Friday, June 24, 2016

Unexpectedly(?), new post-Hurst hydra head takes big bite out of Ohio capital case

Download (1)As regularly readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  That hydra has been taking various bites out of capital cases most prominently in Alabama and Delaware as well as Florida, but this article from my own local Ohio paper highlights how new heads can pop up in unexpected places.  The article is headlined "Prosecutor: Marion County judge's ruling puts death penalty in jeopardy," and here are the interesting details:

A Marion County judge this week dropped the death penalty elements from a convicted murderer-rapist's sentence on the grounds that there were similarities to a Florida death sentence ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Because Florida and Ohio have similar sentencing and procedural guidelines, defense attorneys argued that Maurice A. Mason, sentenced in 1994 for raping and beating to death Robin Dennis, then 19 and pregnant, should not be executed.

The case could have implications in other capital cases in Ohio, said Marion County Prosecutor Brent Yager, who disagreed with Monday's decision by Marion Common Pleas Court Judge William Finnegan. "I was surprised," said Yager. "I believe that there is a distinction between the death penalty in Florida and in Ohio."...

Finnegan, in his ruling, wrote that the Hurst decision makes clear that the Sixth Amendment requires juries make specific findings to authorize the death penalty.  Ohio, he wrote, "has no provision for the jury to make specific findings related to the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors," and thus is unconstitutional.

Yager said Ohio differs from Florida because juries here directly decide the aggravating circumstances in a capital case used in the penalty phase and sentencing, although judge's have the ability to commute the death sentence in lieu of life in prison....  Yager said the ruling is frustrating, in part because victim families and lawmakers expect swift and certain justice.

"Ohio and the state legislature have decided we still should have a death penalty in Ohio," said Yager. "But based on the judge's ruling here, if this stands, our death penalty would be unconstitutional. This decision does become a statewide issue." Yager said he plans to file an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lima.

Mason's attorney, Kort Gatterdam, said the decision should "withstand scrutiny from higher courts and will become the law of this state ... and could become the basis to eliminate the death penalty in Ohio."...

Mason, now 52, has been moved from death row to a regular cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. With no sentence on record for the murder conviction, he technically is eligible for a parole hearing. But the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the parole board have said that won't happen his ultimate sentence for murder is resolved.

Not long after SCOTUS ruled in Hurst, a very smart and savvy local lawyer told me that he thought a strong argument could be made that Ohio's capital sentencing scheme has Hurst problems. Apparently, at least one state trial judge agrees, and it will be very interesting to watch the certain appeal of this ruling in the state courts as well as whether this ruling echoes through lots and lots of other Ohio capital cases past and present.

The full 50-page ruling in Ohio v. Mason, No. 93CR1053 (Ohio Common Pleas Ct. June 20, 2016), is available at this link. I have not yet had a chance to read the opinion, but I think it surely is a must-read for capital litigators of all stripes in Ohio and elsewhere.

June 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Split Arkansas Supreme Court upholds state's new secrecy law to allow execution plans to move forward

Download (21)As reported in this AP piece, "Arkansas can execute eight death row inmates, a split state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in upholding a state law that keeps information about its lethal injection drugs confidential."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would request new execution dates once the stays are lifted on the eight inmate executions.  Generally, a ruling goes into effect 18 days after it is issued. A paralytic drug, vecuronium bromide, expires on June 30, and the supplier has said it will not sell the state more. So, for the stays to be lifted before the drugs expire, Rutledge must ask the court to expedite the certification process, which she had not done as of Thursday.

"I will notify the governor once the stays of executions have been lifted so that he may set execution dates. I know that victims' families want to see justice carried out, and that is exactly what I will continue to work toward as Attorney General," she wrote in an emailed statement.  Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves would not say whether the agency would try to move forward with the executions. When asked whether the department had tried to negotiate purchasing additional drugs or contacted the suppliers to see whether Thursday's ruling would entice them to sell, Graves said he could not engage in hypotheticals....

The court noted in its ruling an affidavit from a prison official, who said he had contacted at least five other drug wholesalers and manufacturers that said they would not sell the drugs to the state or would not sell them without the makers' permission. It was unclear whether Thursday's actions would change those companies' decisions.  The attorney general's office would not advise the Department of Correction to use the drugs after they expire, spokesman Judd Deere said.

A group of death row inmates had argued that Arkansas' execution secrecy law, which requires the state to conceal the maker, seller and other information about the drugs, could lead to cruel and unusual punishment and that the state reneged on a pledge to share information.  But the high court said in its 4-3 majority opinion that a lower court "erred in ruling that public access to the identity of the supplier of the three drugs (the Arkansas Department of Correction) has obtained would positively enhance the functioning of executions in Arkansas. As has been well documented, disclosing the information is actually detrimental to the process."

Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney representing the inmates, said he is "studying the decision and anticipate filing a petition for rehearing."  Three justices wrote full or partial dissents, including Associate Justice Robin Wynne, who wrote that he believed the inmates proved their claim that the law violated the state constitution's prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment. Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote that the dismissal of the complaint was premature and that she would have ordered disclosure of the drug information....

For more than 10 years, Arkansas' executions have been stalled because of multiple court challenges over different drug protocols and problems obtaining those drugs. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set execution dates last September that were later stayed by the high court until the inmates' challenge could be heard.  Hutchinson "believes Judge Griffen overstepped his authority and is pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his ruling upholding the law protecting the confidentiality of the supplier," spokesman J.R. Davis said, adding that Hutchinson is reviewing the decision and talking with Rutledge regarding "the appropriate next steps to take."

The inmates had argued that without disclosure of the source and other information they had no way to determine whether the midazolam, vecuronium bromide or potassium chloride would lead to cruel and unusual punishment.  The inmates also argued that the secrecy law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information. The state has said that agreement is not a binding contract, and the court agreed Thursday.

Several other issues remain before the state can complete the eight pending executions in the seven days before the paralytic drug expires. A handful of the inmates have not been given a chance to have clemency hearings, and for those who already had them, it was unclear whether they would need another opportunity to apply for clemency because a new date of execution would have to be set.

The full ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court can be accessed at this link, and this passage from the majority opinion helps explain the import of the Supreme Court's Glossip ruling on this state case:

In this case, the Prisoners urge us to disavow the requirement established in Baze, as amplified by the Court in Glossip, that a prisoner bears the burden of proving a known and available alternative to a state’s current execution protocol.  They assert that we should construe our provision differently because the Eighth Amendment uses the words “cruel and unusual punishment,” whereas the Arkansas Constitution contains the disjunctive phrase “cruel or unusual punishment.”  As the Court made clear in Glossip, the burden of showing a known and available alternative is a substantive component of an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim.  We are not convinced that the slight variation in phraseology between the two constitutions denotes a substantive or conceptual difference in the two provisions that would compel us to disregard any part of the test governing a challenge to a method of execution.  Accordingly, we decline the Prisoners’ invitation to depart from our practice of interpreting our constitutional provision along the same lines as federal precedent, and we hereby adopt the standards enunciated in both Baze and Glossip. Accordingly, in challenging a method of execution under the Arkansas Constitution, the burden falls squarely on a prisoner to show that (1) the current method of execution presents a risk that is sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering and that gives rise to sufficiently imminent dangers; and (2) there are known, feasible, readily implemented, and available alternatives that significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.

June 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Religious Objections to the Death Penalty after Hobby Lobby"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing piece authored by Danieli Evans now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this short essay, I consider how the logic of the complicity-based claims in Hobby Lobby and subsequent nonprofit cases could be applied to challenge the common policy of “death qualifying” jurors in capital punishment cases — removing any juror who reports conscientious opposition to the death penalty.  I argue that just like religious nonprofits that object to reporting a religious objection to contraceptives on the grounds that it enables someone else to provide contraceptives, a juror might object to reporting a religious objection to the death penalty on the grounds that it will enable someone else to replace them who is more likely to impose the death penalty.

June 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Intriguing review of Georgia's intriguing modern history with capital punishment

Because many modern landmark Supreme Court death penalty cases came from Georgia (e.g., Furman, Gregg, Coker, McKlesky), the Peach State will always have a plum role in any story of the modern history of the death penalty.  And this recent local article, headlined "Georgia executions rise, while death sentences plummet," details why Georgia's most recent history with capital punishment also merits attention.  Here is how the piece starts:

It’s Georgia’s new death penalty paradox: the state is executing inmates at a record clip, but prosecutors almost never seek the death penalty anymore, and juries refuse to impose it when they do.

During each of the past two years, Georgia executed five inmates. If, as expected, the state carries out another execution later this year, it will have put more people to death — six — in 2016 than in any single year since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment four decades ago. But the last time a Georgia jury imposed a death sentence was in March 2014. And district attorneys have been turning away from death as a sentencing option, more often allowing killers to receive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A decade ago, state prosecutors filed notices of intent to seek the death penalty against 34 accused killers. That number dropped to 26 in 2011 and to 13 last year. How many times have Georgia DAs sought the death penalty so far this year? Once. And this was against a man accused of killing a priest — a clergyman who had signed a document saying if he died a violent death he did not want his killer to face the death penalty.

The incongruity of the increasing numbers of executions and the plummeting numbers of death sentences took both prosecutors and defense attorneys by surprise. “Wow,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Akil Secret said. “Maybe the times are changing.” The precipitous declines raise the question of whether prior capital sentences were justified, Secret said. “If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes, why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?”

June 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Alabama appeals court says, in essense, "roll tide" to its capital sentencing process

78f550493aece6b4d5c83d32617bce5eAs reported in this post from a few months ago, a county judge had declared Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme unconstitutional because it allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty.  But, as reported by this local article, late last week an Alabama appeals court took a different view.  Here are the basics:

An Alabama appeals court on Friday ordered a Jefferson County judge to vacate her rulings earlier this year that declared the state's capital punishment sentencing scheme unconstitutional. In its order the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals says the state's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional and told Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tracie Todd to vacate her March 3 order in the pending capital murder cases of four men that says otherwise.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office had filed four petitions for a writ of mandamus asking the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to direct Todd to vacate her orders and allow the state to decide whether to seek imposition of the death penalty in those cases if it decides.

The cases involve Kenneth Eugene Billups, Stanley Brent Chapman, Terrell Corey McMullin, and Benjamin Todd Acton who were all indicted for various counts of capital murder. Chapman and McMullin are charged in the same case and the others in separate cases. Before their trials, the men each filed a motion to bar imposition of the death penalty in their cases and to hold Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional based on the United States Supreme Court's decision in January declaring Florida's death sentencing system unconstitutional....

Todd agreed and declared the capital murder sentencing law unconstitutional in a 28-page order. "The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd stated in her ruling. "As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner."

The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, said Friday that the state's capital sentencing law is constitutional. "Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme is constitutional under (U.S. Supreme Court rulings) Apprendi, Ring, and Hurst, and the circuit court (Todd) erred in holding otherwise and prohibiting the State from seeking the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions," the appeals court opinion on Friday states.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office established the prerequisites for the appeals court to issue an order to Todd telling her to vacate her opinion, the appeals court stated in its order. "Therefore, the circuit court (Todd) is directed to set aside its order holding Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional and to allow the State to seek the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions if it chooses to do so.

The appeals court ruled that under Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme a capital murder defendant "is not eligible for the death penalty unless the jury unanimously finds beyond a reasonable doubt, either during the guilt phase or during the penalty phase of the trial, that at least one of the aggravating circumstances ... exists."

The court noted that Florida's law, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January as unconstitutional, was conditioned on a first-degree-murder defendant's eligibility for the death penalty based on a finding by the trial judge, rather than the jury, that an aggravating circumstance existed. The appeals court also criticized the fact that the Attorney General was not given a the required notice that a state law was being challenged as unconstitutional and that Todd then didn't allow an assistant AG to speak at the hearing she held before making her ruling. Todd also had pre-written her ruling before the hearing, the court stated.

