Saturday, April 21, 2018

India government moving forward with the death penalty for child rape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 05, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Texas completed fourth execution on 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

"The War on Drugs Breeds Crafty Traffickers"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio Gov. Kasich commutes yet another death sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Two more SCOTUS wins for criminal defendants in Ayestas and Marinello

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

Ayestas v. Davis:

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

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

Marinello v. United States:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SCOTUS, by 5-4 vote, stays Missouri execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 19, 2018

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

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

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

Meh.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 05, 2018

Spotlighting the modern realities and challenges of geriatric executions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

"Sixth Amendment Sentencing after Hurst"

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

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

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

Saturday, March 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent prior related posts:

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

Thursday, March 01, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"The State of the Death Penalty Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Ankur Desai.  Here is the abstract:

The death penalty is in decline in America and most death penalty states do not regularly impose death sentences. In 2016 and 2017, states reached modern lows in imposed death sentences, with just thirty-one defendants sentenced to death in 2016 and thirty-nine in 2017, as compared with over three hundred per year in the 1990s.  In 2016, only thirteen states imposed death sentences, and in 2017, fourteen did so, although thirty-one states retain the death penalty.  What explains this remarkable and quite unexpected trend?

In this Article, we present new analysis of state-level legislative changes that might have been expected to impact death sentences.  First, life without parole (LWOP) statutes, now enacted in nearly every state, might have been expected to reduce death sentences because they give jurors a non-capital option at trial.  Second, legislatures have moved, albeit at varying paces, to comply with the Supreme Court’s holding in Ring v. Arizona, which requires that the final decision in capital sentencing be made not by a judge, but by a jury.  Third, states at different times have created state-wide public defender offices to represent capital defendants at trial.  In addition, the decline in homicides and homicide rates could be expected to contribute to the decline in state-level death sentencing.

We find that contrary to the expectations of many observers, changes in the law such as adoption of LWOP and jury sentencing, did not consistently or significantly impact death sentencing. The decline in homicides and homicide rates is correlated with changes in death sentencing at the state level.  However, this Article finds that state provision of capital trial representation is far more strongly and robustly correlated with reduced death sentencing than these other factors.  The findings bolster the argument that adequacy of counsel has greater implications for the administration of the death penalty than other legal factors.  These findings also have implications beyond the death penalty and they underscore the importance of a structural understanding of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in our system of criminal justice.

February 27, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Alabama joins Ohio as only modern state to truly botch an execution

As long time readers know, I try to draw a distinction between ugly and botched executions: ugly executions are those that do not go smoothly, but still result in the condemned prisoner ending up dead (as in Oklahoma in 2014); botched execution are those that involve prison official actively seeking to complete an execution and ultimately failing.  Leaving aside a botched electrocution in Louisiana in the 1940s, my own state of Ohio had the distinction of being the only jurisdiction with a modern botched execution history and, as noted here, has had two inmates return to death row after failed lethal injection attempts.

But now, as this NBC News piece details, Alabama is clearly a new player in this sad universe as details of its execution efforts last week are emerging.  The press report is headlined "Lawyer describes aborted execution attempt for Doyle Lee Hamm as ‘torture’," and here are some details (as well as a reminder Ohio is still beating Alabama in botched executions) :

An Alabama execution team left a death-row inmate with more than a dozen puncture marks in his legs and groin and may have penetrated his bladder and femoral artery before the lethal injection was called off, the prisoner's attorney said Sunday. "This was clearly a botched execution that can only be accurately described as torture," attorney Bernard Harcourt said in a statement after a doctor examined his client, convicted murderer and cancer survivor Doyle Lee Hamm, in prison.

State officials did not respond to a request for comment following the examination. Last week, they said that after the execution started late Thursday because of last-minute appeals, the team wasn't sure it could find a good vein before the death warrant's midnight expiration. "I wouldn't necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem," Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told reporters at the time.

Afterward, Harcourt went to federal court and convinced a judge to permit a doctor of his choosing to examine Hamm, who has been on death row for 30 years for the 1987 murder of a motel clerk. The attorney said that while Hamm was strapped to the gurney, the IV team "simultaneously worked on both legs at the same time, probing his flesh and inserting needles."

"The IV personnel almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day," he said. "They may have hit his femoral artery as well, because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out. There were multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area, around a dozen." During the execution, Hamm "was lying there praying and hoping that they would succeed because of the pain, and collapsed when they took him off the gurney," Harcourt said. In addition to the puncture marks, Hamm has bruising and swelling in his groin and pain from his abdomen to upper thigh, the lawyer said. He was still limping on Sunday....

Before Thursday, Harcourt had warned that due to Hamm's history of drug abuse and his illnesses, it would be impossible to find good veins to deliver the deadly drugs. A judge ruled the execution could proceed as long as the IV wasn't inserted in Hamm's arms. The U.S. Supreme Court, with three justices dissenting, then declined to stop the lethal injection.

Prison officials have given few details about what went on in the death chamber before Hamm got a reprieve. Dunn told reporters Thursday that he did not think the trouble the team had finding a vein would prevent the state from killing Hamm in the future.  "The only indication I have is that in their medical judgement it was more of a time issue, given the late hour," the commissioner said.

Harcourt wanted to examine the execution chamber and the notes prison workers took during the procedure, but the judge turned him down.  The judge did, however, order the Department of Corrections to preserve the notes and any other material from the execution try, including the clothing Hamm was wearing.

Hamm is not the first inmate to survive an execution attempt because of bad veins.  Three months ago, Ohio called off the execution of Alva Campbell after the medical team tried for 30 minutes to find an access point without success.  And in 2009, another Ohio inmate, Romell Broom, was spared after the execution worked for two hours to insert a needle. In appeals, he argues a second attempt would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

February 26, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS takes up Alabama case concerning competency to be executed while again turning away post-Hurst capital challenges

The US Supreme Court issued this order list this morning, and capital punishment followers will find a few SCOTUS cert decisions of note.  First, the Court granted certiorari in Madison v. Alabama, No. 17-7505, and the docket number here is quite important because Vernon Madison had two notable cert petitions pending: Madison v. Alabama, 17-7505, which was granted raises asked whether Alabama may "execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him without memory of his commission of the capital offense?";  Madison v. Alabama, 17-7535, which was denied raised the issue of whether Alabama could move forward with the execution of a defendant whose death sentence result from the state's now-abolished practice of judicial override.

The death sentencing procedural issue that the Supreme Court decided not to take up in Vernon Madison's case is, of course, yet another off-shoot of what I have long called the "post-Hurst hydra."  After the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like litigation destined to develop in various ways in various courts as state and federal judges tried to make sense of just what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  I am further reminded of that hydra because today's SCOTUS order list concluded with two short dissents from the denial of certiorari authored by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor in two Florida capital cases.  Justice Sotomayor's dissent is a bit longer and joined by Justice Ginsburg and includes these passages:

Dale Middleton and Randy Tundidor were sentenced to death under a Florida capital sentencing scheme that this Court has since declared unconstitutional.  See Hurst v. Florida, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  Relying on the unanimity of the juries’ recommendations of death, the Florida Supreme Court post-Hurst declined to disturb the petitioners’ death sentences, reasoning that the unanimity ensured that jurors had made the necessary findings of fact under Hurst.  By doing so, the Florida Supreme Court effectively transformed the pre-Hurst jury recommendations into binding findings of fact with respect to the petitioners’ death sentences.

Having so concluded, the Florida Supreme Court continually refuses to grapple with the Eighth Amendment implications of that holding.  If those then-advisory jury findings are now binding and sufficient to satisfy Hurst, petitioners contend that their sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because the jury instructions in their cases repeatedly emphasized the nonbinding, advisory nature of the jurors’ role and that the judge was the final decisionmaker.  This Court has unequivocally held “that it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s death rests elsewhere.” Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U. S. 320, 328–329 (1985).

