Thursday, October 19, 2017

Texas serial killer gets prosecutors to seek at obtain a last-minute delay of execution

Texas had plans to execute a serial killer last night, but prosecutors sought and obtained a delay apparently because the killer was scheming to admit to another murder.  This local article, remarkably headlined "Potential new murder confession delays Texas serial killer's execution," reports on this remarkable turn of events:

The execution of Houston serial killer Anthony Shore was rescheduled hours away from his pending death after officials began to worry he would confess to another murder. Shore, 55, was set for execution after 6 p.m. Wednesday, but the district attorney from Montgomery County sent a plea to Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, asking for more time to look into rumors that Shore would confess to a murder in which another death row inmate was convicted.

"This office is in possession of evidence suggesting that Shore has conspired with death row inmate Larry Ray Swearingen and intends to falsely claim responsibility for the capital murder of Melissa Trotter — the crime for which Swearingen is currently scheduled to be executed on November 16, 2017," Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon said in his letter to Abbott. Ogg filed a motion to withdraw Shore's execution date after receiving Ligon's request. It has been reset for Jan. 18.  She said in a statement that Shore’s execution is still “inevitable.”...

In his letter, Ligon explained that a folder containing items on the Trotter murder were found in Shore’s cell this July. When his office discovered this in September, he called Shore’s lawyer, Knox Nunnally, who said Shore would answer questions from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office regarding other murders on the condition that his written responses would only be revealed by his lawyer after his execution.

A Montgomery County investigator also interviewed a death row visitor, who said Shore told her he murdered Trotter and would not let Swearingen be executed for it, Ligon wrote. “We remain absolutely certain of Swearingen’s guilt of Melissa Trotter’s murder, but permitting Shore to claim responsibility for that crime after his execution would leave a cloud over the judicial proceedings in Swearingen’s case,” he wrote.

Shore was known in Houston as the “Tourniquet Killer.” In 2003, he confessed to four murders of young women and girls in the 1980s and 1990s, strangling them with rope or cord and leaving their unclothed bodies behind buildings or in a field.

Swearingen was convicted in the death of 19-year-old Trotter, after her decomposing body was found in a forest nearly a month after she was last seen with Swearingen, according to court documents. He has insisted on his innocence in the murder.

In Texas, there is usually sufficient will to go forward with executions so that the folks there can find a way. But this story leads me to wonder if a serial killer might at least partially succeed with a scheme to try to kill two executions with one stony confessions.

October 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pope Francis calling for evolution of formal Catholic teachings on the death penalty as always "inadmissible"

20171011T1434-12147-CNS-POPE-CATECHISM-DEATH-PENALTY-800x500As reported here via Vatican Radio, Pope Francis spoke out against the death penalty in a notable new way while addressing participants attending a meeting celebrating the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Here is a translated account of his notable comments (with my emphasis added):

I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims.  I am speaking of the death penalty.  This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.  It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which -- ultimately -- only God is the true judge and guarantor.  No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life.  No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.

In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.  Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice.  Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.  Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.  Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.

Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.  Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.  Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50).  It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

“The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (Dei Verbum, 8). The Council Fathers could not have found a finer and more synthetic way of expressing the nature and mission of the Church.  Not only in “teaching”, but also in “life” and “worship”, are the faithful able to be God’s People.  Through a series of verbs the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation expresses the dynamic nature of this process: “This Tradition develops […] grows […] and constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth, until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (ibid.)

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static.  The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!  No.  The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

I have quoted this extended passage because I am struck by how much of the Pope's advocacy and themes echoes (1) Justice William Brennan's concurrence in Furman v. Georgia in which he stressed human dignity as a reason to find the death penalty per se unconstitutional, as well as (2) much Eighth Amendment jurisprudence which stresses that the "Eighth Amendment has not been regarded as a static concept" but rather has prohibitions that can and do acquire new meaning "as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice" based on the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is not a universal view that the Pope's view on these issues is wise and in keeping with Catholic principles and teaching.  Here are two pieces from LifeSite highlighting why these latest comments on the death penalty by Pope Francis are controversial:

October 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Texas carries out 20th execution in US in 2017

With only 20 executions carried out in the United States in 2016, last year saw the fewest total nationwide executions in a quarter century.  The national execution pace in 2017 is not much quicker, but an execution completed tonight in Texas means the US will not in 2017 see a decline in total executions for the first time in a number of years.   The Texas execution is number 20 for the US in 2017, and this AP article reports on its particulars:

A Texas inmate convicted in the death of a prison guard has been put to death after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyer's attempts to halt the execution.

Robert Pruett was given a lethal injection Thursday evening for the December 1999 death of corrections officer Daniel Nagle at a prison southeast of San Antonio. Nagle was repeatedly stabbed with a tape-wrapped metal rod, though an autopsy showed he died from a heart attack that the assault caused. Prosecutors have said the attack stemmed from a dispute over a peanut butter sandwich that Pruett wanted to take into a recreation yard against prison rules.

The 38-year-old Pruett was already serving a 99-year sentence for a neighbor's killing near Houston when he was convicted in Nagle's death. Pruett's execution is the sixth this year in Texas.

This Death Penalty Information Center page indicates that there are nine more serious execution dates in 2017. Even if all these executions are completed (which seems a bit unlikely), there would still be fewer executions in the US in 2017 than in every single year between 1992 and 2014.

October 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (18)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"Is Having Too Many Aggravating Factors the Same as Having None at All?: A Comment on the Hidalgo Cert. Petition"

The title of this post is the title of this short commentary authored by Chad Flanders that a helpful reader alerted me to.  Here is a paragraph from the introduction:

[This] paper proceeds in three short parts.  The first part sets out the argument in the Hidalgo petition and explains its claim that having too many aggravating factors is as ineffective as having no aggravating factors.  The second part provides a straightforward critique of the Hidalgo argument along the lines detailed above — that the fact that aggravating factors may cover a large number of actual murders does not say much (indeed, practically nothing in the abstract) about whether those aggravating factors “narrow” the class of the death eligible.  In the third part, I suggest that the “multiple aggravators” argument is in essence a version of the original worry about broad and amorphous aggravating factors.  But this critique means analyzing how aggravators work (individually and together) as a conceptual matter, rather than analyzing whether all murders committed in the state happen to fit under one of the aggravating factors.

October 11, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Judge Kozinski, in dissent, laments the "cruel and expensive hoax" of the death penalty in California

A divided Ninth Circuit panel issued an extended opinion yesterday in Kirkpatrick v. Chappell, No. 14-99001 (9th Cir. Oct. 10, 2017) (available here), that keeps alive a habeas claim that of a California murderer trying to stay alive decades after being sentenced to death for a double murder committed in 1983. The bulk of the ruling, with a majority ruling by Judge Reinhardt and a dissent by Judge Kozinski, concerns the intricacies of appellate and habeas procedure. But the last four pages of Judge Kozinski's dissent are what make the opinion blog-worthy, and here is a taste from its start and end (without the copious cites):

But none of this matters because California doesn’t have a death penalty.  Sure, there’s a death row in California — the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. But there have been only thirteen executions since 1976, the most recent over ten years ago.  Death row inmates in California are far more likely to die from natural causes or suicide than execution....

Meanwhile, the people of California labor under the delusion that they live in a death penalty state.  They may want capital punishment to save innocent lives by deterring murders.  But executions must actually be carried out if they’re to have any deterrent effect.  Maybe death penalty supporters believe in just retribution; that goal, too, is frustrated if there’s no active execution chamber.  Or perhaps the point is closure for victims’ families, but these are surely false hopes.  Kirkpatrick murdered Rose Falconio’s sixteen-year-old son more than thirty years ago, and her finality is nowhere near.  If the death penalty is to serve whatever purpose its proponents envision, it must actually be carried out. A phantom death penalty is a cruel and expensive hoax.

Which is why it doesn’t matter what we hold today.  One way or the other, Kirkpatrick will go on to live a long life “driv[ing] everybody else crazy,” while copious tax dollars are spent litigating his claims.  And my colleagues and I will continue to waste countless hours disputing obscure points of law that have no relevance to the heinous crimes for which Kirkpatrick and his 746 housemates continue to evade their lawful punishment.  It’s as if we’re all performers in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  We make exaggerated gestures and generate much fanfare. But in the end it amounts to nothing.

October 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Could poor health help save the live of Ohio's "poster child for the death penalty”?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch article headlined "Ohio killer says he’s too ill to be put to death."  Here are excerpts:

Death-row inmate Alva Campbell, once dubbed “the poster child for the death penalty” for a deadly carjacking outside the Franklin County Courthouse 20 years ago, is now too sick to be put to death, his attorneys and advocates say.

The convicted killer is slated for execution Nov. 15, but Campbell has so much fluid in his lungs that he can’t lie flat on the execution table for a lethal injection, one of his attorneys, David Stebbins, said Tuesday. “He’ll start gasping and choking,” Stebbins said. Stebbins said that for Campbell to sleep in prison, “he has to prop himself up on his side. It’s not very good.”

Stebbins said he has communicated his concerns to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which didn’t immediately respond to questions about how to deal with Campbell’s condition.

Campbell, 69, has twice been convicted of murder, most recently in the 1997 execution-style slaying of 18-year-old Charles Dials behind a K-Mart store on South High Street.

Long before that, Campbell had cardiopulmonary issues that in the past few years have become debilitating, his attorneys say. Most of his right lung has been removed, and he has emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and possibly cancer in much of his remaining lung tissue, Campbell’s application for executive clemency says. In addition, his prostate gland has been removed, as has a gangrenous colon. A broken hip last year has confined him to a walker. “The severity of these combined illnesses have left Alva debilitated and fragile,” Campbell’s clemency application says. “Alva’s deteriorating physical condition further militates in favor of clemency.”

The health claims are only one reason why Campbell and his attorneys are asking that his sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. They also cite the “nightmare” childhood that Campbell suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father who was both physically and sexually abusive.

If Gov. John Kasich doesn’t want to commute Campbell’s sentence, delaying his sentence would have the same effect because the inmate will die soon, advocates said. “He’s probably in the poorest health of any living death-row inmate in the country,” said Kevin Werner of Ohioans to Stop Executions....

Campbell is scheduled for a clemency hearing Thursday. A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that, in advance of the hearing, his office will file a response rebutting the claims made in Campbell’s application.

Campbell argues that poor health is one reason he shouldn’t be put to death, but he used an earlier, false health claim to commit the crime that put him on death row. Campbell feigned paralysis from a glancing bullet wound suffered during a robbery arrest. As Campbell was being taken to the Franklin County Courthouse for a hearing on April 2, 1997, he sprang from his wheelchair, overpowered a deputy sheriff, took her gun and fled. He then carjacked Dials, who was at the courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. After driving Dials around for hours, Campbell ordered him onto the floor of his truck and shot him twice.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who at the time of Campbell’s trial called him “the poster child for the death penalty,” couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.

October 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Making the case against the death penalty on the 15th "World Day against the Death Penalty"

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico Gov and US ambassador to the United Nations, has this lengthy new Hill commentary headlined "Death penalty — a fatal, inhuman practice that discriminates against the poor." Here are excerpts:

We celebrate today the 15th World Day against the Death Penalty.  As of today, 105 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In the past 25 years, 60 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and the number of states that carry out executions has fallen by nearly half.

But it is still not enough: the world’s most populated countries — China, India, United States of America and Indonesia still retain capital punishment along with countries like North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.  Around half of the world’s population, who live in these countries, is not guaranteed the right to life, as prescribed in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hundreds of executions are carried out every year and thousands are under sentence of death.

Worryingly, the death penalty has been carried out arbitrarily and in a manner that discriminates against the poor and the marginalized sections of society including minority groups and migrant workers.

When I was the Governor of New Mexico, I changed my mind from being a believer of capital punishment as I saw this discriminatory aspect of the death penalty. Besides, there is always the possibility of executing an innocent and so I abolished the death penalty in New Mexico in 2009.  My convictions have only strengthened as 159 persons facing capital punishment in the USA have been reportedly found to be innocent since 1973.