Judges Mike Joiner and Liles Burke concurred with the majority although they differed on some points in separate opinions. Both Joiner and Burke criticized Todd's order. Todd's order "contains sparse analysis on the application of Hurst to Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme," Burke wrote. "The majority of the order is devoted to the trial court's opinions regarding partisan politics, the effects of an elected judiciary, court funding, and the propriety of the death penalty in general," Burke states. "Additionally, the trial court extensively cites secondary sources, including materials from "Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty" as well as from the Web site of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose attorneys are representing the defendants in this very proceeding." "In reviewing the materials that were filed with this Court, I find no mention of these issues," Burke writes. "Thus, I question whether the trial court's (Todd's) ultimate conclusion is based on its analysis of Hurst or on the trial judge's personal opinions regarding Alabama's death penalty."

Alabama's attorney general reacted to the ruling early Friday night. "Today's decision by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals is the first case to affirm under Hurst that Alabama's capital sentencing is constitutional," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange stated in a Friday evening press release. "The Appeals Court vacated the Jefferson County Court's March order and thereby held that Alabama can continue to seek the death penalty in capital murder prosecutions."

It's unclear, however, how Friday's ruling might affect recent orders by the U.S. Supreme Court telling the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the appeals of three Alabama death row inmates in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

The full 58-pages of opinions from the Alabama Court of Appeals can be accessed at this link.

Some prior related posts:

June 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

New analysis suggests Pennsylvania may have spent more than $1 billion for its (dysfunctional) capital system

This interesting new Reading Eagle article, headlined "Executing Justice: A look at the cost of Pennsylvania's death penalty," seeks to put a price tag on the operation of the death penalty in the Keystone State.  The article starts this way:

Pennsylvania's death penalty system since 1978 has produced three executions at a stunning cost: $272 million each, for a total of $816 million, according to a Reading Eagle analysis.  The revised analysis of the death penalty's cost to taxpayers dwarfs the $350 million total the paper estimated in 2014.

But, this cost appraisal is also conservative, calculating — over nearly four decades — the expense of sentencing inmates to death rather than life in prison. The total tally, at least one researcher said, could easily top $1 billion.

Death penalty critics note that the money — in a time of constricting budgets — drains public coffers and could be spent to fund a wide range of services, including sorely needed road construction or bridge repairs, while supporters doubted the costs could reach $1 billion.

"We're scratching for every dollar that we can right now," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  "To continue to spend that kind of money is hard to justify."

June 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 17, 2016

Daughter of mass murder victim explains why she opposes death penaly for Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof

This new Vox commentary authored by Sharon Risher explains a notable person's notable perspective on  forgiveness and the death penalty in a notable capital case. The piece is headlined "My mom was killed in the Charleston shooting. Executing Dylann Roof won’t bring her back." Here are excerpts:

Ethel Lance, my mother, was killed on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, along with my cousins Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and six other people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  It appears to have been a racially motivated massacre plotted by a 21-year-old white man....

A mere 48 hours after the church shooting, millions of Americans watched my sister, Nadine Collier, stand in front of our mother’s accused killer and forgive him at his bond hearing.  The media ran with the forgiveness narrative, praising the ability of the victims’ families for their graciousness and faith.

I didn’t forgive Dylann Roof. And I still don’t forgive him. After I saw my sister address the nation, I thought, This girl has to be crazy! Who’s going to forgive him so quickly?  I was hurt that people thought Nadine’s views reflected the views of the Lance family and the thoughts of all of the Charleston nine’s loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong. I disagreed with Nadine, but I respected her opinion — she’s my sister, and she has a right to her own emotions and grieving process.  Still, after the shooting, there were several articles that exploited our different ways of grieving.  They pitted us against each other in the midst of a horrific tragedy.

I understand that the people of Charleston, and of America as a whole, latched onto the overwhelming message of forgiveness as a coping mechanism.  But the focus on quick forgiveness and the pivot to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse washed away the severity of the larger issues at hand – that the accused killer, because of his hatred of black people, could be so stirred by white supremacist ideology that he would go into that church to kill my momma and all the others.

The man accused of killing my mother did not show any remorse.  Why should I feel the need to forgive him when he has not asked for forgiveness?  I know God commands us to forgive, but there is no time stamp — forgiveness is a journey that you allow yourself to feel because someone has wronged you....

In the months since the shooting, I received a handwritten letter from Lucia McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 from gun violence. Lucia sent her condolences and told me to reach out to her if I needed to.  On a whim, I did.  From there, I became involved with gun control advocacy, rallying for national gun control organizations....

Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother’s death, I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her.  That’s my conviction because of my faith.  I’ve said the same thing all along — I don’t believe as human beings that we should take away someone’s life just because we have the power to do so.

God is the only person, the only being who decides our fate.  Still, I will let the judicial system do what they choose. The Department of Justice announced last month that it will seek the death penalty against the shooter.  Whatever the outcome, I will not protest.

This is how my faith carries me. I don’t walk in fear.  I don’t think about Dylann Roof.  All I want to do is do what God has planned out for me.  If I can stop one person from experiencing the pain myself and my family and all the families experienced post-Charleston, then I have done my part.

June 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Delaware Supreme Court struggles to tame the post-Hurst hydra

Download (1)As regular readers know, in this post not long 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 what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases. This local article reports on the Delaware Supreme Court arguments yesterday trying to sort out the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  Here are excerpts:

After two sides argued their cases Wednesday morning, justices on Delaware’s highest court departed to consider the constitutionality of the most severe punishment of all – death.

The Delaware Supreme Court is weighing the merits of a judge’s role in capital punishment sentencing and how it relates to the right to a jury trial. “We understand how important this is (to all you),” said Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. before exiting the packed courtroom with his four Supreme Court colleagues.

The issue arose after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in January that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional and that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” After the ruling, all death penalty trials in Delaware were stopped until more clarity was brought to the state’s process and how it relates to the constitution.

According to the Supreme Court in an order, there are over two dozen capital cases pending in Superior Court, four scheduled for trial, in less than 120 days.

Questions to the court were raised in the currently pending murder case of Benjamin Rauf. On Wednesday, attorneys presented their beliefs before the court in a scheduled 60-minute session, at times engaging in question and answer discussions with the justices.

Since a jury decides whether a case is death penalty eligible in Delaware, the state maintains that constitutional requirements are currently met. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg argued for the state on Wednesday. Mr. Lugg said Delaware’s sentencing scheme, which was revised in 2002 in response to a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, meets all of the elements outlined by the Supreme Court in the Florida decision, according to the Associated Press. “The fundamental right to a jury is provided by the Delaware statute,” he said....

In Delaware, judges have the final say on whether a death sentence is ordered; a jury must find at least one statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death penalty eligible. In Florida, judges had the responsibility to find any “aggravating factors” that qualify it for possible capital punishment sentencing.

Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti argued for the appellant. “The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact,” he said.

Prior related post:

June 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Notable South Carolina affinities and disaffinities for capital prosecution of Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

This recent local article out of South Carolina provides an interesting review of interesting survey data about opinion on the high-profile capital prosecution(s) of a local mass murderer.  The article is headlined "Most SC blacks say Dylann Roof should get life without parole," and here are excerpts:

A majority of black South Carolinians say Dylann Roof should be sentenced to life without parole — not death — if he is found guilty of murdering nine African-American members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. But most white South Carolinians say Roof should be sentenced to death if he is found guilty, according to a University of South Carolina poll.

Roof faces federal and state charges in connection with the Charleston massacre. Both federal and state prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty. The difference of opinion over Roof reflects historically differing attitudes toward the death penalty between black and white South Carolinians, according to the USC poll, released Saturday.

The poll — on race relations a year after the Emanuel Nine massacre — also found stark differences in how South Carolina’s white and African-American residents view the criminal justice system.

The poll found:

▪ A majority of black South Carolinians — 64.7 percent — said Roof should be sentenced to life without parole if found guilty.

▪ Just three in 10 African Americans — 30.9 percent — said Roof should be sentenced to death. Another 4.4 percent said they didn’t know what the punishment should be, according to the poll, which surveyed 800 random S.C. adults.

▪ The majority of whites — 64.6 percent — think Roof should be sentenced to death.

▪ Only 29.9 percent of whites think Roof should be sentenced to life without parole; 5.6 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know.

The question of whether to seek the death penalty against Roof divides the families of those slain in Charleston. Some family members oppose the death penalty. Others say it would be justice. The findings of the USC poll reflect most black South Carolinians’ consistent opposition to the death penalty and most whites’ consistent support for it, said Monique Lyle, a USC political scientist who co-conducted the poll with USC’s Bob Oldendick.

The majority of black South Carolinians — 64.9 percent — oppose the death penalty, according to the poll. The majority of white South Carolinians — 69.4 percent — favor it. The African-American community’s opposition to the death penalty reflects its history with the criminal-justice system, said Kylon Middleton, senior pastor of Charleston’s Mount Zion AME Church.

“Most black people would not want someone to be executed because” so many African Americans have been executed, said Middleton, a longtime friend to Clementa Pinckney, the Emanuel pastor and state senator who was among the nine slain. “We have been brutalized in this country, therefore, we can empathize with anyone … who would receive ultimate judgment,” Middleton said, citing America’s history of slavery.

Beyond that history, African Americans also tend to be extremely religious, said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, noting the Bible commands: Thou shall not kill. In addition, a life sentence without parole now means that a defendant will spend life in prison. “That seems to be sufficient for most African Americans as punishment,” even in the case of Roof, Rutherford said, an attorney. The African-American community also believes in a rehabilitative and repentant society, said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who declined to discuss Roof specifically. (Malloy, an attorney, represents the family of Sen. Pinckney.)

African Americans also have concerns about the fairness of the justice system, said Todd Shaw, a USC professor of political science and African-American studies. “I don’t think there would be an exception for someone such as Dylann Roof,” Shaw said, adding some African Americans feel “bringing about his death will not bring about justice.”

A few prior related posts:

June 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 09, 2016

SCOTUS overturns Pennsylvania death sentence because involved DA who became state justice did not recuse

A death row defendant in the Keystone State got a key win on a judicial bias claim from SCOTUS this morning in Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040 (S. Ct. June 9, 2016) (available here). Justice Kennedy authored the opinion for the Court, while Chief Justice Roberts dissented in an opinion Justice Alito joined and Justice Thomas authored his own dissenting opinion. Here is how the Court's opinion gets started: 

In this case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated the decision of a postconviction court, which had granted relief to a prisoner convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.  One of the justices on the State Supreme Court had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the prisoner’s case.  The justice in question denied the prisoner’s motion for recusal and participated in the decision to deny relief.  The question presented is whether the justice’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This Court’s precedents set forth an objective standard that requires recusal when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge “‘is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’” Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 872 (2009) (quoting Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975)).  Applying this standard, the Court concludes that due process compelled the justice’s recusal.

June 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Florida Supreme Court grapples with post-Hurst hydra and state's new capital punishment procedures

Download (1)As reported in this local article, headlined "Justices Try To Sort Out Death Penalty Law," the top judges in the Sunshine State yesterday heard oral argument in a case that requires them to find some clarity in the dark uncertainty concerning the constitutional requirements for death sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling. Here are the details:

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case focused on whether the state’s new death penalty law is constitutional, and, if so, whether it applies to cases already in the pipeline when the law passed in March.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in the court’s months-long scrutiny prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that struck down Florida’s death-penalty sentencing process because it unconstitutionally gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

But the arguments Tuesday in the case of Larry Darnell Perry, who was convicted in the 2013 murder of his infant son, did little to clear up the murky situation surrounding the January ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, or the new law, hurriedly crafted by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in response to the decision.

“Clearly at this stage in our jurisprudence, we want to make sure that the statute is construed in a constitutional manner so that we don’t have another 15 years of death penalty — if the state wants the death penalty, which apparently it does — in flux,” Justice Barbara Pariente said.

Under Florida’s old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that “sufficient” aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed. That system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling.

Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously determine “the existence of at least one aggravating factor” before defendants can be eligible for death sentences. The law also requires at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for the sentence to be imposed.

Of nearly three dozen states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of just three — including Alabama and Delaware — that do not require unanimous recommendations for a sentence of death. The lack of a unanimous recommendation — a flashpoint for lawmakers, prosecutors and defense lawyers during debate on the new law — was the focus of much of Tuesday’s hearing in the Perry case.