February 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Contemplating the capital prosecution of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz

The New York Times has this lengthy new article exploring some particulars and players involved in the possible capital prosecution in Florida of teenage mass murderer Nikolas Cruz. I recommend the full piece, headlined "After a Massacre, a Question of One More Death: The Gunman’s," and here are excerpts:

Among the suspects on the list of the country’s 10 worst mass shootings, Nikolas Cruz is alone in one thing: He was taken alive.  His arrest raises the rare prospect of a death penalty trial for a massacre, a huge undertaking with far-reaching consequences for all involved. Some would not be satisfied without an execution, while for others the trial itself would bring anguish.

The chief prosecutor here in Broward County has said that the killing of 17 people at a high school on Valentine’s Day “certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”  A trial may be the only opportunity to lay bare all of the facts.  But it would also likely be televised and followed by lengthy appeals, provoking years of public agony, as well as sustained attention for Mr. Cruz, who has already confessed.

Over years of mass shootings, from a university campus in Huntsville, Ala., to a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., prosecutors have struggled with this conundrum, testing political winds, spending days talking with survivors and families of the dead and reflecting on the intersection between morality and the oath of office.

Even Broward County’s public defender, whose office is representing Mr. Cruz and who wants to save his life, readily acknowledges the wrenching emotions that are part of a case that is only beginning. “If it were my daughter, I would want to personally kill my client, make no mistake about it,” said Howard Finkelstein, the public defender, an elected position. Later, though, he said that perhaps he would “try to go on and build a future. I don’t know what I would do. I just don’t know.”

Already, Mr. Finkelstein’s office has offered a way to avoid a trial: Mr. Cruz’s guilty plea in exchange for a punishment of 17 consecutive life sentences without parole. But Mr. Finkelstein recognizes that for some victims, that might not be enough: “I’m a father. I don’t know whether I would take my offer.”

Relatives of the victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have not yet made their feelings about the death penalty widely known.  And it is not clear where Michael J. Satz, Broward County’s prosecutor, is in his deliberations.  He declined to comment.  Mr. Satz, who was elected state attorney when Gerald R. Ford was president, is regarded as a hard-edged prosecutor, but he is still likely to consider an array of factors, including the odds of persuading a jury.

Although jurors condemned men for massacres in Charleston, S.C., where nine churchgoers were killed, and at Fort Hood, Tex., where there were 13 fatalities, they spared the life of the Aurora gunman who killed 12, citing his history of mental illness. In the Huntsville shooting, the prosecutor said his conversations with the families of the victims were a reason he did not seek execution.

George Brauchler, the lead prosecutor in the Aurora case, said he had engaged in “serious soul-searching” about whether to pass up a plea deal and seek the death penalty. “This is as much a moral decision as it is a decision about justice, and that is not an easy decision to make,” he said....

A crucial consideration in potential capital cases, prosecutors and defense lawyers said, is whether failing to seek the death penalty in a mass shooting would set a precedent, making it more difficult to seek it in cases with lower death tolls. In Charleston, the federal government had a sharp internal debate, and met with resistance from family members of victims, before it decided to seek the death penalty against Dylann S. Roof....

For defense lawyers seeking to spare their client’s life, an appeal to efficiency is one of the few cards they can play — particularly when, as Mr. Finkelstein says, the “case is not a whodunit.” Expecting that Mr. Satz will seek the death penalty, Mr. Finkelstein and his deputies are already preparing for a “long, arduous legal battle” and intend to concentrate on jury selection. Because juries must unanimously recommend death sentences in Florida, a single juror could prevent execution. Mr. Finkelstein said the defense would likely focus on mental health and the accumulation of failures by government agencies to stop Mr. Cruz from opening fire....

In Florida, where 347 people are on death row after an execution on Thursday night, state law spells out a roster of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances that jurors may consider in capital cases.  Aggravating factors, at least one of which must be proven for someone to be eligible for a death sentence, include a finding that a defendant “knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons” or that a homicide was “committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.”

Mitigating circumstances, like a defendant’s age and whether he or she was under the “influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance” at the time of the crime, can legally tilt jurors toward a punishment of life in prison.  Mr. Finkelstein made plain that he is dreading any trial here, and not just for legal reasons. In his dimly lit office, he raspily declared a hope that “divine intervention” would persuade Mr. Satz to avoid a trial and an airing of the tragic details.

Prior related post:

February 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Only one of three planned executions completed: Florida carries out death sentence, Texas Gov commutes at last minute, and Alabama misses deadline

As noted in this prior post, yesterday there were executions scheduled in Alabama, Florida and Texas. If all three had been carried out, it would have marked first time in eight years that three killers were all executed on the same day. But, and the press stories below detail, only Florida completed its planned execution:

Texas: "Gov. Greg Abbott commutes death sentence minutes before Bart Whitaker's scheduled execution":

Kent Whitaker was praying when he got the news: The governor had spared his son. In an unexpected last-minute decision, Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency to the Sugar Land man slated for execution Thursday, just minutes before he was to be strapped to the gurney in Huntsville.

Thomas "Bart" Whitaker was sent to death row for targeting his own family in a 2003 murder-for-hire plot aimed at landing a hefty $1 million inheritance.

Florida: "Eric Branch's last words target governor, AG: 'Let them come down here and do it'":

Convicted murderer Eric Branch used his final moments before he was executed to make a political statement, falling into unconsciousness as he shouted "murderers" between blood-curdling screams on the execution gurney.

The state of Florida carried out the execution of Branch, 47, on Thursday evening at the Florida State Prison in Raiford — roughly 335 miles from where he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed University of West Florida student Susan Morris as she was leaving a night class in January 1993.

Branch, who was on death row for nearly 25 years, was pronounced dead of a lethal injection at 6:05 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Alabama: "Execution of Alabama inmate Doyle Lee Hamm called off"

Doyle Lee Hamm survived his date with the executioner Thursday, as Alabama was unable to begin the procedure before the death warrant expired at midnight.

It was after 11:30 p.m. when word came that the execution had been called off. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said medical personnel had advised officials that there wasn't enough time to ensure that the execution could be conducted in a humane manner. However, Dunn declined to detail the exact medical factors behind the decision, and said he didn't want to characterize them as a problem.

Hamm, 61, was convicted of killing Cullman hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham in January 1987. Recent appeals in his case involved the question of whether cancer had left him healthy enough to be executed without excessive suffering. His advocates had argued that his veins were in such bad shape that it wouldn't be possible for the state to carry out its lethal injection protocol cleanly.

One of Hamm's attorneys, Bernard Harcourt, was among those waiting outside death row at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore. Afterward, via Twitter, he speculated that "they probably couldn't find a vein and had been poking him for over 2 1/2 hours."

Also worth noting is that the Alabama inmate's appeals to the Supreme Court generated some comments from some Justices detailed in this order: Justice Breyer issued a short statement respecting the denial of a stay which spoke to the defendant's lengthy time on death row; Justice Ginsburg issued a dissent, which Justice Sotomayor joined, expressing concerns "about how Hamm’s execution would be carried out."  Since the execution was not carried out, it will be interesting to see now if and when courts get asked again to scrutinize Alabama's execution plans and protocols.

February 23, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

How many of the executions scheduled today in Alabama, Florida and Texas will be completed?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters article which begins, "Alabama, Florida and Texas plan to execute inmates on Thursday and if carried out, it would be the first time in eight years that three people on death row have been executed on the same day."  Here is more about what could be a busy day in both courts and execution chambers:

But in each state there are reasons why the executions could be halted, including an unprecedented clemency recommendation in Texas, where all three of this year’s U.S. executions have been carried out.

In Florida, questions were raised about holding an execution based on a majority, not unanimous, jury decision. In Alabama, lawyers have said the death row inmate is too ill to be executed.

Alabama plans to execute Doyle Hamm, 61, at 6 p.m. local time for the 1987 murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham.

Hamm’s lawyers have said he has terminal cancer, adding years of intravenous drug use, hepatitis C, and untreated lymphoma have made his veins unstable for a lethal injection. However, a court-appointed doctor examined Hamm on Feb. 15 and found he had “numerous accessible and usable veins in both his upper and lower extremities,” according to court filings.