In the USA, most persons facing the death penalty even today cannot afford their own attorney at trial and most court-appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid or lacked the experience necessary to defend capital punishment trials.

Moreover, prosecutors tended to seek the death penalty more often when the victim was white than when the victim was African-American or of another racial or ethnic origin. These factors have contributed to the arbitrariness of the death penalty. By doing so, the death penalty violates the right to equal dignity and this discrimination condemns them to further marginalization.

This discrimination against the poor and minority communities occurs not just in USA but in practically every country applying the death penalty.  Because of their limited economic means, because of their lack of knowledge of the legal systems and their rights, because of poor legal defense support, because of systemic bias that they face from law enforcement authorities, they are under greater risk of being sentenced to death.

In India, almost 75 per cent of the persons sentenced to death, and in Malaysia, nearly 90 per cent, reportedly belonged to economically vulnerable groups.  In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan hundreds are executed every year, most of whom are poor or from minority communities; in addition, there are concerns that these three countries carry out executions of those who were juveniles when they allegedly committed the crimes for which they faced the death penalty.

In China, the number of executions carried out is a state secret and reportedly, those executed, feared to be in the thousands, include those belonging marginalized communities including unskilled workers who have little means of defense.  In Indonesia, 13 of the 16 persons executed in the last two years were foreign nationals and there were questions of fair trials in several of these cases.

October 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, October 09, 2017

Reviewing the backstory of the Supreme Court's recent capital cert grant

As noted in this post a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court recently added a capital case to its docket. Adam Liptak's latest New York Times "Sidebar" column is focused on that new case.  This piece, headlined "Facing the Death Penalty With a Disloyal Lawyer," includes these passages:

Two weeks before Robert McCoy was to be tried for a triple murder, his lawyer paid him a visit.  It was the summer of 2011, and the two men met in a holding cell in a Louisiana courthouse.  Mr. McCoy, who was facing the death penalty, told his lawyer he was innocent. Mr. McCoy was adamant. Others had committed the crimes, he said, and he wanted to clear his name.

The lawyer, Larry English, said he had a different strategy. “I met with Robert at the courthouse and explained to him that I intended to concede that he had killed the three victims,” Mr. English recalled in a sworn statement.  “Robert was furious and it was a very intense meeting. He told me not to make that concession, but I told him that I was going to do so.”...

Conceding guilt in a capital case is sometimes the right play.  Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether it is permissible even if the man whose life is at stake objects.

Mr. McCoy was accused of killing Christine Colston Young, Willie Young and Gregory Colston, who were the mother, stepfather and son of Mr. McCoy’s estranged wife. There was substantial evidence that he had done so. There was also reason to think that Mr. McCoy’s belief in his innocence was both earnest and delusional.

There was no ambiguity in Mr. McCoy’s position, Mr. English recalled. “I know that Robert was completely opposed to me telling the jury that he was guilty of killing the three victims,” Mr. English said. “But I believed that this was the only way to save his life.”

After the meeting, Mr. McCoy tried to fire his lawyer, saying he would rather represent himself. Judge Jeff Cox, of the Bossier Parish District Court, turned him down. “Mr. English is your attorney, and he will be representing you,” the judge said....

During his opening statement at the trial, Mr. English did what he had promised to do. “I’m telling you,” he told the jury, “Mr. McCoy committed these crimes.” Mr. McCoy objected. “Judge Cox,” he said, “Mr. English is simply selling me out.”

“I did not murder my family, your honor,” Mr. McCoy said. “I had alibis of me being out of state. Your honor, this is unconstitutional for you to keep an attorney on my case when this attorney is completely selling me out.”

Whatever its wisdom, Mr. English’s trial strategy failed. Mr. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, saying his lawyer had betrayed him. The court ruled against him. “Given the circumstances of this crime and the overwhelming evidence incriminating the defendant,” the court said, “admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy.”

The decision relied on a unanimous 2004 ruling from the United States Supreme Court in Florida v. Nixon, which said lawyers need not obtain their clients’ express consent before conceding guilt in a capital case. But the ruling did not address whether it was permissible for a lawyer to disregard a client’s explicit instruction to the contrary.

That is the question in the new case, McCoy v. Louisiana, No. 16-8255.  The right answer, Louisiana prosecutors told the justices, is that lawyers may ignore their clients’ wishes. “Counsel’s strategic choices should not be impeded by a rigid blanket rule demanding the defendant’s consent,” they wrote in a brief urging the court not to hear the case.

In a brief supporting Mr. McCoy, the Ethics Bureau at Yale, a law school clinic, said Mr. English had essentially switched sides. “Far from testing the prosecution’s case,” the brief said, “Mr. English seemed downright eager to advance it.”

Mr. McCoy’s situation is not particularly unusual, according to a second supporting brief, this one filed by the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group. “In Louisiana,” the brief said, “a capital defendant has no right to a lawyer who will insist on his innocence.” Since 2000, the brief said, the Louisiana Supreme Court allowed defense lawyers to concede their clients’ guilt in four other capital cases over the clients’ express objections.

October 9, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, October 06, 2017

Nearly 35 years after his double murder, Florida executes Michael Lambrix despite non-unanimous jury death recommendations

As reported in this local article, "Florida executed an inmate Thursday who was convicted of killing two people after a night of drinking decades ago."  Here is part of the extended backstory:

Michael Lambrix, 57, died by lethal injection at 10:10 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Bradford County. For his final words, Lambrix said, “I wish to say the Lord's Prayer.” He recited the words, ending on the line “deliver us from evil,” his voice breaking slightly at times.

When he finished and the drug cocktail began flowing through his veins, Lambrix's chest heaved and his lips fluttered. This continued for about five minutes, until his lips and eyelids turned silver-blue and he lay motionless. A doctor checked his chest with a stethoscope and shined a light in both of his eyes before pronouncing him dead.

Lambrix was the second inmate put to death by the state since it restarted executions in August. Before then, the state had stopped all executions for months after a Supreme Court ruling that found Florida's method of sentencing people to death was unconstitutional. In response, the state Legislature passed a new law requiring death sentences to have a unanimous jury vote.

Lambrix's attorney, William Hennis, argued in an appeal to the nation's high court that because his client's jury recommendations for death were not unanimous — the juries in his two trials voted 8-4 and 10-2 for death — they should be thrown out.  The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that Lambrix's case is too old to qualify for relief from the new sentencing system. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday night denied Lambrix's last-ditch appeal.

Lambrix was convicted of killing Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant in 1983 after a long night of partying in a small central Florida town, Labelle, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Fort Meyers. Lambrix said he was innocent.

He and his roommate, Frances Smith, had met the victims at a bar, and returned to their trailer to eat spaghetti and continue the party, prosecutors said.  At some point after returning to the trailer, Lambrix asked Moore to go outside. He returned about 20 minutes later and asked Bryant to come out as well, according to Smith's testimony. Smith testified at trial that Lambrix returned to the trailer alone after the killings, his clothes covered in blood.  The two finished the spaghetti, buried the two bodies and then washed up, according to Smith's testimony cited in court documents.

Prosecutors said Lambrix choked Bryant, and used a tire iron to kill Moore. Investigators found the bodies, the tire iron and the bloody shirt.

Lambrix has claimed in previous appeals that it was Moore who killed Bryant, and that he killed Moore only in self-defense. “It won't be an execution,” he told reporters in an interview at the prison Tuesday, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “It's going to be an act of cold-blooded murder.”

Lambrix's first trial ended in a hung jury. The jury in the second trial found him guilty of both murders, and a majority of jurors recommended death.

He was originally scheduled to be executed in 2016, but that was postponed after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a case called Hurst v. Florida, which found Florida's system for sentencing people to death was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. Florida's Supreme Court has ruled that the new death sentencing system only applies to cases back to 2002.

October 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

SCOTUS vacates by 6-3 vote lower federal court injunction which would have blocked planned Alabama execution

As reported in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court today cleared the way for Alabama's planned execution Thursday of inmate Jeffery Lynn Borden for the Christmas Eve 1993 shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her father in Gardendale." Here is more:

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an order granting the request of the Alabama Attorney General's Office to vacate the injunction blocking the execution that had been issued by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week.  The Attorney General's Office had appealed the 11th Circuit's order to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.  In today's order from the U.S. Supreme Court three justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonja Sotomayor — said they would have denied the Attorney General's request and kept the injunction blocking the execution in place.

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this post noting that the issue that led to the injunction concerned efforts by the condemned to contest lethal injection methods based on Alabama use of midazolam in its execution protocol.   Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has this post with a few additional particulars.

October 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

After recent SCOTUS win, Duane Buck gets plea deal to avoid any possible return to death row

As reported in this local article, headlined "Condemned inmate Duane Buck escapes death penalty," a Texas murderer consolidated a recent Supreme Court victory assailing his death sentence with a plea deal that ensure he will not return to death row. Here are the details from the start of the article:

Duane Buck — wearing handcuffs, leg irons and the yellow jail uniform of a high-profile inmate — doubled over in his courtroom chair and sobbed. "I'm sorry," he said.

It was the last act of a decades-long battle to execute the 54-year-old convicted killer for a double murder, ending not with lethal injection but a plea deal in a Harris County court.

Buck's courthouse deal was the third Harris County death penalty case stemming from a successful appeal resolved with a plea bargain instead of a retrial under District Attorney Kim Ogg. Buck, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was sent back to Houston for a retrial because of concerns about racist testimony in his 1997 trial, escaped death row by admitting guilt in the shooting rampage that killed two and injured two others.

The family of Buck's victims, however, were having none of his contrition. "The boy is a cold-blooded murderer," Accie Smith told reporters after the brief hearing. "He is not a victim of racism. He's a cold-blood, calculating murderer."

Smith is one of the older sisters of Debra Gardner, Buck's girlfriend, whom he killed along with her friend Kenneth Butler. After a night of drugs, alcohol and arguing with Gardner in July 1995, Buck broke into her home and shot four people. The victims included his sister, Phyliss Taylor, and his friend Harold Ebenezer, who both survived.

After Tuesday's plea, the slain woman's daughter recounted how she hung from Buck's back as a 13-year-old and tried to keep him from attacking her mother. "You took my mom," said Shenell Gardner. "We both get to live with this. I know what I feel; you feel as well."

The battle to execute Buck began when he was sentenced to die for the slaying of his girlfriend and Butler. After 20 years on death row and several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year granted Buck a new sentencing hearing because of testimony from an expert who told jurors that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Gardner's family members, who are black, said they felt betrayed by the NAACP and black ministers who took up Buck's cause. "They threw us under the bus. What happened today is a travesty and it's a disgrace," Smith, the victim's sister, said. "I will never understand why his life is more important than her life."

On Tuesday, Ogg said she did not believe prosecutors could secure the death penalty again. The defense team would have shown that for 22 years, Buck has been a model prisoner, so he is unlikely to be a future danger. Also, his sister, whom he shot, has argued for leniency in his case.

Instead of going to trial, Ogg offered Buck the opportunity to admit guilt to two additional counts of attempted murder, hoping to stack the deck when the parole board reviews Buck's case in 2035. "A Harris County jury would likely not return a death penalty conviction today in a case that's forever been tainted by the specter of race," she said. The top prosecutor said she hopes the resolution of Buck's case will mark the end of race being used against defendants in capital cases. "Race is never evidence," Ogg said.

The dilemma with Buck getting a life sentence, by either a jury trial or a plea deal, is that he is sentenced according to the law at the time of the crime. Ogg said it was important to keep Buck behind bars for the rest of his life. A sentence of "life without parole" is not an option, even if both sides agreed to it, because that punishment did not exist in 1995.

Prior related posts on SCOTUS ruling:

October 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

"What’s Behind the Decline in the Death Penalty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Marshall Project Q&A with Prof Brandon Garrett inspired by his new book, "End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice."  Here is how the Q&A gets set up, along with the concluding Qs and As:

There are four men left on death row in Virginia, and only 31 people were sentenced to death in the entire U.S. last year, compared with more than 300 per year in the mid-1990s. The numbers are stark, but if you ask the experts — lawyers, scholars, activists, judges — why the death penalty has begun to fade in the U.S., you get all sorts of answers, many of them frustratingly vague.