Because Florida’s Constitution requires that jury verdicts be unanimous for convictions, defense lawyers have argued that the death penalty should require a unanimous jury recommendation. Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, disagree.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga honed in on the issue Tuesday morning. “As you know, 32 states in our country have the death penalty. There are three states who are outliers in this country, Alabama, Delaware and Florida that only require something less than unanimous. … What is the history of Florida in requiring a unanimous verdict?” Labarga asked Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and who made arguments Tuesday as a “friend of the court.” “It’s always been that way in Florida. Since before it was a state, Florida required unanimity in criminal cases for convictions,” McClain replied.

Since the Jan. 12 Hurst ruling, Florida’s high court indefinitely put on hold two executions and heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, repeatedly asking lawyers on both sides about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Florida court has yet to rule on whether the Hurst decision should be applied retroactively to all, or even some, of Florida’s 390 Death Row inmates.

Perry’s case, meanwhile, hinges on whether the new law should apply to defendants whose prosecutions were underway when the new law went into effect.  While Perry’s lawyer, J. Edwin Mills, argued that the new law should not apply in his client’s case, other defense lawyers are split on the issue. Mills contends his client should receive a life sentence.

Adding more pressure to the justices — who spend much of their time considering appeals in capital cases — lower courts have delayed hearings or decisions in death penalty cases while waiting for Florida Supreme Court to rule, both on the impact of the Hurst decision and on the Perry case.  “Until we get moving forward again, and get a determination from this court as to what Hurst actually means, everything is just sort of up in the air, which is not a good solution for anybody,” Assistant Attorney General Carol Dittmar told the justices Tuesday.

June 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

"The Eighth Amendment's Lost Jurors: Death Qualification and Evolving Standards of Decency"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Aliza Plener Cover now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s inquiry into the constitutionality of the death penalty has overlooked a critical “objective indicator” of society’s “evolving standards of decency”: the rate at which citizens are excluded from capital jury service under Witherspoon v. Illinois due to their conscientious objections to the death penalty.  While the Supreme Court considers the prevalence of death verdicts as a gauge of the nation’s moral climate, it has ignored how the process of death qualification shapes those verdicts.  This blind spot biases the Court’s estimation of community norms and distorts its Eighth Amendment analysis.

This paper presents the first quantitative study of Witherspoon strikes in real capital cases, measuring the strike rate in eleven Louisiana trials resulting in death verdicts from 2009 to 2013.  Of the 1,445 potential jurors questioned, 325 individuals (22.5%) were excluded from service on the basis of their opposition to the death penalty.  These exclusions had a considerable impact on the racial composition of the jury pool: In the trials for which individualized data on race was available, one-third of black venire members were struck under Witherspoon, and nearly 60% of those struck on this basis were black.  These findings underscore the profound impact of death qualification upon the composition of capital juries and the outcomes of capital trials.  Particularly in the wake of Justice Breyer’s recent call for reconsideration of the death penalty’s constitutionality, there is an urgent need for (a) systematized, ongoing data collection on Witherspoon strikes, and (b) formal consideration of the effect of death qualification in future Eighth Amendment analysis.

June 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is SCOTUS essentially telling Alabama its capital punishment process in unconstitutional through Hurst GVRs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new local article headlined "For third time in 5 weeks, Supreme Court tells Alabama to reconsider death row case." Here are excerpts:

For the third time in five weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court has told an Alabama appeals court to reconsider an Alabama death row inmate's appeal in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

Two Alabama attorneys said Monday that the moves by the high court indicate justices may be looking at striking down Alabama's death sentencing scheme as unconstitutional. "Personally, I think its crystal clear the Supreme Court has real concerns about the constitutionality of our current death penalty and is clearly putting us on notice of that fact," said Birmingham attorney John Lentine.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, also stated in an email to AL.com on Monday that "we believe it's now very clear that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that Alabama's death penalty scheme is called into question following the Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida earlier this year. There have been serious flaws in Alabama's process of imposing the death penalty for several years and state courts are going to have to now confront these problems."

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday remanded the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Ronnie Kirksey back to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration of his appeal in light of the Hurst v. Florida decision in January.  The U.S. Supreme Court last month had also ordered the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision in the appeals of Corey Wimbley and Bart Johnson in light of the Florida case....

At issue with Alabama's death penalty scheme is that Alabama permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for a life sentence and impose death. Alabama was one of only three states that allowed such an override. The others were Florida and Delaware. Legislators in Florida's legislature re-wrote its capital punishment sentencing law this spring.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd in March ruled in four of her capital murder cases that Alabama's capital punishment sentencing scheme is unconstitutional based on the Hurst case. The Alabama Attorney General's Office has appealed Todd's ruling. The decision was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in January that Florida's sentencing scheme allowing judges to override juries in death penalty cases is unconstitutional. Alabama has a similar sentencing scheme.

A number of attorneys around the state have challenged on behalf of their clients the constitutionality of Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme based on the Florida ruling. All but Todd, however, denied those requests.  District attorneys and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange have said Alabama's law is not the same as Florida's.

First, Alabama's sentencing scheme was ruled constitutional in 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court, state prosecutors say. They also have pointed out that the high court held in the Florida case that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that, according to an Alabama Attorney General's statement.

A few prior related posts:

June 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 06, 2016

SCOTUS grants cert two notable Texas capital cases

Those eager to see SCOTUS continue to question the operation of the death penalty in the US have some news to celebrate from the court via this new order list: the Justices this morning granted certain two capital cases from Texas, Moore v. Texas and Buck v. Stephens. Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has already provided this quick response to a question as to whether these Cases are notable:

They are both reasonably interesting.  Moore v. Texas includes both a question about the standard for determining whether an inmate is intellectually disabled and the question whether executing an inmate after a long stay on death row violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Buck case is about an expert witness for the defense (!) testifying that Buck was likely to be more dangerous and thus more a candidate for death sentence because he is black.

In other words, high-salience issues concerning race, mental disabilities and delays before execution are all before the Court in these cases. Among other likely echo effects from these grants, I suspect this means there will be lots and lots of (mostly abolitionist) commentary about these cases in the weeks and months to come, and also that hearings for the next SCOTUS nominee (whenever they might occur) will include some significant focus on the constitutionality of capital punishment.

UPDATE:  This revised version of the SCOTUS order list indicates that in Moore the Justices will only be considering the way Texas handles application of its Atkins intellectual disability limit on who can be eligible for the death penalty.  Still, as this SCOTUSblog post by Lyle Denniston details, these two cases will still provide plenty of grist for the capital case controversy mill.

June 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, June 05, 2016

"Deadly Statistics: Quantifying an 'Unacceptable Risk' in Capital Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Kaye now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment precludes capital punishment for intellectually disabled offenders.  Death-penalty states responded with laws defining intellectual disability in various ways.  In Hall v. Florida, the Court narrowly struck down the use of a measured IQ of 70 to mark the upper limit of intellectual disability because it created “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”  But the Court was unclear if not inconsistent in its description of an upper limit that would be acceptable. Four dissenting Justices accused the majority not only of misconstruing the Eighth Amendment, but also of misunderstanding elementary statistics and psychometrics.

This article uses more complete statistical reasoning to explicate the Court’s concept of unacceptable risk.  It describes better ways to control the risk of error than the Court’s confidence intervals, and it argues that, to the extent that the Eighth Amendment allows any quantitative cut score in determining an offender’s intellectual disability, these more technically appropriate methods are constitutionally permissible.

June 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Are there really now lots more conservatives in lots of states "starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new short Governing article with this full headline: "The Death Penalty’s New Skeptics: In states across the country, conservatives are starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts from the article:

It’s a government program that is prone to error, marred by long delays and far more expensive than alternative policies.  So it may be little wonder that the death penalty keeps attracting new opposition. But it’s surprising where some of that opposition is coming from. 

Over the past decade, the death penalty has been abolished in seven states. Most of those are dominated by Democrats. But the most recent is deeply conservative Nebraska, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of an abolition bill last year.  Other red states are revisiting the issue as well.   A bill to abolish the death penalty fell short by a single vote in a Kentucky House committee this year, while similar legislation actually passed the Utah Senate before failing in the House.  Last year, the Montana House killed an abolition bill on a tie vote.  A few months later, a judge there imposed a moratorium on executions, citing the difficulty of obtaining appropriate drugs for lethal injection -- an issue that has put capital punishment on hold in several states.  Litigation over delayed or botched executions compounds problems with meting out the penalty.  “Our death penalty is a joke,” Republican state Rep. Clayton Fiscus said during the debate.

The average death row inmate can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year more to house than run-of-the-mill criminals.  Prisoners who are executed can cost upward of $1 million more than those sentenced to life without possibility of parole.  “This is a program that’s so bad, the left and right can actually agree on it,” says Marc Hyden, a former field representative with the National Rifle Association who now works for an advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty....

[I]t’s indisputable that the growing corps of death penalty skeptics now includes many conservatives.  There are enough Republican legislators in Washington state ready to join with Democrats that a repeal measure there could pass, if a key committee chair would allow it to come to a vote.  “Many of us conservatives don’t trust government to launch a health-care program or fill potholes, let alone carry out life and death,” Hyden says.  “It’s the quintessential broken big-government program.”

I would not dispute that a few prominent GOP elected officials in a few states that have never had a long history of active and effective use of the death penalty may ultimately conclude (as did some in the Nebraska legislature) that it makes more sense to end rather than try to mend a rarely-applied punishment. But I do not believe any of the 17 persons who sought the GOP nomination for Prez this year had ever expressed any reservation about the death penalty either in theory or in practice.

June 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is "geography" really an "arbitrary feature" of a capital prosecutions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this passage today in Justice Breyer's dissent from the denial of certiorari in Tucker V. Louisiana (with my emphasis added):

Lamondre Tucker shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2008.  At the time of the murder, Tucker was 18 years, 5 months, and 6 days old, cf. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (“The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed”), and he had an IQ of 74, cf. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (execution of the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment). Tucker was sentenced to death in a Louisiana county (Caddo Parish) that imposes almost half the death sentences in Louisiana, even though it accounts for only 5% of that State’s population and 5% of its homicides. See Pet. for Cert. 18.

Given these facts, Tucker may well have received the death penalty not because of the comparative egregiousness of his crime, but because of an arbitrary feature of his case, namely, geography.  See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 12–14).  One could reasonably believe that if Tucker had committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the Red River in, say, Bossier Parish, he would not now be on death row.

I do not dispute that Tucker might not have been sent to death row if he had committed the same murder, and had been tried and sentenced, in another county. Indeed, one can certainly assert that had Tucker committed the same murder in, say, Michigan, a state without te death penalty, he definitely would not be on death row.  But, I do not think it quite right to call this geographic reality "an arbitrary feature of his case."  Arbitrary means "not based on reason," but there are many (seemingly sound) reasons why geography often will define and influence how a capital prosecution proceeds.

Most obviously, a criminal being capitally prosecuted has generally picked where his murder took place, and he typically will be (and some times only can be) prosecuted in a particular locality due to his own homicidal choices.  Moreover, the locality where a murder is committed necessarily experiences the impact of the crime most directly, and local decision-makers ought to be most responsive to local concerns as to how best to respond to that murder.  And, a locality's prosecutors and judges and jurors have all been selected to be respresentative of local community views and judgments.  (Indeed, in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, Justice Breyer made much of a "community’s moral sensibility" in the resolution of capital cases and the importance of a jury's role in reflecting "a community’s sense of capital punishment’s appropriateness in a particular case.")

In other words, to parrot a newly popular SCOTUS term, I think it is nonsense to call geography an "arbitrary feature" of a criminal case. And while lots of abolitionists complain about the impact of geography on the adminstration of capital punishment, I have never found this complaint to be conceptually convincing or nearly as compelling as other arguments against the modern administration of the death penalty.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

SCOTUS order list inclludes a couple notable criminal appeal summary reversals

The Supreme Court returned from the long weekend with this long order list, which includes a few long per curiam decision in an habeas case from the Ninth Circuit (Johnson v. Lee) and a capital case from Arizona (Lynch v. Arizona). In addition, the Court denied cert in Tucker v. Louisiana, a case in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was directly challened and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) dissented in an opinion that calls again for taking up this question.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit (and the criminal defendant) is the loser in Lee, whereas the capital defendant prevails in Lynch.  There was not dissent from the ruling in Lee, but Justice Thomas (joined by Jusice Alito) dissented from Lynch.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Intriguing capital case tussle between South Carolina and feds in Dylann Roof prosecution

As noted in this prior post, last week federal prosecutors finally decided that they will seek the death penalty for racist mass murderer Dylann Roof.  That decision, as reported in this recent local article, now creates some novel issues in light of South Carolina's parallel capital prosecution plan.  The article, headlined "Dylann Roof prosecution entering ‘uncharted waters’ of legal history," includes these passages:

Authorities will have two chances to see that Dylann Roof meets the same fate as his victims.