Texas plans to execute Thomas Whitaker, 38, for masterminding a 2003 plot against his family in which his mother Tricia, 51, and brother Kevin, 19, were killed.  His father Kent Whitaker was shot in the chest and survived.  The father, 69, a devout Christian and retired executive, has said he forgives his son and his family does not want him to be executed. In a clemency petition, he said if the death penalty is implemented, it would make his pain worse.

On Tuesday, the Texas paroles board in a unanimous decision recommended clemency, largely based on the request of a victim’s forgiving family.  Republican Governor Greg Abbott has final say, and has not yet announced if he plans to halt the execution.

Florida plans to execute Eric Branch, 47, for the 1993 murder of University of West Florida student Susan Morris. Lawyers for Branch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on arguments including that the court has previously blocked a Florida provision that allows executions for a non-unanimous jury decision and it should do so again in this case.

February 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Will Florida school shooting mass murderer thwart efforts to raise age for limit on application of the death penalty?

As noted in this post last week, the ABA House of Delegates earlier this month asked for all death penalty jurisdictions to ban capital punishment for any offender who committed their crime at the age of 21 or younger.  But, as the title of this post wonders, the push for raising the age on limits on the death penalty could be impacted by the horrible crimes committed yesterday in Florida.  This article, "Suspect in Florida shooting could face death penalty for 17 counts of premeditated murder," provide these basics:

Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the shooting at a Florida high school on Wednesday, could face the death penalty after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

Sheriffs in Broward County posted custody records online Thursday, the morning after they arrested Cruz. They listed 17 separate counts of premeditated murder, matching the latest casualty figures from officials.

Cruz, 19, will stand trial as an adult. In Florida, a judge can impose the death penalty if a sentencing jury unanimously recommends it.

I am not at all surprised that Cruz may soon be facing the death penalty, and I will not be at all surprised if supports of the death penalty will make Cruz a poster-child example of why the age for death penalty eligibility ought not be raised.

A few prior related posts:

February 15, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (37)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Notable advocate for clemency on behalf of next condemned to die in Texas

According to this Death Penalty Information Center page, Alabama, Florida and Texas all have executions scheduled for February 22.  This new Los Angeles Times story, headlined "Texas father seeks clemency for son who tried to kill him," discusses the notable person making a notable pitch for clemency for the killer scheduled to be executed.  Here are excerpts:

In a week, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, 38, is scheduled to be executed for plotting a 2003 attack that left his mother and brother dead and almost killed his father. That father, Kent Whitaker, is doing everything he can to halt the execution. Inspired by his Christian faith and his son's repentance, the 69-year-old retired construction firm comptroller hopes to have his son's sentence commuted.  "The death penalty in this case is the wrong punishment," he said.

Kent Whitaker forgives his son. He paid for lawyers to fight the death sentence at trial in 2007, and got down on his knees and begged prosecutors to seek a life sentence.

Texas is known for capital punishment, executing more inmates than any other state in the country — three this year, seven last year. But Kent Whitaker notes that it is also a victims' rights state, meaning his wishes should be taken into account. "Juries routinely defer to victims in cases to spare the life of a killer," he said.

Thomas Whitaker's last chance is a clemency petition filed with the seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which makes a recommendation to the governor by majority vote.  Clemency is rare.  One of Whitaker's attorneys won it for another convicted murderer, Kenneth Foster, hours before he was scheduled to die in 2007, based on arguments drawn from Scripture.  Parole board members in Texas are bound by their consciences, not the law, and some told the lawyer afterward that his biblical arguments had influenced their votes.

So in Thomas Whitaker's clemency petition, his attorney cited the Old Testament story of Cain, who after murdering his brother Abel was marked — but not killed — by God. He also cited the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, forgiven and accepted by his father after he strayed because he repented. "You have a collision between two interests. Every one of those board members is a death penalty supporter. A nd every one of them is there to protect victims' interests. They have to decide if it is more important to execute Thomas Whitaker or spare Kent Whitaker," attorney Keith Hampton said.

Board members don't confer about clemency: They send their votes to the state individually. Condemned inmates and their families can request to meet a member of the board, but it's not guaranteed.   Last week, board member James LaFavers, a former Amarillo detective, met Whitaker's son on death row. They spent two hours talking. On Tuesday, the chairman of the board, former Lubbock County Sheriff David Gutierrez, met with Kent Whitaker, his new wife and brother in Austin for half an hour.  The chairman didn't ask any questions, just listened as Kent Whitaker made his case for clemency. He said his son had been a model prisoner for 11 years, that the family had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty at trial and "it ought to mean something when a victim asks for mercy."

Thomas Whitaker has confessed to plotting the murder of his family. His father believes he has reformed behind bars. Prosecutors disagree.

Whitaker was a troubled teenager.  After he was arrested for breaking into his high school with friends to steal computers, his parents sent him to a private Christian school, then Baylor University and Sam Houston State University. But he stopped attending.  The night of the attack, the family went out to dinner to celebrate his graduation, unaware that it was a lie — he had missed too many classes....

As they entered their house in the Houston suburb, an accomplice shot them, fatally wounding his mother, Tricia, 51, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. A bullet passed just inches from Kent Whitaker's heart. Thomas Whitaker was shot in the arm to make it appear he too was a victim.  He then called 911.  It would be years before he admitted his role in the crime. A thousand people attended the funeral at the largest church in the family's conservative suburb, Sugar Land — including Thomas Whitaker. "He sat there smiling, acting as victim, knowing that he killed them," prosecutor Fred Felcman said.  Shortly before Whitaker was to be charged in 2004, he fled to Mexico, where he was caught a year later.

Felcman argued at trial that Whitaker planned to kill his family for a million-dollar inheritance. He had two accomplices — the gunman, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and a getaway driver, who got 15 years in prison. Although Whitaker was not the triggerman, Felcman argued, he "was the ringleader. He literally led his family back to be assassinated."

Felcman said Kent Whitaker has been used by his son. "Most people have a conscience so they don't try to manipulate people outright. He does," Felcman said.  The prosecutor has tried 13 capital cases. About half resulted in death sentences. "There's certain crimes you have to forfeit your life for," he said, in part because it's the will of the people. "As soon as Bart Whitaker gets executed I will feel safer, and there are other people who feel that way, too."...

If the board doesn't grant clemency, Whitaker plans to attend his son's execution. When his son looks out of the glassed-in chamber, he wants him to see a caring face among the crowd. Kent Whitaker already has nightmares about what he will witness.   "I hope the board will focus on how this execution will affect those of us who are living," he said. "We've all worked hard to get past our grief, and we're all going to be thrown back into that, realizing that Bart's gone too, that he was the last member of my immediate family. It looks like I'm going to be victimized all over again. What kind of justice is that?"

February 14, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New Utah death penalty study may add momentum to repeal efforts

This local article, headlined "New study of Utah’s use of the death penalty suggests life without parole costs less, prompts another call to abolish capital punishment," reports on a new report which could help jump start efforts to abolish the death penalty in the Beehive State.  Here are the details and some context:

A group of Utah attorneys, advocates and state staff have spent the last year studying the state’s death penalty. The working group, created by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, examined several areas, including costs, aggravating factors and public attitude.  The CCJJ report, released Friday [and available here], noted there were “fundamental difficulties inherent in analyzing death penalty policy.” The group did not make any recommendations or proposed changes to Utah’s current capital punishment system.

But a group called Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said the report shows that a significant amount of money has been spent seeking death sentences without much in return.  They called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in Utah. “This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible,” director Kevin Greene said in a statement. “... The millions of dollars that we have been wasting on the death penalty should either be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut or used for crime prevention or to help victims of crime.”

Here’s what the study found:

Cost estimates for the price of the death penalty in Utah are limited, the group noted. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty eligible cases that have been filed in the last two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence....

Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors in the homicide law that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and state lawmakers are contemplating adding even more. At a recent legislative hearing, some expressed concern that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty, and that an appeals court could torpedo the capital punishment law for being too broad. In the CCJJ report, the group noted that they could not come to an agreement about whether the number of aggravating factors should be limited. They noted that most states rarely remove aggravating factors — and instead have been adding more through the years.