The crime rate dropped, so there have been fewer murders to punish. A few states abolished the punishment outright. The cost of death penalty cases went up, and prosecutors grew worried about their budgets. States passed laws making life without parole an option for certain aggravated murders, meaning there was a sufficiently harsh alternative to the death penalty. All those DNA exonerations raised the specter of an innocent person being killed. In elections for district attorney, voters in Houston and Philadelphia replaced death-penalty champions with skeptics.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett’s new book, “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice,” represents a major new effort to untangle these factors. He also analyzes the decline for lessons that might be applied to the criminal justice system as a whole. We discussed his findings by email....

If the crime rate goes back up, do you think there will be more death sentences, or have these standards of better lawyering changed the game enough to survive big political shifts?  What happens if there is a return to the murder rates of the 1980s?

The American death penalty has always been more about political posturing than a genuine attempt to make the punishment fit the crime. Meanwhile, crime continues to decline.  If murder rate trends do completely reverse, then there could be pressure to take more tough-on-crime approaches.  But I think people have learned the lesson the hard way that you can’t death-sentence or imprison your way out of crime.  We now know when jurors hear the whole story, even in death penalty cases, they are reluctant to impose death sentences.  Even if more prosecutors suddenly started seeking the death penalty, the results would likely not be good for them.

In your book, there is a tension about the future: On the one hand, the decline of death sentences has shown how “mercy” among jurors can triumph given the right conditions; on the other hand, the decline has led to a massive expansion of life-without-parole sentences, which Pope Francis has called "hidden death sentences."  How do you resolve that tension?  What do you think opponents of long sentences should do going forward to bring more mercy into the system?

Only about 2,800 prisoners sit on death row today, but over 50,000 prisoners are serving life without parole, and about 200,000 prisoners have life sentences, according to a Sentencing Project report.  I tell the story in my book of Joseph Sledge, who received two life sentences, and since he did not get a death sentence, he was not entitled to receive lawyers from the state once his appeals ran out.  For decades, he filed habeas petitions himself and wrote letters.  After almost 40 years in prison in North Carolina, a letter to an innocence project led to DNA tests that proved his innocence.

We need to do something about the explosion of these life sentences in America.  We have replaced the death penalty with the “other death penalty.”  Even juveniles can still get life-without-parole sentences, although the Supreme Court has said it cannot be mandatory.  To imprison people, sometimes very young people, with no hope of release or redemption is inhumane.

October 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

US Supreme Court, voting 6-3, issues last-minute stay of execution in Georgia

As revealed in this new order and explained in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution tonight to condemned killer Keith Tharpe, three and a half hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection." Here are the basics:

In a 6-3 decision, the court’s justices were apparently concerned about claims that one of Tharpe’s jurors was racist and sentenced Tharpe to death because he was African-American. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — dissented.

The high court will now decide whether to hear Tharpe’s appeal, and, if it doesn’t, the court said the stay of execution shall terminate automatically. But that will not happen tonight.

Tharpe’s lawyers were overjoyed with the decision. “We’re gratified the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant,” said Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys. “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe's claim of juror racial bias in regular order."

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reviewing the racial bias and other concerns surrounding Georgia's planned execution of Keith Tharpe

CNN has this new article reviewing issues being raised in the run-up a scheduled execution in Georgia.  The article is headlined "Questions of racial bias surround black man's imminent execution," and here are excerpts:

The state of Georgia is set to carry out its second execution of the year on Tuesday, when it plans to put to death Keith Tharpe, who was sentenced in 1991 for murdering his sister-in-law.  But Tharpe, 59, and his attorneys are seeking a stay of execution, based in part on racist comments a juror made after the trial had ended.  Tharpe is black and the now-deceased juror who made the comments was white.

The attorneys are not claiming that Tharpe is innocent of the crimes for which he's been convicted. Rather, they are arguing that his death sentence should be overturned because of juror misconduct.  They say Tharpe's death sentence was the result of a racially biased juror who, in a post-trial interview seven years after Tharpe's conviction and sentencing, used the n-word and wondered "if black people even have souls."

A biased juror, they argue, violates Tharpe's constitutional rights to a fair trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.  They also argue that the juror lied during jury selection, concealing the fact that he knew the victim's family. Furthermore, the attorneys say Tharpe is intellectually disabled, which would make it illegal for him to be executed under federal law....

At the time of his crime, September 25, 1990, Tharpe and his wife were estranged. Prosecutors said Tharpe stopped his wife and sister-in-law in the road as they drove to work, according to court filings from the federal district court. The documents say he took his sister-in-law, Jacquelin Freeman, to the back of the vehicle and shot her with a shotgun before throwing her into a ditch and shooting her again, killing her. An autopsy showed Freeman had been shot three times.  Prosecutors alleged Tharpe then raped his wife and took her to withdraw money from a credit union, where she was able to call police for help, according to the documents. Three months later, convicted of malice murder and kidnapping, Tharpe was sentenced to death. 

Tharpe's current case centers on the post-conviction testimony of Barney Gattie, a white juror in Tharpe's trial....  Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney with the Georgia Resource Center, said Gattie showed in his interview that he "harbored very atrocious, racist views about black people."  Tharpe's lawyers claim Gattie, who is now deceased, used the n-word with the lawyers throughout the interview, in reference to Tharpe and other black people....

Georgia law states that juror testimony cannot be used to impeach the verdict, or render it invalid -- even if it involves racial bias, Kammer said.  At the time Gattie made the statements in question, this rule kept Tharpe's attorneys from being able to use them to prove his death sentence was the result of racial bias.  In Georgia, defendants can only receive a death sentence if the jury reaches the decision unanimously.

But Kammer and his team are relying on some recent United States Supreme Court decisions to back their motion for a stay of execution.  The central one, Kammer told CNN, is Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado.  In March, the US Supreme Court held in a 5-3 vote that laws like Georgia's are invalidated when a juror "makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Essentially, a juror's racial bias constitutes a violation of a defendant's rights to an impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and prevents defendants from being able to prove a violation of their constitutional rights.  "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed -- including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered -- is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right," Kennedy said.

Tharpe's request for a stay was denied by the 11th Circuit Court on September 21.  A federal district court denied Tharpe's motion seeking a reopening to federal habeas proceedings on September 5, the day before the state issued a warrant for his execution.

September 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Friday, September 22, 2017

"Legal vs. Factual Normative Questions & the True Scope of Ring"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Emad Atiq available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When is a normative question a question of law rather than a question of fact?  The short answer, based on common law and constitutional rulings, is: it depends.  For example, if the question concerns the fairness of contractual terms, it is a question of law.  If it concerns the reasonableness of dangerous risk-taking in a negligence suit, it is a question of fact.  If it concerns the obscenity of speech, it was a question of fact prior to the Supreme Court’s seminal cases on free speech during the 1970s, but is now treated as law-like. This variance in the case law cannot be explained by traditional accounts of the law/fact distinction and has fueled recent skepticism about the possibility of gleaning a coherent principle from judicial rulings.

This Article clarifies a principle implicit in the settled classifications.  I suggest that judicial practice is consistent: it can be explained by the distinction between normative questions that are convention-dependent and those that are convention-independent.  Convention-dependent normative questions, or those that turn essentially on facts about conventions (roughly, what we do around here) are reasonably classified as questions of law.  By contrast, convention-independent normative questions, which turn primarily on fundamental moral norms, are properly classified as questions of fact.  This principle, echoed in recent holdings, clarifies law/fact classifications in such diverse areas as torts, contracts, First Amendment law and criminal procedure.

The principle also promises to resolve a looming constitutional controversy.  In Ring v Arizona, the Supreme Court held that all factual findings that increase a capital defendant’s sentence must be decided by the jury under the 6th Amendment.  Two recent denials of cert. suggest that members of the Court wish to revisit, in light of Ring, the constitutionality of judges deciding whether a criminal defendant deserves the death penalty.  Applying the principle to Ring, I argue that the question of death-deservingness is a convention-independent normative question, and for that reason should be deemed a factual question for the jury.

September 22, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Can an assistant public defender in California make nearly $300,000 per year?

Upon seeing this local article, headlined "Taxpayer cost for mass murderer Scott Dekraai’s case tops $2.5 million," I was starting to do a post on the high costs of problematic capital cases in California. (Regular readers may recall that the Dekraai case made headlines last month, as blogged here, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty as a punishment option due to law enforcement misconduct linked to a jail informant program.)  Here is how that article gets started:

If all goes as expected, the worst mass killer in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai, will be sentenced Friday, Sept. 22, to eight terms of life without parole, one term each for the people he fatally shot in Seal Beach six years ago.

But the sentence comes with a relatively high price tag after a judge rejected the death penalty and concluded local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had engaged in misconduct, according to records and interviews. As of Sept. 6, the Dekraai case has cost taxpayers at least $2.5 million, according to an analysis by the Southern California News Group.

But the question now in this title of this post emerges from my back-of-the-envelop assessment of this line item in cost analysis appearing in the article: "Assistant public defender Scott Sanders – $842,635: 50 percent of his total compensation, adjusted yearly, for five years and 10 months." If I am understanding this line item, it suggest that an assistant public defender received "total compensation" of nearly $1.7 million in less than six years, which amounts to annual salary of nearly $300,000. Though I will never begrudge a good lawyer making a good salary, the prospect of a public defender making this much on a yearly basis would certainly undermine the notion that all public defenders are over-worked and under-paid.

Because a quick web search brings up data suggesting that the average public defender annual salary in LA is more like $97,000, I am thinking there is something hinky in the numbers being used for accounting the costs of the Dekraai case.  And, perhaps even more to the point, this article with or without accounting errors, highlights how hard it is to really properly assess the complete costs to taxpayers of our criminal justice systems.

September 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Potential controversy brewing after Ohio completes its second execution of 2017

This updated AP report on Ohio's execution completed this morning suggest that another lethal injection controversy could be brewing in the Buckeye State.  Here are excerpts from the AP report providing the basics (which I have placed in temporal order):

An Ohio killer of two people sang a Christian hymn and quoted the Bible in the minutes before his death.

The last words of Gary Otte were derived from a Bible account of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. He said: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they're doing. Amen." He earlier professed his love for his family, said he was sorry and sighed deeply, then began singing "The Greatest Thing," with such words as "I want to know you Lord."

His singing stopped at 10:39, before he gave a thumbs-up sign. His stomach rose and fell several times, resumed after a consciousness check by guards at 10:42, then appeared to fall still a couple minutes later. The time of death for the 45-year-old Otte was 10:54 a.m.

Relatives of his two 1992 victims were among the witnesses. 

A federal public defender who witnessed the execution of a condemned Ohio killer of two says she thinks mistakes were made.  Defense attorney Carol Wright tried unsuccessfully to leave the witness room to alert a federal judge there appeared to be problems. Wright says she believes the rising and falling of Gary Otte's (OH'-teez) chest indicated he was suffering a phenomenon known as air hunger.

A spokeswoman for Ohio's prison system says the state followed proper security protocols when a lawyer witnessing an execution tried to leave the witness room.  JoEllen Smith, of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, says once attorney Carol Wright's intention and identity were confirmed she was allowed to leave.

Smith said Wednesday's execution of condemned killer Gary Otte was carried out in accordance with prison policy and without complication.

Wright tried unsuccessfully to leave the witness room to alert a federal judge there appeared to be problems. Wright says she believes the rising and falling of Otte's chest indicated he was suffering a phenomenon known as air hunger.  Wright says she believe mistakes were made. She reached the judge overseeing Otte's case, but it was too late.

UPDATE: This local article provides some expanded details on the concerns of Otte's attorney under the headline "Attorney for executed Parma murderer says she believes inmate suffered pain during lethal injection."