But never in modern times have both state and federal prosecutors sought someone’s execution at the same time. How they will manage two death penalty cases could break legal ground and offer some lessons.

“We are in completely uncharted waters,” said Chris Adams of Charleston, an experienced capital defender. “The federal government’s decision (to seek the death penalty) creates many more questions than it does answers.”...

Scheduled for Jan. 17, the state’s trial is on a faster track. Wilson also sent a letter to [U.S. District Judge Richard] Gergel, asking him to set the federal trial later. The judge could finally set a trial date at a June 7 hearing.... The possibilities are daunting. “It just creates logistical chaos,” Adams said. Officials must sort out subpoenas being filed in two different courts, he said. Prosecutors in each case also must give the defense all exculpatory evidence, or information used to fend off a guilty verdict or to mitigate a sentence. If some evidence is missed in the first trial only to be discovered when it’s turned over in the second trial, that might be grounds for an appeal in the first...

State and federal authorities rejected Roof’s offer to plead guilty and serve life in prison. “Now what we’re going to have is ... possibly two very public, very painful trials and unquestionably a decade of appeals,” [DPIC executve director Robert] Dunham said. “The families will have to deal with Dylann Roof getting all the attention.” But Dan Simmons Jr., whose father was slain in the attack, said prosecutors have made him well aware of that. The Virginia resident has attended most hearings in the two courthouses that sit across the street from each other. “It’s been more than overwhelming,” he said. “But it’s not an overnight thing. ... It’s going to open up some wounds. But we will endure.”...

The state ran out of its supply of the fatal drug [used in executions] in 2013. Citing ethics, all major manufacturers have cut off the states, whose stashes soon expired or were seized as illegal imports. And the federal government has been reviewing its injection methods since 2010, effectively halting executions. There is no indication that either government is in a better position to obtain the supplies now, Dunham said. State prisons spokeswoman Stephanie Givens said, “Officials continue to research solutions and alternatives but have been unsuccessful in acquiring lethal injection drugs.” So even if a jury condemns Roof to death, experts said, the 22-year-old could live a long life in prison — unless he voluntarily opts for South Carolina’s alternative execution method: the electric chair.

I cannot at this point resist highlighting that I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution in this post about the case back in June 2015.

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"To Save Our Justice System, End Racial Bias in Jury Selection"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by one of my favorite former bosses, US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman. Like all writing by Judge Newman, this piece is astute and sensible, and it provides a sound and simple recommendation forimproving the operation of our modern criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled correctly on Monday when it found that Georgia prosecutors in Foster v. Chatman had illegally barred African-Americans from serving as jurors in a death penalty trial. But the decision does not end racial discrimination in jury selection.  The best way to do that is to limit the number of jurors that lawyers can strike for no reason at all to just one or two per side.

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers can exclude any number of prospective jurors for legitimate reasons — if a juror knows the defendant, has formed an opinion about the case or is unlikely to be impartial. But lawyers can also dismiss several more potential jurors simply because they do not want them — without explaining why. In federal felony trials, the prosecutor has six peremptory challenges and the defense usually has 10.  In federal death penalty cases, each side has 20.  State numbers vary.

In the Foster case, which dates from the 1980s, the prosecutors eliminated people simply because of race.  Timothy Foster, a black man, stood accused of killing an elderly white woman when he was a teenager.  The prosecutors worked conscientiously to exclude the potential black jurors; they marked their names with a “B” and highlighted each black juror’s name in green on four different copies of the juror list. Those jurors were ranked against one another in case, one member of the prosecutorial team said, “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”  The plan worked, and an all-white jury sentenced Mr. Foster to death.

This was an egregious case, but not a unique one. Far too often in criminal or death penalty cases that involve a black defendant, prosecutors try to exclude black jurors because they believe it will increase the chances of a conviction. In Houston County, Ala., prosecutors struck 80 percent of qualified black jurors from death penalty cases from 2005 to 2009....

The Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure, which is part of the Judicial Conference, the federal court system’s principal policy-making body, should propose sharply reducing the number of jury strikes allowed in federal trials. Several Supreme Court justices have suggested as much. Justice Thurgood Marshall endorsed such a reform in his concurring opinion in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky: “The decision today will not end the racial discrimination that peremptories inject into the jury-selection process.  That goal can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.” In 2005, Justice Stephen G. Breyer also urged reconsideration of the peremptory challenge system.

Total abolition of peremptory challenges would most likely face vigorous opposition from prosecutors and some defense attorneys. And it’s unlikely to be achieved, either for federal or state criminal trials.  But reducing the number will do significant good.  In 1879, the Supreme Court declared that to single out African-Americans for removal from jury service “is practically a brand upon them affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure all others.”  All-white juries will continue to be a blight on the American system of criminal justice until federal and state rule makers significantly reduce the number of peremptory challenges.

Prior recent related posts:

May 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Two notable new article examing capital prosecutions of intellectually disabled defendants

Michael Perlin, whose interesting scholarship on mental health criminal always includes an extra-fun Bob Dylan reference in the title, has these two notable new articles on capital prosecutions now available via SSRN:

At the risk of being caught up in an idiot wind, I may wait until after the long weekend to read these pieces in order to avoid getting tangled up in blue.

May 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 27, 2016

"Killing Dylann Roof: A year after Obama saluted the families for their spirit of forgiveness, his administration seeks the death penalty for the Charleston shooter."

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Atlantic commentary authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I urge everyone, both those for and against capital punishment, to read he entire piece. Here are excerpts:

On Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. It has not been a year since Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine black people as they worshipped.  Roof justified this act of terrorism in chillingly familiar language — “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”  The public display of forgiveness offered to Roof by the families of the victims elicited bipartisan praise from across the country.  The president saluted the families for “an expression of faith that is unimaginable but that reflects the goodness of the American people.” How strange it is to see that same administration, and these good people, who once saluted the forgiveness of Roof, presently endorse his killing....

There are defensible reasons why the American state — or any state — would find [the nonviolent Martin Luther] King’s ethic hard to live up to. States are violent. The very establishment of government, the attempt to safeguard a group of people deemed citizens or subjects, is always violent.  In America, a president is the commander in chief.  Anyone who voted for Obama necessarily voted for violence.  Furthermore, there is indisputable evidence that violence sometimes works.  The greatest affirmation of civil rights in American history — emancipation — was accomplished at gun-point.

But one has to be careful here not to fall into the trap of lionizing killing, of pride in the act of destroying people even for just ends.  Moreover, even if nonviolence isn’t always the answer, King reminds us to work for a world where it is. Part of that work is recognizing when our government can credibly endorse King’s example.  Sparing the life of Dylann Roof would be such an instance — one more credible than the usual sanctimonious homilies delivered in his name.  If the families of Roof's victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it — then why can't the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?

Perhaps because some part of us believes in nonviolence not as an ideal worth striving for, but as a fairy tale passed on to the politically weak.  The past two years have seen countless invocations of nonviolence to shame unruly protestors into order. Such invocations are rarely made to shame police officers who choke men to death over cigarettes and are sent back out onto the beat.  And the same political officials will stand up next January and praise King even as they act contrary to his words.  “Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology,” wrote King, “and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

A few prior related posts:

May 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

This breaking news just in: the Connecticut death penalty is still dead

Download (2)I am demonstrating my age (and my affinity for Saturday Night Live) when I thought of one of the first famous SNL catch-phrases upon seeing this new local headline from Connecticut: "State Supreme Court Upholds Abolishment Of Death Penalty, Including For Death-Row Inmates."  Here are the serious details of a serious decision that prompted my not-so-serious reaction:

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld its decision to abolish the state's death penalty, including for inmates on death row. The 5-2 ruling, released Thursday, upholds the justices 4-3 decision last August that the death penalty was unconstitutional for all — including 11 convicts on Connecticut's death row — following the legislature's abolition three years ago of capital punishment in Connecticut. Lawmakers made the law prospective, meaning it applied only to new cases and kept in place the death sentences already imposed on those facing execution before the bill was passed.

Attorneys for those on death row challenged the law, saying it violated the condemned inmates' constitutional rights. The ruling last August came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who had faced the death penalty for the December 2000 killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford. Santiago has been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.  In the August ruling, the justices in the majority wrote that executing an inmate "would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" and that the death penalty "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency."

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who joined with Justice Carmen E. Espinosa and Justice Peter T. Zarella in the August dissents, voted this time with the majority, saying she felt bound to the doctrine of "stare decisis," a Latin term meaning "stand by things decided."

"Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law," Rogers wrote. "To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut."

Rogers said, "stability in the law and respect for the decisions of the court as an institution, rather than a collection of individuals, in and of themselves, are of critically important value, especially on an issue of such great public significance as the constitutionality of the death penalty."

In separate dissents, Zarella and Espinosa rejected the assertion that respect for precedent mandated Thursday's ruling, saying that doctrine should never be used to enshrine a flawed decision. And they pointedly noted that Rogers herself had blasted the original Santiago decision as "a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny." They also criticized Justice Richard A. Robinson, who came on the court after the Santiago decision and voted with the majority, along with justices Richard N. Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald. Like Rogers, Robinson cited the importance of respecting precedent.

"I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error," Zarella wrote....

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in a statement released Thursday afternoon, said the ruling "reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."  Malloy noted that Connecticut in the last half century has executed only two inmates, both of whom volunteered for death....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said his office respects the decision and would "move forward" to re-sentence the individuals currently on death row to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.  "The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Kane said in a statement.  "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."

All the opinions in this new case can be found right now at this Connecticut Supreme Court link.

May 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

Almost a year after Dylann Roof committed one of the worst mass murder hate crimes in modern US history, federal prosecutors have offically decided to make his federal prosecution a capital one.  Here are excerpts from this CNN report about this (too-long-in-development) decision:

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 2015.

Roof, who is white, is charged with 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges for allegedly targeting his victims on the basis of their race and religion. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in July 2015. "The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

Roof, 22, is accused of shooting participants of a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, in downtown Charleston on June 17, 2015. Among the victims was the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator.

South Carolina has charged Roof with murder. Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said last year that she will seek the death penalty in the state's case, which is scheduled to go to trial in January.

There is no date yet for his federal trial. Attempts to reach Roof's attorneys for comment were not immediately successful.

Roof, a high school dropout not known for violence, was captured in North Carolina the day after the shootings. He confessed in interviews with the Charleston police and FBI, two law enforcement officials told CNN. He also told investigators he wanted to start a race war, one of those officials said.

Three federal inmates have been executed in the United States since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium. They were Timothy McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza and Louis Jones. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is one of the most recent people to be sentenced to death by a federal judge. There are about 60 people on federal death row.

I fully share the Attorney General's view that the "nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," and that is why I have been critical in prior posts about it taking so long to make this decision. A well-functioning criminal justice system surely ought to be able to prosecute and sentence a mass murderer in the span of a year in a case like this one in which there is no doubt about guilt. But, remarkably, it seems it now takes a year just to decide whether the death penalty should be even sought. Sigh.

A few prior related posts:

May 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Reviewing the state and future of lethal injection as execution method

Lincoln Caplan has this New Yorker piece headlined "The End Of The Open Market For Lethal-Injection Drugs," which provides a useful primer on where matters stand regarding lethal injection as a means carrying out death sentences on condemned murderers. Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengty piece:

Last week, the global drug company Pfizer announced sweeping new restrictions on the distribution of seven of its products, preventing them from being used to carry out the death penalty. Pfizer came into possession of those products, which include sedatives, paralytics, a pain medication, and a drug used to prevent or treat low levels of potassium in the blood, when it acquired the pharmaceutical company Hospira, in September.  Its decision is an enormously significant one for the death penalty in the United States, and ends a long and chaotic chapter in which governments, drug companies, and activists worldwide have gradually closed the open market for the federally approved drugs that have been used for lethal injections.