The working group looked at several polls about Utahns’ attitude toward the death penalty, noting that there have been conflicting results. Two polls showed Utahns support the death penalty, while two others showed less support for execution in favor of life-without-parole sentences. The group concluded it was “probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs.”

Utah legislators came close to outlawing the death penalty in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session. Criminal justice reforms groups have said another push to end capital punishment in Utah is likely during this legislative session — though a bill to abolish it has not yet been public.

Since 2010, Utah prosecutors have filed 119 aggravated murder cases, according to Utah court data. Such cases can result in punishments of 25 years to life, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death. Only one of those cases — a retrial of a 1993 case — resulted in a death sentence.

Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction.  All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.

The last execution was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of Michael Burdell, a Salt Lake City lawyer, during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.

Notably, in the not too distant past, a significant number of states abolished the death penalty formally or functionally.  As reflected in this DPIC page, from 2007 through 2013, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland became abolitionist states.  Since 2013, the only significant legislative action on this front took place in Nebraska; but the death penalty repeal passed by state senators in 2015 was rejected by voters in a 2016 referendum. In light of this recent history, I think it would be a pretty big deal if abolition efforts picked up steam in Utah.

February 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Ohio Gov Kasich issues reprieve days before scheduled execution so clemency process can consider new juror letter

In this post last week, I asked via the post title "Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?".  This question was prompted by the release of a letter from a a former juror in an Ohio capital case urging Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that he said he had neverand that would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.

Today I just learned of a partial answer to my question in this new press report headlined "Kasich issues temporary reprieve for condemed killer." Here are the interesting details:

Gov. John Kasich on Thursday issued a temporary reprieve for Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

“Kasich issued the reprieve in light of a letter he received on January 30 from a juror on Tibbetts’ case,” a statement from the governor’s office said. “Because the Ohio Parole Board issued its report and recommendation without considering the letter, Kasich has asked the board to convene a hearing for the purpose of considering the letter and the issue it raises.”

In his letter, the juror said that he would not have voted 20 years ago to execute Tibbetts, who killed his wife and an elderly man, if he’d known the extent to which Tibbetts was abused as a child.

Kasich reset the execution for Oct. 17.

UPDATE: A helpful reader showed me this link with Gov Kasich's full statement, as well as this local article which includes the prosecutor's reaction to this reprieve:

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, whose office sought a death sentence for Tibbetts, said he understands the governor's decision to delay, but he believes the original sentence should stand.

"It's pretty serious business when you're going to execute someone," Deters said. "It's frustrating for a lot of people, but the reality is this: If the governor has questions, it's his job to stop it.

"Would I have done something different? Maybe. But I don't know what he knows, and he's the governor."

February 8, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

"Event dependence in U.S. executions"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper authored by Frank Baumgartner, Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier and Benjamin Campbell.  Here is the abstract:

Since 1976, the United States has seen over 1,400 judicial executions, and these have been highly concentrated in only a few states and counties.  The number of executions across counties appears to fit a stretched distribution.  These distributions are typically reflective of self-reinforcing processes where the probability of observing an event increases for each previous event.  To examine these processes, we employ two-pronged empirical strategy.  First, we utilize bootstrapped Kolmogorov-Smirnov tests to determine whether the pattern of executions reflect a stretched distribution, and confirm that they do. Second, we test for event-dependence using the Conditional Frailty Model.

Our tests estimate the monthly hazard of an execution in a given county, accounting for the number of previous executions, homicides, poverty, and population demographics. Controlling for other factors, we find that the number of prior executions in a county increases the probability of the next execution and accelerates its timing.  Once a jurisdiction goes down a given path, the path becomes self-reinforcing, causing the counties to separate out into those never executing (the vast majority of counties) and those which use the punishment frequently.  This finding is of great legal and normative concern, and ultimately, may not be consistent with the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

February 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

ABA House of Delegates enacts resolution urging prohibition of death penalty's application to those under 21

Images (5)As reported in this ABA Journal posting, the "ABA House of Delegates on Monday asked all death penalty jurisdictions to ban capital punishment for any offender who committed their crime at the age of 21 or younger." Here is more:

In the report accompanying the resolution, the chairs of the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice wrote: “In light of this evolution of both the scientific and legal understanding surrounding young criminal defendants and broader changes to the death penalty landscape, it is now time for the ABA to revise its dated position and support the exclusion of individuals who were 21 years old or younger at the time of their crime.”

The language of Resolution 111 makes clear that the ABA is not taking a position “supporting or opposing the death penalty.”

In a motion to amend, Robert L. Weinberg, a past president of the District of Columbia Bar and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, proposed removing that language. He brought up a CLE session held earlier during this midyear meeting by Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “We stand almost alone among the progressive democracies in adhering to capital punishment,” he said....

Michael Byowitz, the Board of Governors’ liaison to the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, rose to speak in opposition to Weinberg’s amendment.... Byowitz said marginal efforts chipping away at the use of the death penalty are the most effective ways of addressing the problem. “We will be ignored if we are perceived in many of the councils that matter as against the death penalty,” he said. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”...

The amendment was defeated in a divided vote. Resolution 111 was passed overwhelmingly.

The full Resolution and Report can be accessed at this link.  The report runs a dozen pages and concludes this way:

In the decades since the ABA adopted its policy opposing capital punishment for individuals under the age of 18, legal, scientific and societial developments strip the continued application of the death penalty against individuals in late adolescence of its moral or constitutional justification.  The rationale supporting the bans on executing either juveniles, as advanced in Roper v. Simmons, or individuals with intellectual disabilities, as set forth in Atkins v. Virginia, also apply to offenders who are 21 years old or younger when they commit their crimes.  Thus, this policy proposes a practical limitation based on age that is supported by science, tracks many other areas of our civil and criminal law, and will succeed in making the administration of the death penalty fairer and more proportional to both the crimes and the offenders.

In adopting this revised position, the ABA still acknowledges the need to impose serious and severe punishment on these individuals when they take the life of another person.  Yet at the same time, this policy makes clear our recognition that individuals in late adolescence, in light of their ongoing neurological development, are not among the worst of the worst offenders, for whom the death penalty must be reserved.

February 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, February 02, 2018

Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?

In my sentencing class, we have been talking about all the different players in the sentencing drama, and those stories often come into especially sharp relief as we move into our capital punishment unit.  And, coincidentally, after an execution in Texas last night, Ohio has the next scheduled execution in the US so that my students can have a front-row seat concerning all the players that become involved in the sentencing drama as a death sentence gets ever closer to being carried out.

Against that backdrop, the question in the title of this post arises as a result of the news, reported at the end of this article: Ohio "Governor Kasich has faced calls in recent weeks to spare Tibbetts because attorneys say he suffered from opioid addiction.  On Thursday, a former juror in Tibbetts’ capital murder trial wrote a letter urging Kasich to grant him a reprieve.  The juror said he has since seen mitigating evidence that he had never seen at trial and he would not have recommended the death penalty if he heard about Tibbetts’ history of abuse and addiction."

The full text of the intricate four-page letter from juror Ross Allen Geiger to Ohio Gov Kasich is available at this link.  It makes for an interesting read, and here an excerpt:

All of these things lead me to one conclusion and that is that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case.  The State of Ohio (through Hamilton County) called on me to fulfill a civic duty one that included an unenviable task of possibly recommending death for another man.  I fulfilled this duty faithfully. Governor, if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn’t we get it right?  Shouldn’t the officers of the court (primarily the defense attorneys) treat the life or death phase with great attention to detail and the respect it deserves?

In conclusion, Tibbets is guilty and has forfeited forever his right to freedom.  If the death penalty is reserved for the “worst of the worst”, that is murderers that truly have no potential for redemption, then I ask you to grant mercy to Tibbets.  Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty....