September 13, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Ohio Gov delays multiple executions while denying clemency for double murderer slated to die later this month

As noted and lamented in this recent Fair Punishment Project report, "Prisoners on Ohio’s Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age," as of the end of August 2017, Ohio had scheduled 26 executions to take place between now and 2020.  But as of the start of September 2017, thanks to the clemency/reprieve powers of Ohio Gov John Kasich and as detailed here, Ohio has only 18 executions scheduled to take place between now and 2020 with eight others being pushed back to 2021 and 2022.

The delaying of numerous execution was explained in this press release, which also notes that Gov Kasich has (unsurprisingly) denied clemency for a double murderer still scheduled to be executed on September 13:

Gov. John R. Kasich has denied a request for executive clemency from Gary Otte who was convicted in Cuyahoga County for the 1992 robbery and murder of 61 year-old Robert Wasikowski and 45 year-old Sharon Kostura at their respective apartments in Parma, OH.  The Governor’s decision follows the advice of the Ohio Parole Board, who on February 10, 2017, recommended against clemency for Otte by a vote of 11-0.

Additionally, in consultation with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the governor updated Ohio’s current execution schedule.  After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected claims by Ohio inmates that the state’s protocol was unconstitutional, allowing the execution of Ronald Phillips to proceed in July, the state reviewed the existing schedule to ensure Ohio would meet the goal of conducting court-ordered executions in a humane and professional manner.

Looking over the revised execution schedule, I surmise that the folks at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction were not too keen on having to gear up for an execution scheduled nearly every month for the next two years and so they urged Gov Kasich to set a revised schedule that now has an execution taking place only, roughly, every other month through the next five years.

Notably, there are, as detailed here, another 123 persons on Ohio's death row in addition the the 26 with current execution date. That means that even if Ohio were to keep up the pace of six execution per year going forward after 2022, it would take until 2042 to carry out the sentences only of those currently condemned to die. That reality, in turn, lead me to start speculating about who might be governor of Ohio in a quarter century and whether she might be a proponent or opponent of capital punishment.

September 3, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Florida Supreme Court says Gov was within authority to remove prosecutor from capital cases

The Florida Supreme Court issues a ruling today in Ayala v. Scott, No. SC 17-653 (Fla Aug 31, 2017) (available here). Here is the start of the opinion and the some of its analysis section:

Aramis Donell Ayala, State Attorney for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, petitions this Court for a writ of quo warranto, challenging Governor Rick Scott’s authority under section 27.14(1), Florida Statutes (2016), to reassign the prosecution of death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to Brad King, State Attorney for Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit. We have jurisdiction.  See article V, § 3(b)(8), Fla. Const.  For the reasons below, we deny Ayala’s petition....

Ayala argues that the Governor exceeded his authority under section 27.14 by reassigning death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King over her objection because article V, section 17, of the Florida Constitution makes Ayala “the prosecuting officer of all trial courts in [the Ninth] [C]ircuit.”  While quo warranto is the proper vehicle to challenge the Governor’s authority to reassign these cases to King, see Fla. House of Representatives v. Crist, 999 So. 2d 601, 607 (Fla. 2008), Ayala is not entitled to relief because the Governor did not exceed his authority on the facts of this case....

[T]he executive orders reassigning the death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King fall well “within the bounds” of the Governor’s “broad authority.”  Finch, 254 So. 2d at 204-05.  Far from being unreasoned or arbitrary, as required by section 27.14(1), the reassignments are predicated upon “good and sufficient reason,” namely Ayala’s blanket refusal to pursue the death penalty in any case despite Florida law establishing the death penalty as an appropriate sentence under certain circumstances. See generally § 921.141, Fla. Stat. (2017).

Notwithstanding the Governor’s compliance with all of the requirements of section 27.14(1), however, Ayala and her amici urge this Court to invalidate the reassignment orders by viewing this case as a power struggle over prosecutorial discretion.  We decline the invitation because by effectively banning the death penalty in the Ninth Circuit — as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty — Ayala has exercised no discretion at all.  As New York’s high court cogently explained, “adopting a ‘blanket policy’ ” against the imposition of the death penalty is “in effect refusing to exercise discretion” and tantamount to a “functional[] veto” of state law authorizing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in appropriate cases. Johnson v. Pataki, 691 N.E.2d 1002, 1007 (N.Y. 1997).

Two Justices dissented, and the dissenting opinion starts this way:

This case is about the independence of duly elected State Attorneys to make lawful decisions within their respective jurisdictions as to sentencing and allocation of their offices’ resources, free from interference by a Governor who disagrees with their decisions.  The issue before this Court is whether a duly elected State Attorney’s choice to forgo seeking one potential penalty in a class of criminal cases, in favor of seeking another penalty authorized by statute, constitutes “good and sufficient reason” for the Governor to exercise his removal power under section 27.14(1), Florida Statutes (2017).  I dissent because the State Attorney’s decision to prosecute first-degree murder cases but not seek the death penalty at this time does not provide a basis for the Governor to remove State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

August 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New report spotlights concerns with background of 26 Ohio condemned scheduled for execution in coming months and years

In this post earlier this year, I reported on a significant report produced by the Fair Punishment Project (FPP) examining the background and case history of eight death row defendants in Arkansas who had approaching execution dates.  That March 2017 Arkansas report from FPP was titled "Prisoners on Arkansas’s Execution List Defined By Mental Illness, Intellectual Disability, and Bad Lawyering," and I am inclined to assert that the FPP report played a role in a few of these Arkansas defendants getting their executions stayed.

Now FPP has turned its eye to the Buckeye State now that Ohio has gotten its machinery of death operating again, and FPP's latest report here is titled "Prisoners on Ohio’s Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age." Here is how this report gets started:

On July 26, 2017, Ohio ended its three-year execution moratorium and put Ronald Phillips to death.  Phillips, 19 at the time he committed his crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and a witness to unspeakable physical abuse — information his trial lawyers never learned or presented to a jury.

Ohio intends to execute three more people in 2017 and then 23 more between 2018 and 2020.  We examined the cases of these 26 men, relying on available legal pleadings, court opinions, and where accessible, trial testimony.  We found that these men are among the most impaired and traumatized among us — a pattern replicated across America’s death rows.  At least 17 out of the 26 men experienced serious childhood trauma — horrifying instances of extensive physical and sexual abuse.  At least six men appear to suffer from a mental illness, and at least 11 have evidence of intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, or a cognitive impairment, including brain injury.  Three were under the age of 21 at the time they committed their offenses, a period during which an individual’s brain, especially the section related to impulse control and decision-making, is still underdeveloped.  Many of these men fall within several of these categories, which compounds the impairments.

We use the term “at least” because three of these men waived the presentation of mitigation at their trials.  And several had lawyers who conducted little to no investigation at both the trial and post-conviction phase or failed to seek the assistance of psychologists and other experts, despite the presence of familial mental illness, which is often hereditary. Therefore, in those cases, we know very little about existing impairments, even though execution dates are looming.

The Constitution mandates that the state restrict the use of the death penalty to only those “whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,’” regardless of the severity of their crimes. The individuals identified here have been convicted of horrible crimes, and they must be held to account.  But the evidence suggests that Ohio has not met its constitutional obligation.  It is instead planning to execute nearly two dozen individuals with substantial impairments, rather than reserving the punishment for those with the greatest culpability.

Below, we describe some of the stories we uncovered while researching these 26 Ohio cases.  We have grouped them by category of impairment which includes serious trauma, mental illness and intellectual disability, and youth.  These distinctions, however, are artificial — many of these men have heartbreaking stories falling within multiple categories. For each example of a debilitating impairment, we could have included many other equally terrifying stories about those facing a sentence of death.

August 30, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In wake of Marcellus Williams stay and inquiry, broader reflections on innocence and racial dynamics in capital punishment's administration

As reported in this post last week, just before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Missouri Gov Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a Board of Inquiry to explore his claims of innocence.  With that case obviously fresh in mind, this week has brought these two related commentaries:

Here, respectively, are the final paragraphs of each piece:

This will not be the first time that we have executed a man despite real doubts about the case. So long as we have the death penalty, it will not be the last.

Racist death penalty statutes must be the first to go. Exercising meaningful, impactful leadership, Gov. Greitens can and should, start with Missouri’s.

August 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Florida completes (historic?) execution 30 years after double murder

As reported in this local article, headlined "In a first, Florida executes a white defendant for killing a black victim," a demographically notable execution was carried out late yesterday.  Here are the details:

For the first time in 18 months, Florida carried out a death sentence, killing Mark James Asay as final punishment for two 1987 murders in Jacksonville and making Asay the first white man ever executed in the state for killing a black victim. Asay was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. Thursday. He was 53.

The execution began at Florida State Prison after the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied Asay’s final appeal. At 6:10 p.m., a curtain lifted between the death chamber and a room for witnesses. The lighting flickered, and the air-conditioning was turned off, making for an eerie quiet. “Mr. Asay, do you have a final statement?” a guard asked. “No, sir,” he replied. “I do not.”...

Asay’s chest moved up and down, and then it stopped. The guard shook Asay’s shoulders, then stood back. Eight minutes later, a doctor emerged.

The state executed Asay because a jury found him guilty of killing Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell minutes apart in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood. The jury recommended he be put to death by a vote of 9 to 3. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that death sentencing system unconstitutional, and though the Florida Supreme Court now requires unanimous jury decisions, the new standard applies only to cases going back to 2002.

Asay’s attorneys said the best argument for stopping the execution would have been to say that 2002 is an arbitrary date, and because the death sentence vote wasn’t unanimous, he should be resentenced. Asay refused to let them make that argument, attorney Marty McClain said, instead asking them to argue he wasn’t guilty of murdering Booker, the black man.

When Asay was arrested, his arms bore white supremacist tattoos, and witnesses said he referred to one of the victims by the N-word. Frank Booker, Robert Booker’s brother, said Thursday afternoon that “we’ve been waiting for this since 1987, and that’s a long time. I feel a lot of pressure and anxiety will be off me, and I’ll be able to continue in life, I think, a lot more peaceful because this was something that touched a lot of us really, really deep. I know he feels sorry now, but he should’ve thought about that in ’87 when he did what he did. He did it. All the evidence pointed that way.”

Asay’s brother and another friend who were with him the night of the killings testified that the three were drinking and looking for sex. While his brother was talking to Booker, Asay used racial slurs. He then shot Booker in the stomach and fled. The men then hired McDowell, who was dressed as a woman and using the name Renee Torres, to perform oral sex, according to their testimony. Asay then shot and killed McDowell. One of the witnesses said Asay killed McDowell because he felt ripped off. A jailhouse informant later said Asay referred to McDowell using a derogatory word for gay men.

Asay admitted this week to News4Jax that he killed McDowell, who was white. The race of Asay’s victims matters because a racist motive can help prove a murder is cruel, calculated and premeditated, and worthy of execution.

The execution of Asay included the use of two drugs never before used in Florida: potassium acetate, which was used by accident in an Oklahoma execution in 2015, and etomidate, which had never been used anywhere for an execution. States that still carry out the death penalty have struggled to acquire the necessary drugs for lethal injection and have started changing their cocktails. Asay’s lawyers argued that the new injection mixture would violate his constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. On Thursday afternoon, a corrections official handed out packets about how the new injection process would work, but she wouldn’t answer questions about how the state chose the drugs.

Since Asay’s trial in 1988, Duval County has led the state in handing down death sentences, with Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda getting more death sentences than almost any prosecutor in the country. Asay’s execution was the first of de la Rionda’s death sentences to be carried out.

As hinted in the title of this post, I am not sure I want to use the label "historic" to describe the fact that a southern state has carried out the execution of a white murderer who had a black victim. At the same time, I do think it worth noting that this murderer was actually sentenced to death for his crime way back in the 1980s, and thus this execution might be deemed historic simply because it took three decades for Florida to be able to carry out his sentence. Also historic, in some sense, is an execution based on a a non-unanimous jury death recommendation, which will not be possible any longer.