Twenty of the thirty-one states with the death penalty on the books now have a formal or informal moratorium on executions, in almost all cases because they have been unable to obtain approved drugs to use in lethal injections. In 2015, there were twenty-eight executions in the U.S., the lowest number since 1994.  This year, there have been fourteen executions so far — six in Texas, five in Georgia, and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri. Prisons in those states can’t buy drugs for lethal injections from American manufacturers.  They can’t import drugs from foreign manufacturers — which, in any case, will not supply them.  In short, their options are severely restricted, which will almost certainly lead to more botched executions.

Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are among the small number of states that have carried out executions using drugs made by compounding pharmacies, which combine, mix, or alter drugs, typically to meet the need of an individual patient — say, by removing an ingredient to which a patient is allergic.  These pharmacies are not required to register with the F.D.A., and the F.D.A. does not approve their products.  They must be licensed by the pharmacy board in the state where they operate, but state oversight has often been scandalously lax.  In February, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he wants the state to open its own compounding pharmacy, in order to guarantee a supply of the drugs that the state needs for lethal injections. (This despite the fact that no department of corrections could meet a basic requirement for obtaining a drug made by a compounding pharmacy: a medical prescription for an individual patient.)

Oklahoma’s turn toward compounding pharmacies is part of the fallout from Glossip v. Gross, one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation....

The campaign to halt lethal injections as a mode of capital punishment by restricting access to the lethal drugs has not yet ended the death penalty.  But it may very well have accelerated the end game that Breyer invoked in his Glossip dissent.  In the five years between Hospira’s decision to stop making sodium thiopental and Pfizer’s decision to stop supplying drugs for executions, the unsuccessful effort, by one state after another, to carry out lethal injections in a manner that meets standards of fairness and reliability has made it increasingly clear that states cannot constitutionally perform these types of executions.  If they can’t do that, how can the Supreme Court continue to permit capital punishment under the Constitution?  The Court is unlikely to take on an issue this fundamental when it is at the mercy of a polarized Senate and self-important Republican leaders who refuse to confirm the President’s nominee for the Court’s ninth Justice.  But the churn that the campaign has quickened will inevitably give rise to a legal controversy that will force the Justices to face just such a question.

Interestingly, I have since Glossip was decided that the case would prove to be "one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation" only if states viewed the ruling as presenting a unique and new opportunity to move away from lethal injection as an execution method in light of all the drug shortages. Significantly, the Supreme Court has never formally declared any particular execution method unconstitutional, and I thought the Glossip ruling might prompt a number of jurisdictions to see a chance to seriously move forward with a return to firing squads or experimentations with nitrogen gas. But absent any such developments (and absent Justice Breyer finding thre more Justices to join his effort to judicially abolish capital punishment in the US), I have a hard time seeing Glossip as nearly as big practical deal as other recent SCOTUS cases placing limits on capital sentences and procedures like Kennedy and Hurst.

May 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, May 23, 2016

SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"

The Supreme Court's one criminal justice ruling today comes in Foster v. Chatman, 14-8349 (S. Ct. May 23, 2016) (available here), a capital case out of Georgia involving a Batson claim. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered six votes, and its ruling is reasonably summarized via these passages: 

As we explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” 545 U. S. 231, 241 (2005). With respect to both Garrett and Hood, such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file. Considering all of the circumstantial evidence that “bear[s] upon the issue of racial animosity,” we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Snyder, 552 U. S., at 478, 485....

The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. App. 41, 60 (pretrial hearing). The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting....

The State’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.

Justice Alito has an interesting corcurrence about procedures that I will likely discuss in another post. Justice Thomas, in notable contrast, dissents on the merits, and his dissent starts this way:

Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing. In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence on the ground that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), when they struck all black prospective jurors before his trial.  Time and again, the state courts have rejected that claim.  The trial court twice rejected it, and the Supreme Court of Georgia unequivocally rejected it when Foster directly appealed his conviction and sentence. Foster v. State, 258 Ga. 736, 736, n. 1, 738–739, 374 S. E. 2d 188, 190, n. 1, 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1085 (1989).  A state habeas court rejected it in 2013. App. 175–176, 192–196.  And most recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia again rejected it as lacking “arguable merit,” Ga. Sup. Ct. Rule 36 (2001). See App. 246.

Yet, today — nearly three decades removed from voir dire — the Court rules in Foster’s favor.  It does so without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court’s ruling on the merits, based, in part, on new evidence that Foster procured decades after his conviction, distorts the deferential Batson inquiry.  I respectfully dissent.

May 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Former Chief of North Carolina Supreme Court make pitch against death penalty

The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, I. Beverly Lake, Jr., has this notable new Huffington Post capital punishment commentary under the headline "Why Protecting the Innocent From a Death Sentence Isn’t Enough." Here are excerpts:

I’ve always been known as a tough-on-crime, pro-law enforcement individual, and I still am. During my years as a North Carolina State Senator, I vigorously advocated for the death penalty.  As a superior court judge, I presided over trials where the death penalty seemed like the only suitable punishment for the heinous crimes that had been committed.  Finally, as a Justice, and then as Chief Justice, on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, I cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence.

After decades of experience with the law, I have seen too much, and what I have seen has impacted my perspective. First, my faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes....

Last year in America, over half of the individuals that were executed had severe mental impairments.  Too much reliance is put on jurors to identify those who are the “worst of the worst.”  As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, I was responsible for assessing the personal culpability of defendants in capital cases to ensure that the punishment would be applied appropriately, so I understand just how difficult this task can be.

In order for mitigation evidence to be considered it must be collected and introduced at trial.  In states where indigent defense systems are woefully underfunded, as it is in North Carolina, or where standards of representation are inadequate, this evidence regularly goes undiscovered.

Additionally, a number of impairments are difficult to measure.  For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability.  Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime.

The categorical exclusions for juveniles under the age of 18 and those with intellectual disability are simply drawn too narrowly to encompass everyone who has diminished culpability.  These categorical exclusions are particularly inadequate when multiple impairments exist....

After spending years trying to instill confidence in the criminal justice system, I’ve come to realize that there are certain adverse economic conditions that have made the system fundamentally unfair for some defendants.  These systemic problems continue to lead to the conviction of the innocent, as well as those individuals for whom the death penalty would be constitutionally inappropriate, regardless of the crime.  Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  I have come to believe that it probably cannot.

May 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Showdown Set Over Future of California's Death Penalty," two competing ballot initiative appear poised to be before voters on the Left Coast this fall. Here are the details:

Death penalty supporters are setting the stage on Thursday for a November showdown over whether to speed up executions in California or do away with them entirely. Crime victims, prosecutors and other supporters plan to submit about 585,000 signatures for a ballot measure to streamline what both sides call a broken system.

No one has been executed in California in a decade because of ongoing legal challenges.  Nearly 750 convicted killers are on the nation's largest death row, but only 13 have been executed since 1978.  Far more condemned inmates have died of natural causes or suicide.

Supporters plan 10 news conferences statewide to promote an initiative they say would save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, retain due process protections and bring justice to murder victims and their families.  The measure would speed what is currently a lengthy appeals process by expanding the pool of appellate attorneys and appointing lawyers to the death cases at the time of sentencing.

Currently there is about a five-year wait just for condemned inmates to be assigned a lawyer.  By contrast, the ballot measure would require that the entire state appeals process be completed within five years except under extraordinary circumstances. To meet that timeline, appeals would have to be filed more quickly and there would be limits on how many appeals could be filed in each case....  Additional provisions would allow condemned inmates to be housed at any prison, not just on San Quentin's death row, and they would have to work and pay victim restitution while they wait to be executed....

Opponents say their measure, too, would save money by doing away with the death penalty and keeping currently condemned inmates imprisoned for life with no chance of parole. They submitted about 601,000 signatures on April 28 with much less fanfare, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke.  Each side needs nearly 366,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.  "It's unfortunate that the DAs (district attorneys) want to double down on a fundamentally broken death penalty system that simply can't be fixed," Mecke said. "You can't streamline or reform a failed policy."

A similar attempt to abolish the death penalty failed by 4 percentage points in 2012. Besides the latest initiative put forward by opponents, that failed effort spurred this year's counter-move by law enforcement and crime victims.

May 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Sentencing phase: did heredity play part in serial killer’s crimes?"

It is often said that the sins of the father should not befall the son, but an on-going capital case in Ohio suggests that at least one defendant is hoping the sins of his father and grandfather and great-grandfather might help keep him off death row. The title of this post is the headline of this local story which provides these details:

Was heredity to blame for the violent crimes of convicted serial killer, Michael Madison? A Cuyahoga County jury was presented with that possibility in the courtroom of Judge Nancy McDonnell on Tuesday.

Dr. Mark Cunningham, a clinical and forensic psychologist from the state of Washington, testified heredity was an aspect of sexual offending. "There is patterning within these family systems,” he said, “They found that having a brother or father who had been convicted of a sexual offense increased the odds of being convicted of a sexual offense four to five fold.”

Cunningham prepared a diagram showing the history of Madison’s family dating back to his great-grandfather. The chart illustrated how the serial killer’s relatives preyed on each other physically and sexually, including their own children. Social Service records and interviews with Madison’s family revealed he was abused for years by his mother and her boyfriends.

"The way that he was treated is the template of how he then goes about interacting with others throughout his life,” said Cunningham, “It's a core principle that the FBI's behavioral science unit identified as they looked at the histories of sexual homicide offenders and observed that the quality of attachments to parents and other members of the family during childhood is central to how the child will relate to and value other members of society.”

The 37-year-old was convicted of raping and murdering Angela Deskins, Shetisha Sheeley and Shirellda Terry, all of East Cleveland. Their bodies were found near his East Cleveland apartment in July of 2013.

May 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 16, 2016

President-elect in Phillipines eager to bring back death penalty "especially if you use drugs"

Map-regions-2The worldwide story of capital punishment has generally involved an ever-growing number of nations moving away from regular use of the death penalty.  However, as this Time piece highlights, at least one notable nation has just elected a tough-on-crime leader eager to get his nation to execute again.  The piece is headlined "Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte Plans to Bring Back the Death Penalty," and here are the basics:

The tough-on-crime presumptive winner of the Philippine presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte, has told reporters in his first postvictory comments that he intends to bring back capital punishment.

According to Philippine news outlet GMA, Duterte told reporters in Davao City on Sunday night that he would “urge Congress to restore the death penalty by hanging, especially if you use drugs.”

Other news outlets reported that he would also give police shoot-to-kill powers against mobsters and those violently resisting arrest. “If you resist, show violent resistance, my order to police [will be] to shoot to kill,” he declared, adding: “Shoot to kill for organized crime. You heard that? Shoot to kill for every organized crime.”

Duterte’s election success has been credited to his promise to eradicate crime in a country that has the world’s 11th highest homicide rate. During his campaign, he said he would “fatten the fish” of Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals.

The President-elect’s 22-year track record as the mayor of Davao City gives him enormous credibility with Philippine voters. Before he took mayoral office, Davao was known for its war-zone-like lawlessness, but last year, a crowdsourced poll declared it fourth safest city in the world....

He is due to be sworn in as President on June 30 for a six-year term.

May 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses"

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

“The question now to be faced is whether American society has reached a point where abolition is not dependent on a successful grass roots movement in particular jurisdictions, but is demanded by the Eighth Amendment.”  Justice Thurgood Marshall posed this question in 1972, in his concurring opinion in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia, which halted executions nationwide.  Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, a majority of the Supreme Court answered this question in the negative.

Now, forty years after Gregg, the question is being asked once more.  But this time seems different. That is because, for the first time in our Nation’s history, the answer is likely to be yes.  The Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy at its helm, is poised to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.  No matter what the Court’s answer, one thing is certain: dignity will figure prominently in its decision.

Dignity’s doctrinal significance has been much discussed in recent years, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s watershed decisions in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as a deprivation of same-sex couples’ dignity under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Few, however, have examined dignity as a unifying principle under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, which have long shared a commitment to dignity, and under the Court’s LGBT rights and death penalty jurisprudence, in particular, which give substance to this commitment.  That is the aim of this Article.

