty, 40% support it.

September 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)