August 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

California Supreme Court seems to clear way for resumption of executions after resolving Prop 66 challenges against capital defendant

As reported in this local article, the "California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ballot measure narrowly approved by voters to change the state's dysfunctional death penalty system and speed up executions."  Here is more on the ruling and its context from this press account:

The highly anticipated ruling concerned Proposition 66, a push to "mend not end" capital punishment in California. The measure aimed to expedite death sentences in part by setting a five-year deadline on court appeals by condemned inmates. With two of the seven justices dissenting, the state Supreme Court said the five-year deadline was advisory, not mandatory — a point that supporters of the measure had conceded during oral arguments....

Condemned inmates in California currently languish for decades and are more likely to die of natural causes than from lethal injection. There are nearly 750 inmates on death row and only 13 have been executed since 1978 — the last in 2006. It now takes up to five years for death row inmates to get an attorney, and it can take upward of 25 years to exhaust appeals.

Proposition 66 would expand the pool of appellate lawyers handling capital cases and allow lower level state courts — not just the California Supreme Court — to hear appeals.

Death penalty opponents agreed with Proposition 66 backers that the current system was broken, but they argued that the measure would lead to the appointment of incompetent attorneys and overwhelm courts. The result: Insufficient review that could send innocent people to their deaths. Arguments before a divided California Supreme Court in June focused on whether the measure's five-year deadline to hear appeals was realistic and enforceable. Supporters of the measure surprised observers when they conceded the time limit was not mandatory but more of a guideline....

The measure — approved by 51 percent of voters — was designed by prosecutors to revamp the appeals process so the "worst of the worst" murderers are actually executed. Under the measure, more lawyers would have to take death penalty appeals, and they would be assigned almost immediately after sentencing. It would shift one type of appeal focused on newly discovered evidence or alleging misconduct by jurors or prosecutors to trial court judges. With 380 death penalty appeals now pending, there was concern from some legal observers that the state's high court would be overwhelmed trying to meet the deadline imposed by the measure and would hardly hear other cases of merit.

The full ruling in Biggs v. Brown runs 121 pages and is available at this link. I hope to have time to read and perhaps comment further on the opinion in the days ahead, and in the meantime here is how the opinion for the court begins:

In the November 2016 election California voters approved Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016. (Gen. Elec. (Nov. 8, 2016) § 1.) The measure’s various provisions are intended to facilitate the enforcement of judgments and achieve cost savings in capital cases. Petitioner Ron Briggs seeks writ relief from this court, challenging the constitutionality of certain aspects of the proposition.  Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and the Judicial Council of California oppose the petition as respondents.  They are joined by intervener Californians to Mend, Not End, the Death Penalty, a campaign committee representing the proponents of the initiative. The issues raised are of sufficient public importance to justify the exercise of our original jurisdiction in the interest of a prompt resolution. (Legislature v. Eu (1991) 54 Cal.3d 492, 500.)

Petitioner asserts four grounds for relief.  He claims Proposition 66 (1) embraces more than one subject, as prohibited by the California Constitution; (2) interferes with the jurisdiction of California courts to hear original petitions for habeas corpus relief; (3) violates equal protection principles by treating capital prisoners differently from other prisoners with respect to successive habeas corpus petitions; and (4) runs afoul of the separation of powers doctrine by materially impairing the courts’ ability to resolve capital appeals and habeas corpus petitions, and to manage their dockets in general.

Petitioner’s constitutional challenges do not warrant relief.  However, we hold that in order to avoid serious separation of powers problems, provisions of Proposition 66 that appear to impose strict deadlines on the resolution of judicial proceedings must be deemed directive rather than mandatory.

August 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Missouri Gov halts scheduled execution and appoints Board of Inquiry to investigate innocence claim

As reported in this local article, today just "before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a board to look into the case." Here is why:

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

Williams’ attorneys have been pleading for a stay, arguing that Missouri was on the verge of executing the wrong person. Williams, 48, was sentenced to death in 2001 for killing Felicia Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gayle was stabbed 43 times with a butcher knife in her home. Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court stayed his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain new DNA testing.

DNA testing of the murder weapon, conducted in 2016 and using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Supreme Court last week turned down his attorneys’ attempt to have the execution stopped. The court did not provide a reason....

Greitens said he would appoint a five-member board that will include retired judges and have the power to subpoena evidence and compel witnesses to testify. The board will look into the case and make a recommendation to the governor as to whether Williams should be executed or have his death sentence commuted....

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley told The Washington Post this week that based on “non-DNA evidence in this case our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward.” Among the other evidence cited by Hawley’s office is testimony by Williams’ former cellmate and an ex-girlfriend implicating him in the murder. Some of the victim’s belongings were found in a car Williams drove the day she was killed.

Opponents of the death penalty say Williams’ case should help fuel the push to end the practice in Missouri. “Marcellus Williams’ case is a classic example of the inherent injustice of the death penalty system,” said Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA, “and why it should be altogether abolished.”

Williams was set to face lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday if not for the governor’s order 

Gov. Greitens' full two-page statement is available at this link.

August 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Johnson & Johnson the latest drug company to balk about its drugs being used in lethal injection protocol

This notable new Wall Street Journal article reports on a notable new company expressing concern about an execution protocol. The piece is headlined "Johnson & Johnson Wades Into Death Penalty Debate For First Time: J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals protests use of its drug in a lethal injection."  Here is how the piece gets started:

A Johnson & Johnson company opposes plans by Florida authorities to use one of its drugs in a coming execution, marking the first time the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer has waded into the death-penalty debate.

Earlier this year, Florida amended its lethal-injection protocol to include etomidate, an anesthetic agent that has never been used in executions, after exhausting its supply of the sedative midazolam.  Florida authorities are slated to use the updated protocol for the first time on Thursday in the execution of Mark Asay, who was sentenced to death for the 1987 killings of Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell in Jacksonville, Fla.

Scientists at Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals NV created etomidate in the 1960s.  The company never distributed the drug in North America and divested the rest of the business in 2016.  But the company protested on Monday Florida’s plan to use etomidate to render death-row inmates unconscious before injecting them with a paralytic agent and a third drug to stop their hearts.  “We do not support the use of our medicines for indications that have not been approved by regulatory authorities,” a Janssen spokesman said in an email.  “We do not condone the use of our medicines in lethal injections for capital punishment.”

No Johnson & Johnson drugs have been used so far in executions, according to Reprieve, an international-rights group that opposes the death penalty.  At least eight companies make etomidate. Florida, like many states, keeps the identity of its suppliers secret.

August 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Califorina judge precludes death penalty for mass murderer as sanction for government misconduct

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the notable state trial ruling reported in this new HuffPost piece.  As the piece reports, "Scott Dekraai, a 47-year-old man who admitted to killing eight people at a beauty salon in the worst mass shooting in Orange County, California, history, will not face execution for his crimes because of law enforcement misconduct linked to a jail informant program, a judge ruled Friday."  Here is more:

In a rare move, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty as a punishment option.  The ruling comes after the judge held weeks of hearings centered on whether the Orange County Sheriff’s Department could be trusted to turn over all records in the case.

It’s now expected that next month Goethals will sentence Dekraai to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole ― unless the California Attorney General’s office files a challenge to the ruling with the 4th District Court of Appeal.  “This is not a punitive sanction,” Goethals said in court Friday. “Rather it is a remedial sanction necessitated by the ongoing prosecutorial misconduct.”

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy ― the prosecutor who took over the Dekraai case after Goethals recused the Orange County District Attorney’s office due to misconduct ― had argued that the judge should keep the death penalty on the table.  Murphy said that Goethals had already doled out the appropriate sanctions in removing the district attorney’s office from the case and that excluding the death penalty would amount to an additional, unnecessary sanction.  Ultimately, Goethals disagreed. Reading from his ruling, the judge said that compliance by prosecutors and other law enforcement officers with his lawful court orders to turn over evidence in the Dekraai case “remains an elusive goal” and that ignoring those violations would be “unconscionable.”...

The judge’s ruling is extraordinary in the case of a mass murderer.  Dekraai almost immediately confessed to police about his role in the 2011 killing. He formally pleaded guilty to the crimes in 2014.  It appeared Dekraai would swiftly be dispatched to San Quentin’s death row.  But the case against him has been marred by allegations of egregious government malfeasance. His sentencing has remained in limbo amid ongoing allegations that county prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies improperly used a jailhouse informant in his case and then hid key evidence about that for years....

Just days after the 2011 shooting, county law enforcement moved Dekraai, then held in a local jail, next to a prolific jailhouse informant, Fernando Perez. Perez questioned Dekraai about his case. Then prosecutors and law enforcement officers interviewed Perez, and a recording device was placed in Dekraai’s cell, capturing more conversations between the pair.

While it is generally legal for law enforcement authorities to use informants to help bolster cases, Dekraai’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has argued that in the particular circumstances, the move was a violation of his client’s constitutional rights.  That’s because it is illegal for government agents, including informants, to question or coerce statements out of a defendant who has been formally charged with crimes and is already represented by a lawyer, as Dekraai was.  Prosecutors contended there was no intentional violation because they did not instruct Perez to question Dekraai.

While the contents of the conversations between Dekraai and Perez remain sealed, court records have shown that the informant did probe Dekraai about his crimes.  As Sanders requested more information about the contacts between the two men, he discovered that Perez had also been used as an informant against another one of his clients, Daniel Wozniak.  Wozniak was sentenced to death last year for the killing of two of his friends in an attempt to fund his wedding.

Prosecutors said it was simply a coincidence that the same informant was used against two of Sanders’ most high-profile clients, but the public defender didn’t believe that. Sanders pushed to uncover what would turn out to be tens of thousands of records about the use of informants inside county jails by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies.... Additional evidence of the informant program came to light over the course of four years and three evidentiary hearings. Sanders’ efforts would ultimately reveal a disturbing trove of long-hidden records: a 25-year-old computerized system that detailed critical information about jail inmates and informants; more than four years of logs created by deputies who managed the informants, which was deleted in 2013 just days before Judge Goethals issued an order requiring its disclosure; and internal sheriff’s department memos, including one boasting of “hundreds of informants.”...

Nonetheless, the sheriff’s department continues to deny a jail informant program exists.  In recent hearings, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and members of her command and management staff suggested that if there was any informant-related misconduct in the jails by deputies, it was the work of just a handful of rogue officers operating independently of their orders.  Three deputies refused to testify at the hearings, invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence.  Leaders of the sheriff’s department have also said they’ve made changes to how deputies handle inmates in the jail. The district attorney’s office has maintained that any misconduct by county prosecutors was unintentional and that the scandal has been overblown....

 The 4th District Court of Appeal found last year that the cheating by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials in the county was very real and that the “magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked.”  Afterward, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the official use of jail informants in Orange County.

The scandal had already led to the unraveling of more than a dozen murder, attempted murder and felony assault cases in the county and threatens to upend countless more.  But the ruling in Dekraai’s case on Friday is arguably the most crushing defeat that the beleaguered district attorney’s office has faced since the scandal broke.

UPDATE: A copy of the ruling referenced above is available at this link.

August 18, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spotlighting a prominent constitutional challenge to Arizona's and the nation's death penalty

Chris Geidner has this new Buzzfeed News report about a new cert petition under the headline "A Top Lawyer Asks Supreme Court To Hear A Major Death Penalty Case." Here are some of the details:

An Arizona death row inmate, Abel Daniel Hidalgo, has been arguing for the past three years that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it doesn’t do enough to narrow who is eligible for the death penalty, among those convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Neal Katyal, best known these days for serving as the lead lawyer for Hawaii’s challenge to President Trump’s travel ban, agreed to serve as Hidalgo’s lawyer at the Supreme Court.

Katyal, the former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, asked the justices in Monday’s filing to hear Hidalgo’s case and to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law.

The filing comes more than two years after Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called for a wholesale review of the constitutionality of the death penalty. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also expressed great concerns about the courts’ handling of death penalty cases, as well as some states’ death penalty laws.