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Texas completes its thirs execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, headlined "John Battaglia jokes with his ex-wife before being executed for killing their girls while she listened in horror," a death sentence was carried out tonight in Texas. Here are the details:

John David Battaglia went out with a joke and a grin. Battaglia, 62, offered no apologies and showed no remorse for killing his daughters at his Deep Ellum loft in 2001.

He seemed jovial, strapped to a gurney while witnesses arrived to watch his execution at the state's Huntsville Unit. As they filed in, he looked around and asked, "How many people are there? Oh, that's a lot."

The one-time accountant even said hello to his ex-wife, Mary Jean Pearle, who was there to watch him die. "Well, hi, Mary Jean. I'll see y'all later. Bye," he said. "Go ahead, please."

He closed his eyes for several moments, and shortly after the lethal injection was administered, he looked at the chaplain at his feet, smiled and asked, "Am I still alive?" Battaglia grinned and then sighed. "Oh, here, I feel it," he said. It took about 22 minutes for him to be pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m.

Battaglia was the third man executed this year in the nation, all in Texas, and the second killer from Dallas put to death this week. His execution brought an end to a lengthy legal battle to spare his life. He was twice granted a stay so his mental competency could be evaluated, and his attorneys filed last-ditch efforts Thursday to delay the execution.

Battaglia received national attention in May 2001 after he gunned down his 9-year-old daughter, Faith, and 6-year-old Liberty at his Deep Ellum loft while their mother listened helplessly on the phone. At the time, he was on probation for hitting his ex-wife, the girls' mother, and she had been trying to have him arrested for violating that probation.

"Mommy, why do you want Daddy to have to go to jail?" Faith was told to ask her mother, moments before the girl begged for her life. "No, Daddy. Don't do it."

Last week, his attorneys filed a request for a stay of execution to the U.S. Supreme Court saying that Battaglia did not fully understand why he was being put to death. "Although he is aware of the state's rationale for his execution, he does not have a rational understanding of it," appellate attorneys Michael Mowla and Gregory Gardner wrote.

Battaglia, himself, said in a 2014 interview with The Dallas Morning News that he didn't recall committing the crime and still considered the girls his "best little friends."... In his Texas appeals, his attorneys wrote that Battaglia was "convinced that his trial and conviction were a sham" and that his death sentence was all part of a conspiracy involving "the KKK, child molesters and homosexual lawyers."...

A state judge and the state appeals court, however, described Battaglia as highly intelligent, competent and not mentally ill. They argued he was faking mental illness to avoid execution. Testimony at a hearing showed Battaglia used the prison library to research capital case rulings on mental competence and discussed with his father the "chess game" of avoiding execution....

Pearle, the killer's ex-wife and the mother of his victims, was at the Huntsville Unit on Thursday to witness his execution — almost 17 years after she listened to Faith and Liberty die and pleaded for them to run away from their father. On Thursday, she leaned in as close as she could to the window separating the witnesses from the death chamber. Pearle watched as Battaglia's breathing grew heavy and then stopped. "I've seen enough of him," Pearle said as she walked away.

February 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Texas carries out its second execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, a "Dallas man who was already on parole for the murder of his estranged wife when he stabbed and strangled his ex-girlfriend in 1999 begged for forgiveness and thanked God with his final breaths before his Tuesday night execution." Here is more:

"I've asked God to forgive me.  Please find it in your hearts to forgive me," William Earl Rayford said before he died by lethal injection at 8:48 p.m.  The 64-year-old asked his victim's family for forgiveness and promised to keep them in his prayers, according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman....

The execution, which took 13 minutes to carry out, was delayed more than two hours in light of a pair of pending Supreme Court appeals, including claims that racially biased testimony tainted his sentencing.

With another execution on the calendar for Thursday, this week could be the first time in five years the Lone Star State has seen back-to-back executions so close together.  The next death date on the calendar is for John David Battaglia, who was convicted of killing his two daughters in 2001 while narrating the slayings to his estranged wife on the other end of the phone.  The scheduled execution comes two weeks after Texas carried out the nation's first execution of 2018 with the lethal injection of Houston-area serial killer Anthony Shore.

Rayford was first sent to death row 17 years ago, following the gruesome slaying of Carol Hall. The crime eerily echoed a 1986 killing that netted him a 23-year prison sentence....

In the years since his arrival on death row, Rayford, who is black, has launched appeals centering on claims of bad lawyering, brain damage and a suicide attempt that his lawyers argued showed remorse and hinted that he may not be a future danger.  This week, in a flurry of last-minute filings in the Supreme Court — including one late Tuesday — Rayford's lawyers argued that racially charged testimony during the punishment phase of trial "irreparably stained" the case....  But late Tuesday — after the execution had been delayed for more than two hours — the court rejected both of Rayford's bids for reprieve....

Last year, Texas led the nation in executions with seven condemned men put to death. The Lone Star State is the only state to execute a prisoner so far this year. Rayford's execution was the second nationwide this year.

January 30, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 26, 2018

SCOTUS (surprisingly?) stays scheduled Alabama execution

As reported in this local article, headlined "Execution called off for Alabama inmate Vernon Madison," the Supreme Court last night got in the way of a state's effort to carry out a death sentence for a man first convicted of killing a police office back in 1985(!). Here are some details and background:

Vernon Madison, one of the longest serving inmates on Alabama's Death Row, was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Thursday, but 30 minutes before the scheduled execution the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay. The stay was later granted, and Madison's execution called off.

Madison, 67, has been on death row for over 30 years after being convicted in April 1985 of killing Mobile police Cpl. Julius Schulte. He was set to die by lethal injection at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore Thursday night, but escaped execution for the second time via a court order.

Madison was 34 when he was charged Schulte's death, who was responding to a domestic disturbance call. Madison also was charged with shooting the woman he lived with at the time, 37-year-old Cheryl Ann Greene. She survived her injuries....

Madison's first trial took place in September 1985. He was convicted, but a state appellate court sent the case back for a violation involving race-based jury selection. His second trial took place in 1990. Prosecutors presented a similar case, and defense attorneys again argued that Madison suffered from a mental illness. They did not dispute the fact that Madison shot Schulte, but said he did not know that Schulte - dressed in plain clothes and driving an unmarked police cruiser - was a police officer.

He was again convicted, and a jury recommended a death sentence by a 10-2 vote. An appellate court again sent the case back to Mobile County for a retrial, this time based on improper testimony from an expert witness for the prosecution.

His third and final trial took place in April 1994. He was convicted, and the jury recommended a life sentence after both Madison and his mother, Aldonia McMillan, asked for mercy. Mobile County Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae sentenced Madison to death-- this time overriding the jury's recommendation.

In April 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that says juries, not judges, have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty. That law officially ended Alabama's judicial override policy, as Alabama was the last state to allow it.

Late Wednesday, Madison's attorneys filed two more petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court-- an application for a stay of execution, and a petition for a writ of certiorari focused on the issue of judicial override. Madison's attorneys argued that since he was sent to death under the judicial override statue, he is entitled to a stay and a review of his case. Attorneys filed similar motions to the Alabama Supreme Court, but they denied the request earlier Wednesday. "Because a death sentence is no longer permissible in cases where the jury has returned a sentence of life, Mr. Madison filed a challenge to his death sentence and scheduled execution in the Alabama Supreme Court. He contended that this execution would be arbitrary and capricious and constitute a violation of the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment," the petition states. "The judicial override in this case resulted in a death sentence that is arbitrary, disproportionate, and unconstitutional..." Madison was first scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in May 2016, but there was a temporary delay. Hours after that execution's scheduled time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stay of execution. The AG's Office filed responses in opposition to those petitions. In November 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision, paving the way for Madison to be executed.

Last month, Madison's attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative filed a petition in Mobile County court to stay Madison's execution, but after a hearing the judge in that case denied the request for a stay of execution. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the EJI and one of Madison's attorneys, then filed two new petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court: One for a stay of execution, and one asking the court to review the case. The AG's Office also filed responses to those requests....

Around 5:30 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of execution, but the stay was granted at 8:10 p.m. Madison will not be executed Thursday night, and the AG's office must request a new execution date from the state supreme court.