This Article suggests that dignity embodies three primary concerns — liberty, equality, and life.  The triumph of LGBT rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the persistence of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment expose a tension in dignity doctrine: the most basic aspect of dignity (life) receives the least protection under the law. Because dignity doctrine demands liberty and equality for LGBT people, it must also demand an end to the death penalty. If dignity means anything, it must mean this.

In anticipation of the Court’s invalidation of the death penalty on dignity grounds, this Article offers a framework to guide the Court, drawn from federal and state supreme court death penalty decisions new and old, statistics detailing the death penalty’s record decline in recent years, and the Court’s recent LGBT rights jurisprudence.  It also responds to several likely counterarguments and considers abolition’s important implications for dignity doctrine under the Eighth Amendment and beyond.

May 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pfizer gives states yet another reason to seriously consider execution alternatives other than lethal injection

As long time readers know, I have been urging states to seriously explore alternatives to lethal injection for the better part of a decade: in this December 2006 post, for example, I flagged a discussion of various new and old execution procedures and suggested that "states interested in continuing to employ the death penalty should start exploring alternatives to lethal injection." Today, via this New York Times article, states have yet another reason to take this advice to heart: "The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced on Friday that it has imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections, a step that closes off the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions."  Here is more:

More than 20 American and European drug companies have already adopted such restrictions, citing either moral or business reasons. Nonetheless, the decision from one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical manufacturers is seen as a milestone. “With Pfizer’s announcement, all F.D.A.-approved manufacturers of any potential execution drug have now blocked their sale for this purpose,” said Maya Foa, who tracks drug companies for Reprieve, a London-based human rights advocacy group. “Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection.”

The obstacles to lethal injection have grown in the last five years as manufacturers, seeking to avoid association with executions, have barred the sale of their products to corrections agencies. Experiments with new drugs, a series of botched executions and covert efforts to obtain lethal chemicals have mired many states in court challenges.

The mounting difficulty in obtaining lethal drugs has already caused states to furtively scramble for supplies. Some states have used straw buyers or tried to import drugs from abroad that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, only to see them seized by federal agents. Some have covertly bought supplies from compounding pharmacies while others, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, have delayed executions for months or longer because of drug shortages or legal issues tied to injection procedures.

A few states have adopted the electric chair, firing squad or the gas chamber as an alternative if lethal drugs are not available. Since Utah chooses to have a death penalty, “we have to have a means of carrying it out,” said State Representative Paul Ray as he argued last year for reauthorization of the state’s death penalty.

Lawyers for condemned inmates have challenged the efforts of corrections officials to conceal how the drugs are obtained, saying this makes it impossible to know if they meet quality standards or might cause undue suffering. “States are shrouding in secrecy aspects of what should be the most transparent government activity,” said Ty Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Just a few prior related posts on firing squads and other alternatives over the last decade:

May 13, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Can and should Missouri, after completing its last execution for a while, send any extra execution drugs to other needy states?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article about the first and likely last execution in Missouri this year.  The piece is headlined "Missouri man put to death for killing deputy, 2 others; could be last execution for some time," and here are the basics:

A man who killed two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff’s deputy in a subsequent shootout was put to death Wednesday in what could be Missouri’s last execution for some time.

Earl Forrest, 66, went to the home of Harriett Smith in December 2002 and demanded that she fulfill her promise to buy a lawn mower and mobile home for him in exchange for introducing her to a source for methamphetamine. During an argument, Forrest shot Smith and Michael Wells, who was visiting Smith’s home. Forrest later fatally shot Dent County Sheriff’s Deputy Joann Barnes after she arrived at Forrest’s home.

Missouri has executed 19 men since November 2013. But the remaining 25 death row inmates either have appeals still pending or other reasons they will not face imminent execution. Forrest’s fate was sealed hours before his punishment when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, turned down a clemency request.

According to court documents, Forrest had been drinking when he went to Smith’s home in the southern Missouri town of Salem. Wells was visiting Smith at the time. An argument ensued, and Forrest shot Wells in the face. He shot Smith six times and took a lockbox full of meth valued at $25,000. When police converged on Forrest’s home, he fatally shot Barnes and injured Dent County Sheriff Bob Wofford, according to court documents. Forrest was also injured in the exchange of gunfire, along with his girlfriend, Angela Gamblin.

Missouri has been one of the most prolific states for executions in recent years, second only to Texas. The state has executed 19 prisoners since November 2013, including six last year. Forrest’s execution was the first in 2016.

Missouri’s death row population is dwindling. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said juries today are less likely to opt for capital punishment, in part because of greater awareness of how mental illness sometimes factors in violent crime. Just 49 people were sentenced to death nationally last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a possible punishment in 1976. No one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, Dunham said. “As these executions take place, fewer and fewer people are being sentenced to death, so the death penalty is withering on the other end,” Dunham said.

None of the 25 other men remaining on Missouri’s death row face imminent execution.  Sixteen have yet to exhaust court appeals and aren’t likely to do so soon.  Execution is on hold for nine others.  Two were declared mentally unfit for execution. Two were granted stays because of medical conditions that could cause painful deaths from injections. Two had sentences set aside by the courts due to trial attorney errors.  One inmate was granted a stay while his innocence claim is reviewed. One case was sent back to a lower court to consider an appeal.

And in one unusual case, inmate William Boliek was granted a stay by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1997. The case wasn’t resolved before Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash, and a court determined that only Carnahan could overturn the stay. Nixon’s office has said Boliek will not be executed.

As regular readers may recall and as Ohio capital lawyers know well, while Missouri has had the lethal injection drugs needed to carry out nearly 20 executions in the last few years, the Buckeye state has more than two dozen execution scheduled that have been persistently delayed because the state cannot seem to get its hands on any lethal injection drugs.  I do not know where Mizzou gets its lethal injection drugs or whether it has some additional drugs on hand now without any executions scheduled for the foreseeable future.  But I do know that a functioning legal system with large percentages of voters and elected officials supporting a functioning death penalty ought to be able to figure out some way for nearby states to help each other out in this arena.

I bring this up because I have long believed in the aphorism "where there's a will, there's a way."  And thus, I have also come to believe that the main reason Ohio has not been able to figure out how to secure needed execution drugs (while many other states seem to have these drugs) is because there just is not the political will to fix the state's enduring capital punishment administrative problems.

May 12, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How many death sentences nationwide would get overturned if juror unanimity were constitutionally required for death sentences?

The question in the title of this post came to my mind after seeing this Los Angeles Times opinion piece headlined "Florida's death penalty should require unanimous jury votes." Here are excerpts from piece:

In a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict of guilt, whether the crime is a low-level drug possession charge or capital murder. But in Florida, after all 12 members of a jury have found the accused guilty, only 10 of them have to agree that the defendant should die for the crime. It’s absurd to require a lower level of agreement to send someone to death than is required to find the person guilty in the first place.

Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch reached the same conclusion in a decision Monday that declared Florida’s latest death penalty law in violation of the state’s constitution. That decision followed arguments a few days earlier before the state’s Supreme Court over whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which found the state’s sentencing-decision process unconstitutional, meant that all 390 people on Florida’s death row should have their sentences converted to life. Yes, it does. If the sentencing process is unconstitutional, then the sentences are, too....

In the Hurst case, the Supreme Court affirmed that only a jury can make a finding of fact. Florida, in an effort to save its death penalty, rewrote its law to say the jury must decide whether the death penalty was appropriate. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say how many jurors must make that call, and the revised state law raised the threshold to 10 of the 12 jurors.

Hirsch’s decision on Monday said that no, under the state’s constitution, a super-majority is not enough. His logic is a bit attenuated, but sound. Florida’s constitution guarantees trial by jury but doesn’t specify that a unanimous verdict must be reached. However, decades of practice, and common law, set unanimity as the standard threshold for a verdict. And since the revised law calls the jury’s finding for the death penalty a verdict, then it must be unanimous....

The least Florida can do is require unanimity by a jury before deciding to kill someone. And it should either grant fresh sentencing trials for those on death row or — and this is the preferred, more humane solution — commute the death sentences to life sentences.

Notably, two of the four states in the US with the largest death rows (Florida and Alabama) have sentenced a significant number of murderers to death without a unamimous jury recommendation to that effect. Though it is not clear that roughly all 600 persons on those states' death rows would be sure to get relief from a constitutional rule requiring jury unanimity for death recommendations, a suspect a significant number would. And even if only half of those condemned would get relief, that could cut the size of the US death row population down by more than 10 percent.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst studiously avoided weighing in on this jury unaniminty issue, but I am not sure it is point to be able to avoid it for too much longer in light of what is going on in Florida and perhaps other places in the post-Hurst world.

A few prior related post:

May 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 09, 2016

Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures

As reported in this new local article, a "Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution." Here is more:

Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system – 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder – goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.

“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them.”...

In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty. The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence....

After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors. “All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”

Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter. “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”

The full 18-page order referenced here is available at this link, and a quick scan of opinion reviews that it includes quotes from William Shakespeare, William Blackstone, Winston Churchill, Glanville Williams, the prophet Elijah, and lots of other notable sources.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Louisiana’s Color­-Coded Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial, which gets started this way:

The last time a white person in Louisiana was executed for a crime against a black person was in 1752, when a soldier named Pierre Antoine Dochenet was hanged after attempting to stab two enslaved black women to death with his bayonet.

This is just one of many grim facts in a new report describing the history of capital punishment in Louisiana and analyzing the outcome of every death sentence imposed in that state since 1976, when the Supreme Court reversed its brief moratorium on executions and allowed them to resume.

Racism has always been at the heart of the American death penalty. But the report, in the current issue of The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, drives home the extent to which capital punishment, supposedly reserved for the “worst of the worst,” is governed by skin color.

In Louisiana, a black man is 30 times as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man. Regardless of the offender’s race, death sentences are six times as likely — and executions 14 times as likely — when the victim is white rather than black.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, May 07, 2016

An astute accounting of one view on how the post-Hurst hydra in Florida ought to be slayed

Regular readers know that, after the US Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation sure to develop as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  Of particular significance in Florida, which has second largest death row in the nation and holds roughly one of every seven condemed murderers in the US, is what will become of all those sentenced to death before Hurst.

As noted in this post a few days ago, the Florida Supreme Court took up this question this past week, and some prominent Floridians argued that all those previously sentenced to death should have their sentences changed to life without parole.  But, with this is sure to be a popular view among death penalty abolitionists, death penalty supporters are not likely to readily embrace this solution.  And, very helpfully, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this lengthy and thorough post providing an astute review of what existing Supreme Court retroactivity jurisprudence should mean. The post is titled "What Happens to the Florida Death Row Cases After Hurst?", and here is how it starts and ends:

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hurst v. Florida that the Florida capital sentencing system did not comply with a series of cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000). Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on remand in the Hurst case.  Several people have asked me what should/will happen to the cases of the murderers presently on death row in Florida. "Should" is easier to answer than "will":

1.  Cases final on direct appeal (i.e., those where the Florida Supreme Court has affirmed the judgment in the initial appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the petition to take the case up or the defendant did not file one) should not be affected by Hurst.

2.  Cases already tried and pending on appeal should be affirmed under the "harmless error" rule if it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance if they had been asked to do so.  For example, if the jury convicted the defendant of robbery and murder and there is no question in the case that the murder was committed in the course of the robbery (an aggravating circumstance), that would be harmless error.

3.  Cases where there is a Hurst error that does not meet the standard for harmless error should be retried as to penalty under the new statutory procedure....

The Florida Legislature acted swiftly after Hurst to enact a new procedure meeting the newly minted constitutional requirements.  Why? Because it considers enforcement of the death penalty important. Why, then, would the legislature want a whole class of sentences wiped out? It would not.  Attributing such an intended result makes no sense given the purpose of the law.

Finally, there is the matter of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness necessarily works both ways. Just as people should not arbitrarily be sentenced to punishment, neither should they arbitrarily be spared a punishment they deserve.  Arbitrary sparing of some is necessarily arbitrary infliction on those not spared.

The whole point of our complex jurisprudence of capital sentencing is to make the sentence fit what the murderer deserves.  Commuting a wide swath of sentences based on an accident of timing without any regard for just deserts is arbitrary.  Absent strong evidence the legislature intended this result, it should not be attributed to them.

The new act should apply to any cases remanded for resentencing.