And Justice Anthony Kennedy has expressed concerns about the death penalty’s imposition, and has cast key votes excluding groups of people — like children or the intellectually disabled — from being eligible for the death penalty. He has not, however, given any specific indication that he is ready to join Breyer’s call to review the constitutionality of the death penalty overall — and has allowed several executions to proceed since Breyer's call.

Katyal, however, joined by other lawyers at his firm, Hogan Lovells, as well as the Office of the Legal Advocate in Arizona and Arizona attorney Garrett Simpson, thinks the time is now — a move that could be tied to concerns by many liberal lawyers about whether and when Kennedy, at 81, might retire from the court. “I have spent the last few years with my team looking for cases that highlight the gross problems with the death penalty in practice, and this case is a perfect example of them,” Katyal told BuzzFeed News on Monday evening. “We look forward to the Supreme Court's review of Mr. Hidalgo's petition.”...

The brief points out that the court in Gregg found the new state death penalty laws to be constitutional because they required the finding of “aggravating” circumstances — a move that the court’s controlling opinion concluded would “direct and limit” who was eligible for execution “so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.”

Forty years later, Arizona’s death penalty law is such that there are so many aggravating circumstances that “every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 had at least one aggravating factor” making the person eligible for the death penalty. Hidalgo pleaded guilty in 2015 to two January 2001 murders in a murder-for-hire scheme in Maricopa County, Arizona. He was then sentenced to death by a jury. “Arizona’s scheme utterly fails,” Katyal wrote, to “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty” as the court has required over the time since Gregg.

For this reason alone, Hidalgo’s legal team argues, the court should take the case and strike down Arizona’s death penalty law. But, beyond that, the filing goes on, “A national consensus has emerged that the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment in any circumstance.” The brief argues that the court should take the case and rule that the death penalty, nationwide, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. This is so, the brief argues, because “the number of death sentences imposed and carried out has plummeted.”

The brief also points to three further key arguments in support of this larger aim: First, states can’t give guidance that ensures that only “the worst offenders” are sentenced to death. Second, states can’t enforce the death penalty without “ensnaring and putting to death the innocent.” And, finally, “the present reality of capital punishment” — decades spent on death row with “the remote but very real possibility of execution” — is its own possible constitutional violation.

The cert petition, available at this link, sets out these "Questions Presented":

I.  Whether Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme, which includes so many aggravating circumstances that virtually every defendant convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for death, violates the Eighth Amendment.

II.  Whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.

August 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Interesting and consequential Florida Supreme Court decision on retroactivity of Hurst

As this Death Penalty Information Center posting details, the Florida Supreme Court this past week reiterated that it would not apply retroactively its rulings requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences to cases made final by June 2002 when SCOTUS decided Ring v. Arizona. The Florida court's per curiam opinion in Hitchcock v. Florida, No. SC17-445 (Fla. Aug. 10, 2017) (available here), mostly just restates a prior retroactivity ruling, but concurring and dissenting opinions make for interesting reads on retroactivity doctrines and policies.

As the DPIC posting notes, "Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases." I suspect most, if not all, of these prisoners will not be seeking certiorari to the US Supreme Court, but I would be surprised if SCOTUS takes up any of their cases.

August 12, 2017 in Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A reminder of why an active death penalty system in the US now seems so unlikley

Arguably the US has never had an active death penalty system, though there were a few hundred executions each year during the first decades of the 20th Century.  In the so-called modern death penalty era since 1976, the most completed executions in a single year was 98 (in 1999); there have been fewer than 50 executions in nearly every year over the last decades, and only 20 completed executions in 2016.  (This page from the Death Penalty information Center provides these recent details.)

As I have mentioned before, I find it notable that all the new law-and-order talk coming from the Trump Administration has not really included talk of ramping up use of the death penalty.  That, in my view, is a mark of a achievement by the abolitionist movement.  Another mark is the extraordinary difficulty these seems to be in securing death sentences, as discussed in this new Injustice Today piece headlined "Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline." Here is an excerpt:

Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant.  But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment.  In 1997, four people in Mississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2....

Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOX, jurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.”  Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”...

Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country.  Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences.  That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases.  Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.

August 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Horrible abuse and female defendant's demeanor lead Arizona jury to send child murderer to death row

Because so relatively few women are sent to death row, it is always noteworthy when a female defendant is sentenced to death.  And I found this local article from Arizona, headlined "Jurors: Sammantha Allen lacked remorse," a particularly notable account of what prompted an Arizona jury to vote to send a woman to death row yesterday for her role in the killing of a child.  Here are details:

Sammantha Allen dropped her head and burst into tears moments after jurors announced their verdict in the penalty phase of the woman's trial: death. "She didn't care what happened to this child," said Amanda Keagh, a juror in the trial. "It was all about what was going to happen to her."

This marks the end of one more chapter in the horrific 2011 murder of 10-year-old Ame Deal, whose lifeless body was found locked inside a plastic footlocker left out in the blazing Arizona heat. Police said the girl was forced into the box as punishment for stealing a popsicle. Allen, along with her husband John, were charged in the girl's murder. The woman was convicted of first-degree murder on June 26 and arguments over whether she would be sentenced to death lasted several weeks.

Jurors outside the courtroom said they maintained an open mind throughout the penalty phase of the trial, but ultimately pointed to Allen's demeanor inside the courtroom as a major factor in their decision. "So I think that was a pivotal moment for me," Keagh said. "I was waiting for something from her. That was her chance to plead for her life and it just fell short."

The defense team argued Allen's actions were a result of a dysfunctional childhood and family life that was heavily influenced by Allen's mother and grandmother. Her attorney argued the control continued into Allen's adulthood including how she treated Ame.

"We just felt at some point she was not as passive of a person as we previously thought," said Chuck Pritchett, another juror....

The jurors said the entire process was difficult, explaining some of the details and testimony will stay with them forever. "The hardest thing for all of us was the victim (Ame) and learning about what her life really entailed," said Ann Opseth, a juror. "The years of abuse that she suffered."

This additional local article about the case provides more details about the crime and context for the sentencing. As is often true for all sorts of sentencings, both capital and non-capital, the defendant's character and history may have mattered even more than her crime.

August 8, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for all offenders under 21 years old

As reported in this local article, headlined "Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21," a Kentucky judge reached a significant constitutional conclusion this week. Here are the basic details:

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week. Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.” Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.... Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote. In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

I cannot yet find a copy of Judge Scorsone's opinion, but I am looking forward to finding it and seeing what he cites to support the assertion that there is a national trend toward restricting application of the death penalty "especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age.” I know a lot of death penalty opponents are eager to see Roper extended to older offenders, but I am not aware of any legislation in any state that has precluded those age 18 or older from the reach of the death penalty.

UPDATE:  I just found the full opinion in this case via the Death Penalty Information Center's website, and the court relies heavily on the overall decline of executions and death sentences in recent years to make the "objective" case that application of the death penalty to defendants aged 18 to 21 are in decline. 

August 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

"Capital Punishment of Unintentional Felony Murder"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper that I just recently came across via SSRN. The paper was authored by Guyora Binder, Robert Weisberg and Brenner Fissell, and here is its abstract:

Under the prevailing interpretation of the Eighth Amendment in the lower courts, a defendant who causes a death inadvertently in the course of a felony is eligible for capital punishment.  This unfortunate interpretation rests on an unduly mechanical reading of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Enmund v. Florida and Tison v. Arizona, which require culpability for capital punishment of co-felons who do not kill.  The lower courts have drawn the unwarranted inference that these cases permit execution of those who cause death without any culpability towards death.

This Article shows that this mechanical reading of precedent is mistaken, because the underlying justifications of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence require a rational selection for death of only the most deserving and deterrable offenders, and this in turn requires an assessment of culpability.  We argue that the Supreme Court should address this open question in Eighth Amendment law and that it should correct the lower courts by imposing a uniform requirement of at least recklessness with respect to death for capital punishment of felony murder.

August 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Should Justice Ginsburg be accused of propagating "fake news" about the death penalty?

The somewhat tounge-and-cheek question in the title of this post is prompted by a short passage in this New York Times article by Adam Liptak discussing some recent public comments by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Here is that passage:

Justice Ginsburg spoke at George Washington University Law School, at an event sponsored by the Washington Council of Lawyers, a bar association. Asked about the future of the death penalty in the United States, Justice Ginsburg did not mention a 2015 dissent in which she and Justice Stephen G. Breyer had called for a fresh look at the constitutionality of the practice.  But she said capital punishment may soon be extinct in any event.

“The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” she said.  “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”

The number of executions has indeed fallen sharply, with only 20 carried out in 2016, the smallest number in decades.  But seven states have executed condemned inmates this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In addition to 7 states completing executions in 2017, the DPIC reports here that 13 states imposed death sentences in 2016.  I certainly consider the imposition of death sentences to be another aspect of "actually administering the death penalty," and one might also note that more than 30 jurisdictions in the US have persons sitting on death row.  So, in various ways, the suggesting that only a few states still use the death penalty is really not quite right.

Moreover, and arguably ever more important for Justice Ginsburg's comments here, three states had voters in 2016 reaffirm a committment to having an operational system of capital punishment.  Initiatives votes in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, Nebraska and especially California all run counter to the suggestion that we may soon see "an end to capital punishment by attrition."

That all said, there is no doubt that the use and importance of the death penalty diminished considerably in recent decades, both politically and pratically.  I find particularly notable, for example, that neither Prez Trump nor AG Sessions has promoted greater us of the death penalty in their "law-and-order" rhetoric or in policy proposals.  But that reality does not lead me to expect to see the end of executions or death sentencings anytime soon. 

August 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, July 31, 2017

"The Republican Party, Conservatives, and the Future of Capital Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Ben Jones now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States has experienced a significant decline in the death penalty during the first part of the 21st century, as death sentences, executions, public support, and states with capital punishment all have declined.  Many recent reforms banning or placing a moratorium on executions have occurred in blue states, in line with the notion that ending the death penalty is a progressive cause.  Challenging this narrative, however, is the emergence of Republican lawmakers as champions of death penalty repeal legislation in red states.  This Article puts these efforts by Republican lawmakers into historical context, and explains the conservative case against the death penalty: its incompatibility with limited government, fiscal responsibility, and promoting a culture of life.  Understanding Republican opposition to capital punishment takes on particular importance now following setbacks to efforts against the death penalty in the 2016 election.  In this environment, building support among Republicans and conservatives likely will prove critical for taking further steps toward limiting and eventually ending the death penalty in the U.S.

July 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Texas completes second US execution in as many days

On the heals of Ohio on Wednesday completing its first execution in 3.5 years (details here), Texas late Thursday completed its fifth execution of 2017.  This Texas Tribune article provides some details, from which these excerpts are drawn:

After more than 12 years on death row, a San Antonio man convicted in a fatal stabbing was executed Thursday night. It was Texas’ fifth execution of the year. TaiChin Preyor, 46, had filed a flurry of appeals in the weeks leading up to his execution date, claiming his trial lawyer never looked into evidence of an abusive childhood and his previous appellate counsel — a disbarred attorney paired with a real estate and probate lawyer who relied on Wikipedia in her legal research — committed fraud on the court.

But he lost all of the appeals, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a final ruling in the case more than two hours after his execution was originally set to begin. At 9:03 p.m., he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in Texas’ death chamber and pronounced dead 19 minutes later, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In his final words, he mentioned his love for his wife and kids and cited a Coretta Scott King quote, saying, "Justice has never advanced by taking a life," according to TDCJ.

Preyor was accused of breaking into 20-year-old Jami Tackett’s apartment in February 2004 and stabbing her to death. He was found at the scene by police covered in her blood. Preyor claimed the killing was done in self-defense after a drug deal gone bad, but the jury was unconvinced. He was convicted and sentenced to death in March 2005. No witnesses for Preyor or Tackett attended the execution, according to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst.