The Supreme Court's order states the stay is in place until the justices decide whether they will grant Madison's writ of certiorari, or if they will review the case. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch would deny the application for stay, the order said.

Without seeing all the filings, it is hard for me to tell at this stage whether this stay could be a big deal for death penalty jurisprudence generally. But it is obviously a big deal for any and everyone connected to this defendant, his victims and perhaps all capital lawyers in Alabama.

UPDATE: A commentor and a tweet alerted me to this report from Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed News headlined "The Supreme Court Stopped Alabama From Executing A Man Over Competency Questions." Here is how this piece accounts for the stay:

The Supreme Court on Thursday night halted the scheduled execution of Vernon Madison, who was set to face lethal injection in Alabama for the 1985 murder of a police officer.

The stay of execution was granted by the court while the justices consider whether to take up Madison's case in which his lawyers argue he is no longer competent to face execution, noting this he has been diagnosed with vascular dementia and "is unable to recollect the sequence of events from the offense, to his arrest, to his trial and can no longer connect the underlying offense to his punishment." Alabama's lawyers opposed the request.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch noted that they would have allowed the execution to proceed. At least five justices had to vote to grant the stay of execution, but justices do not have to announce their vote on stay applications like Madison's stay request, so the exact vote tally — and the votes of the other justices — is not known publicly.

I have changed the title of this post to reflect my own uncertainty about the stay's terms.

January 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"How IQ Tests Are Perverted to Justify the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary.  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court has slowly been carving out exemptions to the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities.  In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that people with intellectual disabilities could not be executed, but left it up to the states to determine who is or is not eligible for that protection.  In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the court ruled that a state can't use a simple IQ cut-off.  Then, in last year's Moore v. Texas, the court ruled that states must consider the best psychiatric and medical information about disability when determining disabled status.  Still, IQ testing continues to play a major role, with a threshold of around 70 serving as the cutoff score, below which a person cannot legally be executed.

Here's where "ethnic adjustments" come in.  The practice, as documented by attorney Robert Sanger in a 2015 article in the American University Law Review [available here], adjusts IQ scores upward for people of color convicted of capital crimes.  According to Sanger, prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have all used ethnic adjustments to successfully impose the death penalty on people who otherwise might have been deemed exempt.  In his article, Sanger works methodically through case after case, noting in particular the role played by expert witnesses for the prosecution, who testify to the racial biases of IQ testing. In most cases, these experts have never met the person convicted of the capital crime or assessed that person for disability, even as their testimony clears the way for execution.

At the end of his article, Sanger writes, "The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound.  In fact, when looked at more closely, it is a wonder how the practice has gone largely unchallenged over the last few years."  When I spoke to him over the phone, Sanger confirmed to me that no clear constitutional challenge to the practice has emerged to his knowledge, and certainly not at the United States Supreme Court, or in California, where he practices law.

January 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Documentary film about capital punishment, "The Penalty," starts screening in Ohio

Ohio+Tour+The+PenaltyI had heard some time ago that a documentary film was being made that included former student of mine, Allen Bohnert, who has spent the last decade defending persons on Ohio's death row as they approach execution dates. That film, called The Penalty, is complete and is now about to start a week-long Ohio series of showings.

An extended preview of the film is available at this link, and here are parts of the film's official description from its website:

Three extraordinary people embark on journeys of recovery, discovery and rebellion and find themselves centre stage in the biggest capital punishment crisis in modern memory.

The Penalty is a feature documentary film following three people with extraordinary experiences of America's modern death penalty and goes behind the scenes of capital punishment's most recent headlines....

America’s most divisive issue — capital punishment — is running into some trouble. With drug supplies for lethal injections drying up and public support at an all-time-low, the struggle to keep executing is taking its toll.

The Penalty follows three people caught in the crosshairs of capital punishment and the political landscape that could decide their fate.  Going behind the scenes of some of the biggest headlines in the history of America's death penalty, the film follows the lethal injection protocol crisis that resulted in a botched execution; the rehabilitation of a man who spent 15 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and the family of a young woman — brutally murdered — split by the state's pursuit of the ultimate punishment.

And here are details about this week's Ohio screenings (with links from the original):

We're very excited to announce that in 2018 we'll be taking The Penalty on tour around the US, starting with a week long tour of Ohio from the 22nd-28th of January. 

Ohio currently has over 25 executions scheduled up to 2022 with the next one scheduled for just a few weeks time on February 13th. After the last attempted execution ended in disarray, there couldn't be a better time to take this film around the state. 

We've teamed up with Ohioans to Stop Executions and The Inter-community Justice and Peace Centre to put on 9 FREE SCREENINGS around the state. Each screening will be followed by a talkback session with the film's co-director Will Francome and special guests, plus the opportunity to take action. 

For those of you in Ohio, or who have friends or family in the state, go to this link to reserve your free tickets. 

If you're not in Ohio - don't fear - there will be more screenings this year, with multiple state tours and one-off screenings. 

January 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Texas completes first execution of 2018

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "'Tourniquet Killer' executed in Texas for 1992 strangling," the first execution of the year was completed in Texas this evening. Here is the story:

Texas carried out the nation's first execution of 2018 Thursday evening, giving lethal injection to a man who became known as Houston's "Tourniquet Killer" because of his signature murder technique on four female victims. Anthony Allen Shore was put to death for one of those slayings, the 1992 killing of a 21-year-old woman whose body was dumped in the drive-thru of a Houston Dairy Queen.

In his final statement, Shore, 55, was apologetic and his voice cracked with emotion. "No amount of words or apology could ever undo what I've done," Shore said while strapped to the death chamber gurney. "I wish I could undo the past, but it is what it is."

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital began, Shore said the drug burned. "Oooh-ee! I can feel that," he said before slipping into unconsciousness. He was pronounced dead 13 minutes later at 6:28 p.m. CST.

"Anthony Allen Shore's reign of terror is officially over," Andy Kahan, the city of Houston crime victims' advocate, said, speaking for the families of Shore's victims. "There's a reason we have the death penalty in the state of Texas and Anthony Shore is on the top of the list. This has been a long, arduous journey that has taken over 20 years for victims' families."

Shore's lawyers argued in appeals he suffered brain damage early in life that went undiscovered by his trial attorneys and affected Shore's decision to disregard their advice when he told his trial judge he wanted the death penalty. A federal appeals court last year turned down his appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case and the six-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected a clemency petition.

In 1998, Shore received eight years' probation and became a registered sex offender for sexually assaulting two relatives. Five years later, Shore was arrested for the 1992 slaying of Maria del Carmen Estrada after a tiny particle recovered from under her fingernail was matched to his DNA. "I didn't set out to kill her," he told police in a taped interview played at his 2004 trial. "That was not my intent. But it got out of hand."...

He also confessed to killing three others, a 9-year-old and two teenagers. All four of his victims were Hispanic and at least three had been raped. Jurors also heard from three women who testified he raped them.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who as an assistant prosecutor worked the then-unsolved Estrada case, said crime scene photos showed Estrada was tortured and had suffered as a stick was used to tighten a cord around her neck. "I know this case, I know his work and the death penalty is appropriate," she said. "A jury in this case gave Shore death. ... I think he's reached the end of the road and now it's up to government to complete the job."

Besides Estrada, Shore confessed to the slayings of Laurie Tremblay, 15, found beside a trash bin outside a Houston restaurant in 1986; Diana Rebollar, 9, abducted while walking to a neighborhood grocery store in 1994; and Dana Sanchez, 16, who disappeared in 1995 while hitchhiking to her boyfriend's home in Houston....

In 2017, 23 convicted killers were put to death in the U.S., seven of them in Texas, more than another state. Three more inmates are scheduled to die in Texas in the coming weeks.

January 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Noticing the rise in LWOP as death sentencing declines in Texas

This lengthy article from the Houston Chronicle, headlined "Harris County leads Texas in life without parole sentences as death penalty recedes," provides an astute review of the sentencing impact of a decline of death sentencing.  Here are excerpts (with the closing sentences prompting some commentary):

Once known as the "capital of capital punishment," Harris County is now doling out more life without parole sentences than any other county in the state.