May 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 06, 2016

"Gutting Habeas Corpus: The Inside Story of How Bill Clinton Sacrificed Prisoners’ Rights for Political Gain"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Intercept piece, which gets started this way:

On the eve of the New York state primary last month, as Hillary Clinton came closer to the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and defended her husband’s 1994 crime bill.  Asked in an interview if he felt shame for his role passing a law that has been the subject of so much recent criticism, Biden answered, “Not at all,” and boasted of its successes — among them putting “100,000 cops on the street.”  His remarks sparked a new round of debate over the legacy of the crime bill, which has haunted Clinton ever since she hit the campaign trail with a vow to “end the era of mass incarceration.”

A few days later, on April 24, a lesser-known crime law quietly turned 20. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — or AEDPA — was signed by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.  While it has been mostly absent from the recent debates over the crime policies of the ’90s, its impact has been no less profound, particularly when it comes to a bedrock constitutional principle: habeas corpus, or the right of people in prison to challenge their detention.  For 20 years, AEDPA has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted.  Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions.  Barry Scheck, co-founder and head of the Innocence Project, calls AEDPA “a disaster” and “a major roadblock since its passage.”  Many would like to see it repealed.

If the Clintons have not been forced to defend AEDPA, it’s partly because neither the law nor its shared history with the crime bill is well understood.  AEDPA’s dizzying provisions — from harsh immigration policies to toughened federal sentencing — were certainly a hasty response to terrorism.  But the law was also the product of an administration that long before the Oklahoma attack had abandoned its party’s core principles on criminal justice, deciding instead to wield crime policy as political weapon.  After the Republicans seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House sought to double down on its law-and-order image in advance of the 1996 presidential race. In the short term, it was a winning political strategy for Clinton.  In the long term, it would help pave the way to one of the worst laws of his presidency.

May 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

"The only way to get rid of racial bias in death penalty cases is to get rid of the death penalty"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Robert J. Smith, which carries the main headline "There’s No Separating the Death Penalty and Race."  Here are some excerpts:

The mix of prosecutorial impropriety and the exclusion of black jurors has always been a potent combination for injecting racial bias into death penalty cases and racial cynicism into the electorate. It undermines not only the legitimacy of the death penalty, but also the legitimacy of the government as an entity capable of rendering impartial justice. It robs people of the right to participate in their government, and it makes whole swaths of people cynical about the government itself and their role in it. Yet, even if the Foster case [now before SCOTUS] provides another rebuke of the illegal practice of striking jurors because of their race, 30 years of experience suggests that the court’s case-by-case reversals will not eradicate racial discrimination in jury selection. It still happens all over the country and continues to taint our broken death penalty system....

An optimist might hold out hope that although racial bias infects these older cases, the ties between race and the death penalty have loosened in more recent cases as the nation continues to make racial progress. Unfortunately, though, while the death penalty has become increasingly rare in practice, many of the remaining cases are still intertwined with the nation’s long legacy of racism. And, even in the cases with explicit, unconscionable racial bias ... current elected prosecutors, governors, and state and federal courts have failed repeatedly to intervene or object.

May 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"

The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article.  The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:

At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"

He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis.  Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend.  She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand."  Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse.  When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."

The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case.  Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.

While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs.  In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing.  Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders.  Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration.  He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.

The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty?  An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.

Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion."  Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities.  In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service."  In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence.  "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.

That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence.  To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."

May 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Prominent Floridians call for state Supreme Court to reverse all past Florida death sentences

As reported in this AP piece, now with "the fate of hundreds of Florida death row inmates in limbo, a group of former top judges and legal officials called on the state Supreme Court to impose life sentences on nearly 400 people now awaiting execution." Here is more about a notable amicus filing:

The group, which includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, filed a legal brief Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of Florida's death penalty.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing law unconstitutional in January, the state's high court halted two executions and state legislators overhauled the way convicted killers can be sentenced to death.  But the Florida Supreme Court still hasn't decided what should happen to the 389 people on death row under the previous sentencing scheme.  The court is taking the highly unusual step of this week of holding a second hearing before issuing a ruling — a sign that the seven-member court could be deeply divided.

The court said it wanted to hear from attorneys representing death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and the state on what affect the new sentencing law will have on his case....  In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new sentencing process for those convicted of murder.  The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out.  Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. It remains one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision.  The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.

The decision to hold a second hearing in Hurst's case prompted three former state justices — Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and former U.S. District Judge Rosemary Barkett — to join with two former heads of the bar association and an organization representing defense attorneys to argue that an existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.

The state has objected and argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.

The full amicus brief referenced in this piece is available at this link, and here is its key heading:

Because the United States Supreme Court held Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, section 775.082(2) of the Florida statutes requires that all persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some Dostoevsky-inspired insights on the death penalty delay canard

It is sometimes hard to find an academic eager to lambast death penalty abolitionists for even their weaker arguments, so I was somewhat surprised to see this new commentary by Noah Feldman titled "Delaying Execution Isn't Cruel and Unusual." Here are excerpts:

Following a view he has held since the 1990s, [Justice] Breyer argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it takes too long for condemned inmates to be put to death.  The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral.  Instead, the view asserts that death must be administered quickly after sentencing to avoid the convicted person living on many years in prison -- even if that person wants to live as long as possible.

Make no mistake: in every case where an inmate has been on death row for many years, it’s by choice. In the case considered Monday, the defendant had been on death row for 32 years.  That’s the result of numerous appeals by his lawyers, and numerous delays in hearing those appeals by state and federal courts.  A defendant who wants to die can skip the appeals, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who waived his appeals and was executed expeditiously.

The judges who hear capital appeals understand all this perfectly well.  They could put death penalty cases on the top of the docket.  But they don’t, at least in part because they know that every day of delay is another day of life for the defendant.  It’s one of the persistent facts about the death penalty that almost every person who is sentenced to die chooses to fight the sentence.

In theory, it's easy to say you’d rather be executed than spend your life in prison.  That sentiment is a stock line in television and film.  And I confess that I share it – or at least I think I do.  But no matter how powerful the thought, the empirical evidence suggests that, when push comes to shove, the human instinct to live another day is overwhelming. That’s why so-called “volunteers” such as McVeigh are vanishingly rare in our legal system....

So in what sense could it be cruel and unusual not to execute someone over a long period of time while his appeals are pending?  The answer has to be that the long-term prospect of death is itself a kind of torture, worse than the experience of contemplating your own execution in the immediate future.

That insight seems to follow from our imagined scene of the prisoner in his cell awaiting execution, like a character out of Dostoevsky.  The trauma and psychological pain of contemplating one’s imminent mortality seem bad enough. Imagine if that same trauma and pain were repeated for 32 years. In these terms, the delay could be seen as an unconscionable form of quasi-permanent torture.

But the reality must surely be otherwise.  A prisoner on death row doesn’t actually expect to be executed every day that he is there. Yes, courts often set execution dates.  But they do so in the full knowledge that those dates will probably be deferred.

From the perspective of the prisoner, the mere setting of the date is no doubt terribly upsetting.  But over time, even the most sensitive prisoner would surely get used to the repetitive structure of sentencing date followed by delay.  To cite Dostoevsky again, if imprecisely: “Man can get used to anything -- the brute!”

It emerges, I think, that the so-called Lackey claim to which Breyer is still devoted is psychologically unconvincing.  To live every day in the knowledge that eventually one will die is in fact the universal human condition.  Many of us will die in the next 32 years.  And none of us knows exactly on what day that will occur.

Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds have plenty of strong arguments on their side.  They don’t need this one, which in fact undercuts their claims about the inherent value of every day of human life.  The remedy for death delayed, after all, can only be death itself.

Prior recent related post:

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Justice Breyer dissents alone(!) in California capital case concerning long delays before execution

At the end of this morning's Supreme Court order list, Justice Breyer has a brief two-page dissent from the Court's decision to deny certiorari review in a capital case in which "Richard Boyer [who] was initially sentenced to death 32 years ago" requested that the Justices "consider whether the Eighth Amendment allows a State to keep a prisoner incarcerated under threat of execution for so long."  Here is part of what Justice Breyer has to say:

These delays are the result of a system that the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (Commission), an arm of the State of California, see Cal. S. Res. 44 (2004), has labeled “dysfunctional.” Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California 6 (2008)....  It noted that many prisoners had died of natural causes before their sentences were carried out, and more California death row inmates had committed suicide than had been executed by the State.  Indeed, only a small, apparently random set of death row inmates had been executed. See ibid. A vast and growing majority remained incarcerated, like Boyer, on death row under a threat of execution for ever longer periods of time....

Put simply, California’s costly “administration of the death penalty” likely embodies “three fundamental defects” about which I have previously written: “(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”  Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2); see Lackey v. Texas, 514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (memorandum of Stevens, J., respecting denial of certiorari); see also Valle v. Florida, 564 U. S. 1067 (2011) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of stay); Knight v. Florida, 528 U. S. 990, 993 (1999) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). 

Notably, not a single other Justice joined this dissent, not even Justice Ginsburg who was along for ride a little less than a year ago when Justice Breyer wrote his anti-death penalty magnum opus dissent in Glossip.  That reality reinforces my belief that death penalty abolitionists should not be especially hopeful that a majority of Justices will find capital punishment per se unconstitutional anytime soon.

May 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015"

The title of htis post is the title of this new reseach paper by Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since 1976, Louisiana’s experience with capital punishment has been deeply dysfunctional, with a significantly higher case reversal rate than the national average, and marked disparities in sentencing, reversals, and executions depending on the race and gender of the victim and accused.  Our comprehensive analysis of each of 241 death-sentence cases in the post-Gregg period suggests that the “modern” death penalty has not resolved the issues of arbitrariness and bias that concerned the US Supreme Court in the 1972 Furman decision, which invalidated previous death penalty statutes throughout the country.

Among 155 resolved death-sentence cases, there have been 127 reversals (of which nine were exonerations) and 28 executions.  Since 2000, Louisiana has seen 50 reversals of previous death sentences, including seven exonerations, and only two executions.

Not only are these reversal rates extremely high, but the racial discrepancies are shocking as well.  Death sentences are imposed in 0.52% of cases with black male offenders and black male victims, but in 15.56% of cases with black male offenders and white female victims — 30 times more likely.  No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed.  The racial disparities even extend into the appeals process, where cases of killers of whites are clearly less likely to be reversed.  No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752.

April 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Detailing the death penalty's desuetude in two notable states

I recent came across these two notable extended articles discussing the notable extended difficulties that two notable states have recently experienced in trying to get any of their condemned death row murderers to an execution chamber. Here are the headlines with links and subheadlines from the pieces:

From Arizona: "Is the death penalty in Arizona on life support?: A judge will rule any day now on whether Arizona can resume executions; meanwhile, the state's limited drug supply is about to expire. Where does that leave capital punishment?"

From North Carolina: "These days, NC’s death row inmates die of natural causes: Nine have died of natural causes since the state’s last execution in 2006; Death row, like the prison population overall, is aging; The oldest death row inmate, Blanche Moore, is now 83"

April 26, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hey Prez Candidate Kasich: why can't you figure out the formula to make capital punishment work (as it does in Georgia and Texas)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article headlined "Georgia to carry out its 5th execution of the year this week."  The piece reveals that the Peach State seems to have no problem securing lethal injection drugs for schedueld executions; meanwhile Ohio now has 25(!) condemned murderers scheduled for execution, but has been unable for three years to secure drugs to carry out these executions.

I am, generally speaking, a fan of Ohio Gov John Kasich, but in this arena he has not lived up to his campaign claims that he has "the formula" to make government work again.  Before I continue with bashing of my governor, here are the basic 2016 executions details via the AP story from Georgia:

Georgia plans to carry out its fifth execution of the year on Wednesday when a man convicted in the 1998 killings of a trucking company owner and his two children is set to die. Daniel Anthony Lucas is scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson. Georgia executes inmates by injecting the barbiturate pentobarbital.

Lucas, 37, was sentenced to die in 1999 for the killings of Steven Moss, 37, his 11-year-old son Bryan and 15-year-old daughter Kristin, who interrupted a burglary at their home near Macon in central Georgia....