During his latest appeals, Preyor’s attorneys argued that his trial lawyer, Michael Gross, was inadequate because he didn’t present evidence of a physically and sexually abusive childhood that could have swayed a jury to hand down the alternate sentence of life in prison. “[The jury] did not learn that Preyor jumped from a fourth floor balcony as a teenager, breaking both his ankles in the fall, to escape his mother as she chased him with a knife,” attorneys Hilary Sheard and Cate Stetson wrote in a filing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “... Any competent counsel would have recognized the importance of uncovering these harrowing details and presenting them to the jury responsible for recommending a life sentence or a death sentence.”

July 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (27)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Will Ohio successfully get its machinery of death operational today after 3.5 years of delays?... UPDATE: Yes

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the fact that, after years of difficulties securing execution drugs and then litigation delays, Ohio appear poised to have its first execution today since January 2014.  This AP story, headlined "US Supreme Court denies stay of execution for Ohio convict," provides the basic backstory:

A condemned child killer was scheduled to die on Wednesday in the state's first execution in more than three years after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his requests for more time to pursue legal challenges. Ronald Phillips was transported to the death house at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville on Tuesday morning, about 24 hours before his execution was planned. He was convicted of the 1993 rape and killing of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron.

Justices denied the 43-year-old Phillips a stay on three requests, with a pair of justices dissenting on a request by Phillips that was joined by two other death row inmates with upcoming execution dates. The inmates had asked the court for a delay while they continue challenging Ohio's new lethal-injection method. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented, arguing the inmates had demonstrated a likelihood of success at trial. Sotomayor objected to the court's "failure to step in when significant issues of life and death are present."

The death penalty has been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when a condemned inmate repeatedly gasped and snorted during a 26-minute procedure with a never-before-tried drug combination. Republican Gov. John Kasich halted upcoming executions after that, and delays have continued because the state had trouble finding new supplies of drugs and death row inmates sued on the grounds the state's proposed new three-drug execution method represented "cruel and unusual punishment."

Phillips' arguments were backed up by 15 pharmacology professors, who stepped in Monday to argue that a sedative used in the process, midazolam, is incapable of inducing unconsciousness or preventing serious pain. A federal court last month upheld the use of midazolam, which has been problematic in several executions, including Ohio's in 2014 and others in Arkansas and Arizona.

Phillips also sought a delay based on his age at the time of the killing. He was 19, older than the Supreme Court's cutoff of 18 for the purposes of barring executions of juveniles. His request argued the age should be 21. His lawyers said he had such "psychosocial deficits" when he was picked up by police that they initially took him to a juvenile, rather than an adult, facility.

Attorneys for the state argued Phillips made meritless, often conflicting, legal claims. "Phillips argues that youth, like IQ, cannot be reduced to a number. But he also argues that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of adults under age twenty-one," they wrote in a court document filed Tuesday. "He cannot have it both ways; if age cannot make one eligible for death, it cannot make one ineligible for death."...

Phillips has had several previous delays to scheduled executions, most notably in 2013, when he made a last-minute plea to donate his organs. He said that he wanted to give a kidney to his mother, who was on dialysis, and possibly his heart to his sister. His request was denied. His mother has since died.

If Ohio completes this execution and two more scheduled for 2017 without difficulties, the state could be poised to be the most active execution state in coming years. Ohio has 10 "serious" execution dates already scheduled for 2018, and I believe the state has enough lethal injection drugs to complete them all.

UPDATE:  This local story reports that "Akron child killer Ronald Phillips was put to death Wednesday ... by lethal injection at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville." According to the report, "there were no complications, and witnesses said Phillips showed no signs of gasping, choking or struggling."

July 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (15)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Notable high-profile functionality of the dysfunctional Pennsylvania death penalty

Long-time readers surely recall some (of many) prior posts, including ones here and here, highlighting some (of many)  dysfunctional realities of the death penalty in Pennsylvania.  But this local article about horrible multiple murders getting national attention highlights how even a dysfunctional death penalty can still serve a significant function.  The article is headlined "Legal experts praise Bucks deal that led to murder confession," and here are excerpts:

The deal that spared Cosmo DiNardo the death penalty in exchange for a murder confession in a case that’s captivated the region and drawn national attention was lauded Friday by legal experts, who said the agreement was a swift and shrewd way to bring the gruesome case nearer to a close.

Cosmo DiNardo, 20, confessed to participating in the killings of four men. DiNardo also agreed to tell investigators where to find the bodies and lead them to an accomplice.  In exchange for the cooperation, his defense lawyer Paul Lang said, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

DiNardo’s four victims, young men from Bucks and Montgomery Counties, disappeared last week.  Their families’ fears were confirmed when human remains were discovered in a 12-foot grave on a farm owned by DiNardo’s parents.  On Friday, DiNardo was charged with murder and related offenses.  Authorities also arrested his cousin and alleged accomplice, Sean Kratz, 20, on the same charges.  And also Friday, they discovered the body of one of the missing men, Jimi Taro Patrick, 19, on the farm.  The remains of Dean A. Finocchiaro, 19; Thomas C. Meo, 21; and Mark R. Sturgis, 22, had been discovered elsewhere on the sprawling property Wednesday.

Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub on Friday credited DiNardo’s confession with implicating Kratz and leading investigators to Patrick’s body, which had been buried separately from the others.  “I’d like to think he wanted to help us get these boys home,” he said, describing the cooperation agreement with DiNardo as critical to solving the case.

In interviews Friday, several legal experts agreed.  “It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Jack McMahon, a former prosecutor who is now a prominent defense lawyer, said of the deal.  “I think both sides did the right thing.”  With evidence mounting in a case this serious, McMahon said, “the defense probably realized that the evidence against his client was pretty overwhelming.  He had only one chip to play, and he used it to leverage for a life sentence.”

Marc Bookman, a former public defender who is director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Center City, said the agreement had clear benefits for DiNardo and for prosecutors.  “In a case like this, there’s a give and take,” he said.  For the defense, Bookman said, “you’ve got four bodies.  Any defense lawyer is thinking, ‘There’s no real defense to the killing of four people.’ There are defenses to a murder case, but it’s difficult to conceive of a legitimate defense to four bodies buried 12 feet in the ground.”

The severity of the crime made it a clear candidate for a death penalty prosecution, legal experts agreed, giving the prosecution leverage and the defense reason to seek a deal.  “The defense is giving the prosecutor something compelling,” Bookman said.  “He said he would direct them to where the bodies are. You’ve got four grieving families who desperately want closure, however sad that closure might be.  And he’s asking for something in exchange.”

For prosecutors, the threat of life on death row — if not actual execution in a state with a moratorium on the death penalty — upon conviction proved persuasive.  “It’s good to have the death penalty for cases like this — whether you agree with it or not,” said former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, whose tenure was marked by an aggressive willingness to pursue the death penalty in murder cases.  “The prosecutor had a bargaining chip, and the defense attorney used it to bargain away [the possibility of] being on death row for 25 to 40 years.”...

The deal DiNardo’s lawyers reached with prosecutors spares the families of the four victims a painful trial and saves taxpayers the expense.  In addition, Abraham said, it saves “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of dollars spent on the appeals offered to all defendants convicted in capital cases.  Those often go on for decades.

Dennis J. Cogan, a former prosecutor and veteran defense lawyer, called the agreement a “win-win.” Without the confession, he said, the crime might have proved a “tough case” for prosecutors.  With the deal Weintraub struck with DiNardo’s lawyers, Cogan said, “they get the guy, they get the accomplice, and hopefully they bring closure for the families.”

July 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Spotlighting and unpacking the modern decline in death sentences

170711_TE_death-penalty-graph.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeBrandon Garrett has this new Slate commentary under the full headline "Why Jurors Are Rejecting the Death Penalty: There used to be 300 death sentences each year in the United States. Last year, there were just 30." Here are excerpts:

Prosecutors in Wake County, North Carolina, have sought the death penalty in eight cases over the past decade. Each time, jurors have rejected the sentence, most recently in March.  The most recent time Wake County jurors imposed a death sentence was a decade ago....

Capital punishment has now been outlawed in 19 states. In the places where it remains legal, jurors are increasingly reluctant to impose it.  Just 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States last year, and only 27 counties out of more than 3,000 nationwide sent anyone to death row.  In the mid-1990s, by contrast, more than 300 people were sentenced to death, with capital punishment being undertaken in as many as 200 counties each year.

Jurors have even started to reject the death penalty in Texas, which has sentenced more people to death than any other state in modern times.  Texas prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less often, and when they do, they’re frequently failing to persuade juries to impose it.  In 15 capital trials in the state since 2015, just eight have resulted in death sentences.

So, what has changed the minds of jurors?  It’s not that they’re morally opposed to the death penalty.  In fact, jurors who object on principle can be disqualified from serving in capital trials.  These are people who are open to imposing the ultimate punishment but decide to reject it after hearing a convicted murderer’s life story, including evidence of mental health issues, childhood abuse, and other mitigating circumstances....

Another reason for the decline in death sentences is that murders have steadily declined across the country, beginning in the mid-’90s.  (There has, however, been a recent spike in the murder rate in certain large cities.)  When my co-authors and I analyzed death sentencing data by county from 1990 through 2016, we found that a drop in the murder rate was strongly associated with the decline in death sentencing.

But death sentences have fallen far faster than murders.  One reason may be the growth in adequately resourced defense lawyers.  In general, states that have statewide offices to represent defendants at capital trials, as opposed to locally appointed lawyers, have experienced far greater declines in death sentencing.  Those offices have the resources to hire experts who can present mental health evidence and explain the defendant’s social history....

Our research also shows there is a strong “muscle memory” effect in death sentencing.  Counties that have issued a death sentence in the past are far more likely to obtain more.  What explains this substantial effect?  Prosecutors may get in the habit of seeking the death penalty, even when neighboring counties do not.  Perhaps losing a capital trial can put a damper on that enthusiasm.  Generally, once that muscle memory fades, counties do not get it back. Indeed, the counties that started out with the most death sentences have experienced the biggest declines over the past 15 years.  For example, in Harris County, Texas, where in the mid-1990s prosecutors led the country by securing 15 or more death sentences per year, there were no death sentences at all in 2015 or 2016.

As the death penalty fades, jurors may become more and more skeptical of its utility.  Last year, psychologists Daniel Krauss and Nicholas Scurich joined me in surveying nearly 500 people summoned for jury duty in Orange County, California, an area that regularly imposes death sentences.  We found that one-third of jurors — a surprisingly high share in that fairly conservative county — would not qualify to serve on a capital jury because they opposed the death penalty on principle.  About one-quarter — a separate group from the one-third of jurors described above — said they would not convict someone of capital murder if that meant the defendant would be executed.  Most strikingly, two-thirds of all jurors we surveyed said the fact that there had not been an execution in California in a decade made them less likely to sentence a person to death.

July 12, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

DPIC provides mid-year review of of 2017 death penalty developments

I just noticed that the Death Penalty Information Center recently provided this effective review of 2017 death penalty developments to date. Here are the details with links from the original:

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States.  As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled.  By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued.

Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low.  However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27 — that state's first executions since 2005 — there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990.  

New death sentences also remain near historically low levels.  DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional.

Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017 — Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida — bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness.  A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases.  In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

Other states that have carried out executions so far in 2017 are Texas (4), Alabama (2), Georgia (1), Missouri (1), and Virginia (1).

July 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (30)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Virginia Gov decides claim of delusional disorder does not justify halting scheduled execution of double murderer

As noted in this prior post, tonight's planned execution in Virginia of William Morva has brought renewed attention to the intersection of mental illness and capital punishment. That attention likely played a role in this decision by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to release this statement today explaining his decision not to prevent Morva's execution. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have carefully considered the petition for clemency submitted by William Morva, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland.  We have also reviewed extensive communications from family members of the victims, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and concerned observers from all over the world.

Consistent with the three previous petitions for commutation of a capital sentence that I have reviewed, I have evaluated Mr. Morva’s submission for evidence that he has been subjected to a miscarriage of justice at any phase of his trial that could have impacted the verdict or his sentence.  After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him.