In the 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the life without parole or "LWOP" bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences — nearly 25 percent of the state's total, according to data through mid-December obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"It's concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there's no free lunch," said Houston defense attorney Patrick McCann. "We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That's a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences."

The county's reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as the Houston area — and Texas as a whole — has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. And although part of that downturn stems from the possibility of life without parole, some experts see possible drawbacks....

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, described life without parole as a "saving grace" for victims' families. "Like it or not, there's some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life," he said. "In a utopian world it'd be great if we didn't have to have it but that's not reality."

While Harris County grabs the lion's share of the state's life without parole sentences, Dallas County came in right behind with 120, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data through Dec. 18. Tarrant County had 69 of the state's 1,067 total such sentences, while Bexar County had 47 and Hidalgo had 26....

Just over 17 percent of the state's population lives in Harris County, according to Texas Department of State Health Services population projections for 2016. That makes for an LWOP rate of 6 sentences per 100,000 residents, which is higher than in all but two counties with populations over 100,000.

In comparison to murder figures, the relatively large number of life without parole sentences looks less surprising. According to an analysis of DPS data, in 2016 Harris County accounted for 27.7 percent of the state's murders and 22.7 percent of the murders cleared.

And while Harris County accounts for a disproportionate number of total executions nationwide — more than any other county or entire state, except the rest of Texas — it has generated only a small fraction of the total life without parole sentences across the country, based on TDCJ figures and a 2017 Sentencing Project report.

"Where the corporate culture has changed is the willingness to seek death," McCann said, referring to local prosecutors. "Cases that ten years ago would have been death even with LWOP are now charged as non-death," McCann said. "But that doesn't mean that they've stopped charging the LWOP cases."

To some extent, Texas' relatively low LWOP use compared to national numbers may stem from the fact that prosecutors have only had the option for life without parole since 2005. Before that, the harshest choices were death — or the possibility of release after 40 years....

Texas became the last death penalty state to adopt the option, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition. Initially it only applied to capital murder, but later the law was expanded to include crimes like repeated sexual assault of a child.

From the statute's inception, Harris County was one of its biggest users. "It's not surprising because Harris County is also the driver of the death penalty numbers and most juvenile commitments as well," Henneke said. "Across the board Harris County is the incarceration county."...

Unlike with death-sentenced cases, there's no automatic appointment of post-conviction appellate counsel and no punishment phase of the trial, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper. "Life without parole was an unintentional gift to major urban prosecutors' offices," McCann said. "It makes it very easy to dispose of a large number of violent and often youthful offenders without any more thought than one would need to toss away a piece garbage."

The last few passages highlight what has long been my enduring concern as abolitionist have pushed for LWOP sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. Though the extreme LWOP sentence may at first be only available for the worst murders, once on the books it can and often does creep to be applicable to a range of other crimes. And capital cases come with super due-process, much of which is constitutionally requires; LWOP can be imposed, as this article puts it, "quicker and cheaper." While I understand why abolitionists celebrate the use of LWOP in order to engineer a decline in capital cases, I also lament the various ways abolitionist advocacy for LWOP alternatives have contributed to modern mass incarceration and further entrenched carceral commitments and contentments.

January 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Notable report of AG Sessions seeking more federal death sentences, but what about carrying out those long ago imposed?

The Wall Street Journal has this notable article today headlined "U.S. to Seek Death Penalty More Often for Violent Crimes; Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal prosecutors to seek capital punishment in two murder cases and is said to be weighing it in others, including Manhattan terror attack." Here are excerpts (with two particular lines emphasized):

The Justice Department has agreed to seek the federal death penalty in at least two murder cases, in what officials say is the first sign of a heightened effort under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use capital punishment to further crack down on violent crime.

In a decision made public Monday, Mr. Sessions authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Billy Arnold, who is charged with killing two rival gang members in Detroit.  The decision followed the first death-penalty authorization under Mr. Sessions, made public Dec. 19, when he cleared prosecutors in Orlando to seek a death sentence against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who is charged with fatally shooting his estranged wife in 2016.

The Justice Department is also considering seeking death sentences against Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people in November by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike lane, and against two defendants in the 2016 slaying of two teenage girls by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, outside of New York City, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mr. Sessions views the death penalty as a “valuable tool in the tool belt,” according to a senior Justice Department official. The official said the death penalty isn’t only a deterrent, but also a “punishment for the most heinous crimes prohibited under federal law.” The Justice Department under President Donald Trump expects to authorize more death penalty cases than the previous administration did, the official said....

The last federal execution was in 2003. Since 1963, three federal defendants have been executed. The federal government has secured 25 death sentences since 2007, down from 45 death sentences between 1996 and 2006....

Only 2% of death-penalty cases are sentenced in federal court. Several types of murder cases fall under federal jurisdiction, including those involving drug trafficking, racketeering or — in Mr. Madison’s case — interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking.

The Obama administration sought the federal death penalty in at least four dozen cases, fewer than the Bush administration, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, a federally funded program to assist death penalty lawyers. The cases authorized under the previous administration included ones involving terrorism, the killing of children or law-enforcement officers, and murders by prisoners already serving life sentences.

But in recent years, a Justice Department review of the drugs used to execute prisoners prompted an effective moratorium on federal executions.

Mr. Sessions appears to be seeking the death penalty against a broader set of violent crimes. Former Justice Department officials under President Barack Obama said they typically wouldn’t have authorized capital punishment in a case like Mr. Arnold’s, which involves gang-on-gang violence. Murder cases with “victims who were themselves involved in criminal activity” are the ones where death penalty decisions tend to fluctuate by administration, said David Bitkower, a former Justice Department official under Mr. Obama who prosecuted two death-penalty gang cases.

Eric Holder, who served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015, personally opposed the death penalty. Loretta Lynch, Mr. Holder’s successor, called capital punishment “an effective penalty” at her confirmation hearing.

Mr. Sessions has put combating violent crime at the center of his agenda, encouraging prosecutors to pursue longer prison sentences and approving the hiring of dozens of new violent-crimes prosecutors.

The moves come as the death penalty on the state and federal level has been in decline. State executions are hovering near 26-year lows, partly due to dwindling supplies of lethal drugs and growing legal scrutiny from courts....

Former prosecutors say an increase in death-penalty cases could be time-consuming and expensive for both government and defense lawyers. Appeals in death penalty cases can take decades.

There are 61 prisoners on federal death row, compared with more than 2,800 in the states.

The de facto federal moratorium on executions got started more than a decade ago in the run up to the Supreme Court's first review of the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols in Baze.   After Baze resolved the basic constitutionality of lethal injection protocols, and especially after Glossip back in 2015 had the Supreme Court making pretty clear that jurisdictions could lawfully use a number of potential lethal injection drugs, the justification for continuing the de facto federal moratorium on executions became shaky at best.  Consequently, if AG Sessions is really serious about the death penalty as a "valuable tool in the tool belt," he needs to make an effort to make sure that the tool is actually fully operational.  Sending folks to US death row when there are no executions going forward is really just another way to impose LWOP while perpetuating a functional legal fiction.

Notably, this helpful list of all 61 federal death row prisoners from the Death Penalty Information Center reveals that 10 condemned have been languishing on federal death row for two decades or longer, and most have been there more than a decade.  Especially given that Justice Breyer has often argued that long stays on death row violate the Eighth Amendment, AG Sessions might even suggest he is duty bound to try to speed up the federal execution process in order to avoid possible constitutional violations.

January 10, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 08, 2018

SCOTUS back to work with remarkable split habeas ruling giving capital defendant another (long-shot?) chance to obtain relief

At the end of this long Supreme Court order list, comprised primarily of a long list of cases in which certiorari has been denied, comes a fascinating little per curiam opinion in Tharpe v. Seller, No. 17–6075 (S. Ct. jan 8, 2018) (available here).  The ruling is a rare summary SCOTUS win for a capital habeas defendant, and the short majority opinion provides only a small glimpse into the case (though a clear view of what motivated a majority of Justices to want to intervene).  Here are excerpts from the opinion (with cites removed):

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 60(b)(6). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him....