If Lucas is executed Wednesday, he will be the fifth person put to death in Georgia. That will match the record — set in 1987 and tied last year — for the most executions carried out in a calendar year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated nationwide in 1976. With eight months left in the year, it seems likely the state will set a new record this year.

His execution would also mean that Georgia has executed more inmates in a 12-month period than at any other time since reinstatement of the death penalty. Georgia has executed seven people in the last 12 months, starting with Kelly Gissendaner on Sept. 30. The only other time the state executed that many people in a 12-month period was when seven inmates were put to death between October 2001 and August 2002.

Only four states have carried out executions this year for a total of 12. Aside from the four executed in Georgia so far, six inmates have been put to death in Texas and one each in Alabama and Florida.

This DPIC list of completed 2016 executions details that Georgia and Texas are completing executions with pentobarbital, which I believe is Ohio's execution drug of choice. I know there must be all sorts of legal and practical complications that prevents Ohio officials from simply getting execution drugs from these states, but that reality does not reduce the frustrations that everyone involved in capital justice in Ohio must have as this problems continues to fester and Gov Kasich continues to spend his time traveling to country talking about having the formula to make government work better.

I am busy finishing up a little article suggesting that, for practical and political reasons, most states would generally be wise to seek to end rather than mend its broken death penalty systems.  And, in part for reasons hinted in this post, I am using Ohio's modern experience with death penalty administration as exhibit one in my discussion.

April 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Your tax dollars at work?: cost accounting for Aurora theater shooter James Holmes' failed capital trial

As a matter of abstract philosophy, I have struggled for decades concerning my opinion on capital punishment.  But as a matter of modern public policy, I have generally concluded that the death penalty is not a great use of limited resources for most states.  This new Denver Post article, headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial cost taxpayers at least $3 million: Final cost of James Holmes' trial in the Aurora theater shooting likely won't ever be known," reinforces my perspectives in this regard. Here are the details:

Jailing, evaluating and prosecuting the man who committed the Aurora movie theater shooting cost taxpayers at least $3 million, but the final expense of one of the mostly closely watched court cases in Colorado history may never be known. The $3 million tab was compiled by The Denver Post following multiple open-records requests over the past year. It covers the amount spent from 2012 through 2015 specifically on preparing for and seeing through the trial of James Holmes.

Nearly $1.6 million of the cost was covered by federal grants. When including the salaries of judges, prosecutors, sheriff's deputies and other government employees who spent most or all of their time on the case — but who would have been paid regardless — the total cost rises to more than $7 million.

And there's still a big chunk of expense missing from that amount. The state's taxpayer-funded public defenders — who represented Holmes — are not required to disclose what they spend on a case. Doing so, they say, would violate ethics rules and subject poor defendants to lower standards of attorney-client confidentiality. Generally, the office of the state public defender reports having spent nearly $2 million on death-penalty and potential death-penalty cases since July 2002, not including staff salaries.

The theater shooting trial was one of the longest in state history. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, and Holmes, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, underwent two psychiatric evaluations by state-appointed experts — at a cost of more than $600,000 to the state Department of Human Services. Holmes ultimately was found guilty of murdering 12 people and trying to murder 70 more in the July 2012 attack on the Century Aurora 16 movie theater; he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in August.

While the case prompted public debates about the cost of the death penalty and mental health evaluations, the biggest expense that has been reported was for providing victims' assistance services. The Arapahoe County district attorney's office spent nearly $1.2 million on salaries for victims' advocates, travel expenses for victims to attend the trial and other costs. All of those costs were covered by a federal grant.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office published its close-to-final cost figures last week, said the costs were about in line with what he expected. In addition to the federal grant, the state government appropriated about $500,000 to cover trial-related costs for the district attorney's office. He said more than half of what his office spent on the case was spent before the trial even began one year ago this month, and he rejected the criticism that seeking the death penalty ballooned the trial's price tag. Instead, Brauchler said the case was expensive because of the number of victims involved.

The county DA here make a reasonable point that the nature of the crime may be the reason for the considerable expense as much as the nature of the punishment sought. Nevertheless, I believe this case could and would have cost taxpayers a whole lot less if prosecutors had accepted the defense's early offer to plead guilty in exchange for an LWOP sentence. (That LWOP sentences was ultimately achieved in the end after a lengthy and costly capital trial.) Moreover, the costs here include the opportunity costs of having so many Colorado state justice officials (police, prosecutors, judges) working on this case so intensely when there surely were many other Colorado crime and criminals that might have otherwise gotten their attention.

Of course, and I think not to be overlooked in any accounting of general capital costs/benefits, Holmes' defense team likely was only willing to offer to plead guilty and take LWOP because Colorado has capital punishment on its books. Consequently, it would be unfair to suggest abolition of the death penalty will always produce massive savings in major murder cases. But, as regular readers should know, this kind of accounting leads me to suggest, yet again, that states ought to have ways to "delegate" major murders to the feds for more efficient and effective capital prosecutions.

A few (of many) older related posts (with lots of comments):

April 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

An interesting perspective on Virginia's recent capital experiences

Virginia made capital headlines last week after Gov. Terry McAuliffe altered a bill passed by the state's legislature calling for use of the electric chair if the state could not obtain need lethal drugs.  The headline of this Washington Post piece from last week explains his proposed alternative approach: "In a move that could jeopardize executions, McAuliffe wants to shield the identity of makers of lethal-injection drugs."

Meanwhile, this new commentary by Kerry Dougherty, a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, provides some perspective on this execution method brouhaha and Virginia's recent experience with the death penalty. The piece is headlined "Lost in all the death-penalty drug talk is that there are only 7 men on death row in Virginia," and here are excerpts:

Last winter, state legislators came up with a solution: They said that if drugs are unavailable, the commonwealth should fire up Old Sparky.  Predictably, this sparked a heated debate among politicians. Some argued that the electric chair is cruel.

Others shrugged, saying painless deaths are not the goal of the state.  “I hear, ‘Oh my Lord, he might have to suffer,’ ” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Richard Saslaw in March. “… If we don’t have the necessary drugs, then we need this bill.  When you commit acts like that, you give up your right, as far as I’m concerned, to say, ‘Well, I want to die humanely.’ ”

The governor seems to disagree.  “We take human beings, we strap them into a chair, and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die,” McAuliffe said last week, according to news reports.  “Virginia citizens do not want their commonwealth to revert back to a past when excessively inhumane punishments were committed in their name.”

McAuliffe’s language calls for the state to buy the drugs needed to put prisoners to sleep from special pharmacies. The names of those companies would be cloaked in secrecy, as they are in some other states.  “All I’m doing today is providing a humane way to carry out capital punishment here in Virginia so we have options,” McAuliffe said. “If they do not take it up, I want to be clear, they will be ending capital punishment here in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes, should the people’s business be conducted covertly?  I can answer that: No, it shouldn’t.

Lost in all this talk about how to kill the last men on Virginia’s death row is the happy fact that there are just seven men living there. Seven.  According to an NBC news report, Virginia’s death row was at its most crowded in 1995 when it housed 57 condemned prisoners.  Both executions and death sentences have dropped sharply since then.

The ultimate penalty is imposed on those who commit the most heinous crimes.  Last year, for instance, Virginia executed one man: The loathsome Alfredo Prieto.  He killed a young couple in Fairfax in 1988, raping one of the victims as she died. The Washington Post reported that he had killed as many as seven others. One of those murders was of a 15-year-old in California while he was on the run after the double homicide in Fairfax.

I couldn’t gin up any sympathy for this predator.  Neither could the governor, who refused to block his execution in October. Yet Prieto was the first man executed in the Old Dominion in more than two years.

Why all the empty cells on death row?  Many reasons. But one component is certainly 1995’s “truth-in-sentencing” law pushed by then-Gov. George Allen.  The measure abolished parole and closed the revolving doors on Virginia’s prisons. Suddenly a 10-year sentence meant the convict would spend most of a decade in prison. And a life sentence? It actually meant life in prison.

Given this ironclad alternative to execution, it’s become rare for a Virginia jury — or judge — to send a convict to death row. Before we get back to arguing about the death penalty, can’t we all agree that’s a good thing?

April 17, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Making in Oklahoma the modern "conservative appeal against death penalty"

Richard Viguerie has this notable new commentary in an Oklahoma paper headlined "A conservative appeal against death penalty." Here are excerpts:

This election year, Republican and Democratic voters in records numbers agree on something: They distrust political leaders and the political establishment.  That same distrust applies to ambitious prosecutors, who are part of the political establishment.  Too many have been caught cheating to win convictions, withholding exculpatory evidence and using coerced confessions.

The bipartisan distrust of the political establishment is certainly increasing with regard to the death penalty.  The government's troubling track record of exercising its life-ending authority provides ample reason for concern.  Since 1973, more than 155 people have been released from death row because they were wrongfully convicted. Ten were from Oklahoma.  As an anti-abortion, pro-law enforcement conservative who believes in the sanctity of life and society's duty to protect the innocent, I find this unacceptable.

Oklahoma's well-documented wrongful convictions and failure to adhere to established execution protocols have shown that it cannot be trusted with properly carrying out the solemn responsibility of executing inmates. Oklahoma officials might soon compound these known problems by attempting again to execute Richard Glossip, a man who may well be innocent....

Conservatives are the leaders against government abuse and lawlessness. We understand that government can be callous about its errors, which are costly and cause harm to the innocent. When government tries to execute a man who may well be innocent, I believe we have an even higher calling to speak out.

Oklahoma's systemic failures and Glossip's case in particular are emblematic of what is wrong with America's death penalty. The death penalty's problems are a confluence of things that all Americans loathe: a big, broken, costly and dangerous government program prone to mistakes, and with questionable positive benefits.

It was recently announced that a bipartisan group of eminent Oklahomans would be donating their time to a first-of-its-kind review of the Oklahoma death penalty system. I urge all Oklahomans, and especially conservatives, to support the call for a moratorium on the Oklahoma death penalty until this commission has finished its task and made its recommendations.

The death penalty system, where errors are gravest, is prone to flaws and lawlessness like any other government program.

Recent prior related post:

April 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Taking stock of how the continued lack of lethal drug stocks is altering execution dynamics

The folks at The Marshall Project have this effective new review of the state of death penalty states deep into the enduring challenges so many are having finding lethal injection drugs for executions. The piece is headlined "How the Drug Shortage Has Slowed the Death-Penalty Treadmill: Only 4 states are currently carrying out lethal injections, and 10 are considering other methods." Here is the piece's effective accounting (with links from the original):

We’ve determined the status of executions for the 31 states that allow the death penalty, as well as for the federal government. Here is the breakdown:

  • Only four states are currently carrying out lethal injections. Texas, Missouri, and Georgia use a single drug, pentobarbital (Georgia is set to use the drug for an execution on Tuesday). Alabama has scheduled an execution next month, and uses three drugs in its protocol, including midazolam and pentobarbital. The state’s Department of Corrections has refused to divulge the source of those drugs, which were used for an execution in January, the state’s first in two years.

  • Florida has also enveloped its lethal-injection process in secrecy — and may be able to carry it out — but executions are on hold there because of a Supreme Court decision, Hurst v. Florida, which invalidated the state’s rules surrounding how judges hand down death sentences.

  • Three active execution states have drugs that are about to expire (Virginia, Arizona, and Arkansas). Many states have turned to small compounding pharmacies, which make a version of pentobarbital that loses its potency more quickly than the type manufactured by larger companies.

  • Three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Oklahoma) are tied up in court battles over their drug sources. In Arizona and Arkansas, state officials have said the drugs they have on hand could reach their expiration date before those battles conclude.

  • The difficulty of finding a source of drugs has led Louisiana to halt executions until at least July, and Ohio’s execution chamber will not be in use until 2017. Several of the 11 executions Ohio had planned for this year are rescheduled for as late as 2019. Nebraska is also looking for execution drugs, although the state legislature repealed the death penalty; a public referendum on the punishment is expected in November.

  • Since 2010, the year the drug shortage began to take hold, 17 states and thefederal government have carried out no executions. Five other states (Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina, and South Dakota) have carried out no executions since 2012.

At least 10 states have recently considered other methods of execution, including the firing squad (Utah, Mississippi, Wyoming, South Carolina, Missouri, and Arkansas), the electric chair (Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia), and the gas chamber (Oklahoma). Mississippi has considered all three.

April 13, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)