Our review of the record compels a different conclusion.  The state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race.  And that factual determination is binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.  Here, however, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”  Gattie’s remarkable affidavit — which he never retracted — presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.  At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong.  The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, authored a lengthy dissent to the majority's short ruling. It starts and ends this way:

If bad facts make bad law, then “unusual facts” inspire unusual decisions.  Ante, at 3.  In its brief per curiam opinion, the Court misreads a lower court’s opinion to find an error that is not there, and then refuses to entertain alternative grounds for affirmance. The Court does this to accomplish little more than a do-over in the Court of Appeals: As it concedes, petitioner Keith Tharpe faces a “high bar” on remand to obtain even a certificate of appealability (COA).  Ante, at 2.

One might wonder why the Court engages in this pointless exercise.  The only possible explanation is its concern with the “unusual facts” of this case, specifically a juror affidavit that expresses racist opinions about blacks.  The opinions in the affidavit are certainly odious.  But their odiousness does not excuse us from doing our job correctly, or allow us to pretend that the lower courts have not done theirs.

The responsibility of courts is to decide cases, both usual and unusual, by neutrally applying the law.  The law reflects society’s considered judgments about the balance of competing interests, and we must respect those judgments.  In bending the rules here to show its concern for a black capital inmate, the Court must think it is showing its concern for racial justice.  It is not.  Its summary vacatur will not stop Tharpe’s execution or erase the “unusual fac[t]” of the affidavit.  It will only delay justice for Jaquelin Freeman, who was also black, who is ignored by the majority, and who was murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. I respectfully dissent....

Today’s decision can be explained only by the “unusual fac[t]” of Gattie’s first affidavit.  Ibid.  The Court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that affidavit, and must want to do something about it.  But the Court’s decision is no profile in moral courage.  By remanding this case to the Court of Appeals for a useless do-over, the Court is not doing Tharpe any favors.  And its unusual disposition of his case callously delays justice for Jaquelin Freeman, the black woman who was brutally murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. Because this Court should not be in the business of ceremonial handwringing, I respectfully dissent.

This is quite the way to start Supreme Court activity in 2018, a year that seems certain to have at least the usual share of SCOTUS fireworks. (I am also inspired by Justice Thomas's closing thought to imagine a new tagline for this blog: "Engaged in ceremonial handwringing since 2004.")

January 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Friday, January 05, 2018

"What to Know About the Death Penalty in 2018"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Marshall Project piece that astutely previews what the year ahead might hold in the arena of capital punishment.  Here is how the piece starts and its preview themes:

Only a little more than a year ago, many opponents of the death penalty were cautiously optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court — perhaps with a Clinton appointee or two — might strike down the punishment for good. Then came President Donald Trump, who tweeted “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” about one criminal suspect and recently called for the execution of anyone who kills a police officer. He picked an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, known for his efforts to pursue executions in Alabama, and a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whose first major decision was to deny a prisoner’s request for a stay of execution.

But does all that matter? The number of executions and new death sentences have been trending downward for years. Support for capital punishment in the U.S. is at about 55 percent, its lowest point in more than four decades. Trump’s first year saw a slight rise in death sentences and executions, but those are the product of counties and states; the president and attorney general have little say beyond the occasional federal case. What can we expect at the beginning of 2018? Is the death penalty almost gone, or will the president’s support rejuvenate it?

To answer those questions, there will be four places to watch:

The Counties

It’s up to local, elected district attorneys to decide whether to ask a jury for the death penalty. In the 1990s, many prosecutors campaigned on their successes sending men to death row. But much has changed....

The States

It takes a DA and a jury to send someone to death row, but it takes a massive state bureaucracy to kill him. Courts must uphold the convictions, prison officials must secure lethal injection drugs, and governors and attorneys general must clear political and legal obstacles....

The Supreme Court

Trump could leave a massive legacy at the Supreme Court, especially if Justice Anthony Kennedy follows through on his plan to retire....

The U.S. Attorney General

The federal government has successfully sought capital punishment 76 times since 1988. It will become clear in 2018 whether Sessions will try to impose capital punishment in some current cases.

January 5, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

NY Times again forcefully calls for Supreme Court to end the use of the death penalty

The New York Times editorial page has long advocated for the abolition of the death penalty, and it started the new year with another long and forceful editorial on this front.  Headlined "Capital Punishment Deserves a Quick Death," here are excerpts:

As the nation enters 2018, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear at least one case asking it to strike down the death penalty, once and for all, for violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

Whether the justices take that or another case, the facts they face will be the same: The death penalty is a savage, racially biased, arbitrary and pointless punishment that becomes rarer and more geographically isolated with every year. In 2017 the total number of people sitting on death rows across America fell for the 17th straight year. In Harris County, Tex., the nation’s undisputed leader in state-sanctioned killing, the year passed without a single execution or death sentence — the first time that’s happened in more than 40 years.

Still, Texas was one of just two states — Arkansas is the other — responsible for almost half of 2017’s executions. And nearly one in three of the nation’s 39 new death sentences last year were handed down in three counties: Riverside in California, Clark in Nevada and Maricopa in Arizona.

It would be tempting to conclude from this litany, which is drawn from an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center, that capital punishment is being reserved for the most horrific crimes committed by the most incorrigible offenders. But it would be wrong. The death penalty is not and has never been about the severity of any given crime. Mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, childhood abuse or neglect, abysmal lawyers, minimal judicial review, a white victim — these factors are far more closely associated with who ends up getting executed. Of the 23 people put to death in 2017, all but three had at least one of these factors, according to the report. Eight were younger than 21 at the time of their crime....

The rest of the developed world agreed to reject this cruel and pointless practice long ago. How can it be ended here, for good?

Leaving it up to individual states is not the solution. It’s true that 19 states and the District of Columbia have already banned capital punishment, four have suspended it and eight others haven’t executed anyone in more than a decade. Some particularly awful state policies have also been eliminated in the past couple of years, like a Florida law that permitted non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences, and an Alabama rule empowering judges to override a jury’s vote for life, even a unanimous one, and impose death.

And yet at the same time, states have passed laws intended to speed up the capital appeals process, despite the growing evidence of legal errors and prosecutorial misconduct that can be hidden for years or longer. Other states have gone to great lengths to hide their lethal-injection protocols from public scrutiny, even as executions with untested drugs have gone awry and pharmaceutical companies have objected to the use of their products to kill people.

Last summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that the death penalty would eventually end with a whimper. “The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” Justice Ginsburg said at a law school event. “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”

That’s a dispiriting take. The death penalty holdouts may be few and far between, but they are fiercely committed, and they won’t stop killing people unless they’re forced to. Relying on the vague idea of attrition absolves the court of its responsibility to be the ultimate arbiter and guardian of the Constitution — and specifically of the Eighth Amendment. The court has already relied on that provision to ban the execution of juvenile offenders, the intellectually disabled and those convicted of crimes against people other than murder.

There’s no reason not to take the final step. The justices have all the information they need right now to bring America in line with most of the rest of the world and end the death penalty for good.

January 2, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Noting some notable SCOTUS petitions

Via How Appealing, I noticed these two notable stories about notable certiorari petitions on notable sentencing issues.  The first linked story concerns a petition in a capital case that has been widely discussed, but that I doubt will be granted; the second linked story concerns a petition in a non-capital juve case that raises an issue that has been festering in lower courts ever since the Supreme Court's Graham ruling in 2010:

December 24, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Noting executions uncompleted in 2017

This recent Houston Chronicle story, headlined "71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017," provides another perspective on US execution data for the year winding down. Here are some details:

Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country.  That's one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation's killingest state. Nearly a third of the year's 23 executions took place in Texas....

"The process is better than it was a decade ago," said Robert Dunham of DPIC. "And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures."

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said.  The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners' execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.

Prior recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)