There is no question that, in a carefully orchestrated effort to escape custody while awaiting trial for burglary, robbery and firearms charges, Mr. Morva brutally attacked a deputy sheriff, stole his firearm and used it to murder Mr. McFarland, who was unarmed and had his hands raised as he was shot in the face from a distance of two feet.  The next day, Mr. Morva murdered Corporal Sutphin by shooting him in the back of the head.

Mr. Morva’s petition for clemency states that he suffers from a delusional disorder that rendered him unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

That diagnosis is inconsistent with the findings of the three licensed mental health professionals appointed by the trial court, including an expert psychiatrist who is Board-Certified in both Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry.  Two of these three experts were called by Mr. Morva’s own legal team.  These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences....

I have determined that Mr. Morva was given a fair trial and that the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth.  In short, the record before me does not contain sufficient evidence to warrant the extraordinary step of overturning the decision of a lawfully empaneled jury following a properly conducted trial.

I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.

UPDATE: This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night.

July 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Reviewing what Hurst has come to mean for the death penalty in Florida

This new Miami Herald article, headlined "There are fewer murderers on Florida’s Death Row but not because of executions," reports on the enduring echo effects of the Supreme Court's most significant capital punishment ruling in recent years. Here is how the article gets started:

The full impact of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Florida’s death penalty system is finally emerging as the state’s Death Row population is smaller than it was more than a decade ago and will keep shrinking for a long time.

Florida has not executed an inmate in 18 months. No inmates haves been sent to Death Row in more than a year, a sign that prosecutors are not trying as many first-degree murder cases because of uncertainties in the sentencing system.

“There is no reason to sign a death warrant if you know it’s going to get delayed,” said State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the top prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties. “I think judges are reluctant to if they don’t know what the rules are.”

Florida’s Death Row population now stands at 362, according to the Department of Corrections web site. That’s the lowest number since 2004; only a year ago, the population was 389.

Many more cells on Death Row are certain to be emptied as the Florida Supreme Court continues to vacate death sentences because they violate a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Hurst v. Florida.  The case struck down the state’s death penalty sentencing system because it limited jurors to an advisory role, a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

In four new cases, the state’s high court upheld first-degree murder convictions Thursday but ordered that all four defendants must be resentenced because of the Hurst decision, a step that could spare any or all of them a trip to the execution chamber.

One of the four, John Sexton, was convicted of the brutal 2010 Pasco County slaying of Ann Parlato, a 94-year-old woman who lived alone. The jury that convicted Sexton recommend his execution by a vote of 10 to 2, a split decision that justices said Thursday is a violation of the Hurst decision.  Justices also lifted the death sentence of Tiffany Ann Cole, convicted of burying a couple alive in Jacksonville.  She’s one of three women on Death Row.

Legal experts say that in all, up to 150 death sentences could be reversed or be sent back to trial courts for resentencing hearings in other cases in which the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was not unanimous. Those penalty phase hearings will strain the limited resources of prosecutors and public defenders, who must scramble to find old trial transcripts and witnesses and must empanel new juries.  “I’ll use one word: ‘chaos,’ ” said retired Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan of Miami. “It’s just a mess.”

Scott Sundby, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the impact on the criminal justice system will be significant.  “It essentially means that every new penalty phase is going to have to be re-investigated and presented in full,” Sundby said.  “There will not be an ability to simply rely on the prior penalty phase.”

July 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The rest of SCOTUSblog's symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I noted in this post on Tuesday that the folks at SCOTUSblog had a new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."  In the prior post I linked to the first four entries in this symposium, and here are now the last four:

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Murderers admit they went on prison murder spree in order to get death sentences

Regular readers know that I think one of the hardest conceptual and practical issues for death penalty abolitionists is what to do about killers already serving life without parole sentences who go on to kill again while in prison. If the death penalty is completely eliminated, these offenders may conclude there is no real punishment if they kill again.  But this recent AP article, headlined "Inmate: I Strangled Prisoners to Try to Land on Death Row," reports on the awful reality that a pair of killers serving LWOP in a South Carolina prison apparently were inspired to go on a murder spree because of the presence of the death penalty. Here is the start of a horrible story:

One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.  Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons' hospitality.  None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Why did they do it? Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive.  Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public. The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn't allow in-person interviews with inmates.  So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip's attorney responded with an email: "Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him."

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate's time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had "a whole lot in common" from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

"I'd always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren't going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty," Simmons, told the AP. "The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it."

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder....  Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren't serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers. "It's just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out," Simmons said.

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

En banc Sixth Circuit reverses preliminary injunction that had been preventing Ohio from moving forward with executions

Unsurprisingly, the en banc Sixth Circuit today ruled for the State of Ohio in its appeal of a lower court stay issued earlier this year which blocked Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  Here is how the majority opinion (per Judge Kethledge, who wrote the dissent in the original panel ruling) in  In re: Ohio Execution Protocol, No. 17-3076 (6th Cir. June 28, 2017) (available here) gets started:

Roughly two decades have passed since the plaintiffs in this case murdered their victims. Ronald Phillips raped a three-year-old girl and beat her so badly that her internal organs ruptured. For two days she suffered intense abdominal pain and vomiting, until her heart collapsed. See State v. Phillips, 656 N.E.2d 643, 650-52 (Ohio 1995).  Gary Otte entered the home of an Ohio man, robbed him, and then shot him in the head.  Two nights later, Otte pushed his way into a woman’s home and did the same things to her. After each murder Otte went out partying. See State v. Otte, 660 N.E.2d 711, 715-16 (Ohio 1996).  Raymond Tibbetts killed an elderly man and his caretaker. Police found the man slumped in his chair with butcher knives protruding from his chest and back.  His caretaker lay on the floor in a pool of blood with her skull cracked open and its contents scattered nearby. See State v. Tibbetts, 749 N.E.2d 226, 237-39 (Ohio 2001).

Phillips, Otte, and Tibbetts now claim that Ohio’s Execution Protocol would cause them to suffer severe pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  In a sense the claim is unprecedented: the Supreme Court “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2732 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The State’s chosen procedure here is the same procedure (so far as the combination of drugs is concerned) that the Supreme Court upheld in Glossip.  Every other court of appeals to consider that procedure has likewise upheld it, including most recently the Eighth Circuit, which rejected a nearly identical challenge in a procedural posture identical to the one here.  See McGehee v. Hutchinson, 854 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (per curiam), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1275 (2017); Glossip, 135 S. Ct. at 2739-40 (collecting cases); Brooks v. Warden, 810 F.3d 812, 818-22 (11th Cir. 2016); cf. Jordan v. Fisher, 823 F.3d 805, 811-12 (5th Cir. 2016).  Yet here the district court thought the same procedure is likely invalid.  We respectfully disagree and reverse the court’s grant of a preliminary injunction.

The chief dissent was penned by Judge Moore (who wrote the majority decision for the original panel upholding the stay).  This dissent runs about twice as long as the majority opinion, and it gets started this way:

There is a narrow question before this court: Should Gary Otte, Ronald Phillips, and Raymond Tibbetts have a trial on their claim that Ohio’s execution protocol is a cruel and unusual punishment, or should Ohio execute them without such a trial?  The majority has concluded that there is no need for a trial on the merits of Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim. I disagree.

There is no dispute that the second and third drugs in Ohio’s execution protocol cause immense pain.  There is significant evidence that the first drug, midazolam, cannot prevent someone from feeling that pain.  After a five-day hearing on Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court determined that there should be a full trial on the merits of Plaintiffs’ claim that Ohio’s use of midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug execution protocol creates a constitutionally unacceptable risk of pain. Despite the deferential standard of review that this court should apply, the majority casts aside the district court’s determination that Plaintiffs should have a trial before the state executes them.  The majority also determines that despite Defendants’ unequivocal sworn testimony that they would no longer use pancuronium bromide or potassium chloride in executions, judicial estoppel does not prevent their renewed attempt to use those drugs. For the reasons discussed below, I would hold that Plaintiffs should have a trial on their Eighth Amendment and judicial-estoppel claims, and I respectfully dissent.

This Ohio DRC execution page details that Ohio is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips on July 26 and has scheduled executions for more than two dozen other Ohio inmates running all the way through 2020. This Sixth Circuit will surely be appealed by Phillips to the US Supreme Court in the coming weeks, but I would be very surprised if SCOTUS takes up the case after it has recently allowed other midazolam executions to go forward. And if Ohio is able to to complete executions uneventfully with its current protocol, the state could now be on a path to having more executions in the next few years than perhaps any other state in the nation.

June 28, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SCOTUSblog begins symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I will not likely remember the Supreme Court term just completed, October Term 2016, as especially notable for sentencing developments.  There were no big blockbuster sentencing cases, although the Beckles vagueness ruling was certainly consequential and a few other rulings will surely launch a few law review article.  And, of course, in the intricate and endlessly litigated world of the death penalty, a mixed bag of smaller SCOTUS rulings still add up to something worth watching (especially with the added bit of uncertainty that comes with Justice Gorsuch replacing Justice Scalia).

Helpfully for those who just cannot get enough of the SCOTUS capital docket, the folks over at SCOTUSblog have this new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."   Here are links to the four pieces already up at SCOTUSblog, and I surmise more be coming:

June 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Could mental illness be the next big battle-front in debates over capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article headlined "He’s a killer set to die. But his mental illness has set off a new death penalty battle."  Here are excerpts:

Someone was trying to kill him. William C. Morva was certain of it.  He couldn’t breathe and he was withering away, he told his mother in a jailhouse call.

“Somebody wants me to die and I don’t know who it is,” he said.  “They know my health is dwindling, okay?” He sounded paranoid. His voice grew more frantic with each call over several months on the recorded lines.

“How much more time do you think my body has before it gives out?” he asked just months before he escaped from custody, killing an unarmed guard and later a sheriff’s deputy before his capture in woods near Virginia Tech’s campus.

Morva faces execution July 6 for the 2006 killings. With the date looming, Morva’s family, friends and lawyers are pressing for clemency from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in what has become a broader national push to eliminate capital punishment for people with severe mental illnesses such as Morva’s delusional disorder....

The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled that juveniles, whose brains are not fully developed, and people with intellectual disabilities are not eligible for the death penalty.  Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana, have introduced bills that would expand the prohibition to people with severe mental illnesses.

A vote on an Ohio measure pending in the state legislature is expected this fall.  It is backed by a coalition of providers of mental-health services, social justice groups, religious leaders, former state Supreme Court justices and former Republican governor Bob Taft.  The bills address punishment, not guilt or innocence.  If lawmakers in Columbus sign off on the measure, Ohio would become the first state to pass an exclusion for severe mental illness among the 31 that retain the death penalty....

Advocates for reform say the penalty was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality, and that jurors often misunderstand mental illness.  The reformers’ efforts have met with resistance mostly from prosecutors and law enforcement officials who say jurors already can factor in mental illness at sentencing and that the exemptions are too broad.

June 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 23, 2017

"People keep voting in support of the death penalty. So how can we end it?"

The title of this post is the notable headline of this notable new commentary by noted death penalty abolitionist Austin Sarat.  The first sentence of the headline highlights an important political reality, and the commentary goes on to review recent political developments and to emphasize the political challenges that abolitionists face.  I recommend the commentary as a modern recap on the state of capital politics and as providing insights on how abolitionists can seek to develop a claim that capital abolition is not anti-democratic.  I found found this little piece of political history especially interesting:

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when states across the country first adopted ballot initiative and referenda processes, 14 of them have put the death penalty on the ballot, some more than once.  From 1912 to 1968, there were 11 such direct votes. Another 23 have occurred since 1968, during the height of America’s tough-on-crime, law-and-order era.

In a few of those elections, voters have been asked only to approve technical changes in their state’s death penalty law. In others, like last year in Oklahoma, they had to decide whether to change their state constitutions to protect or reinstate the death penalty.

Sometimes death penalty abolitionists have led the way in pushing for a referendum. More often, especially since 1968, voters have been asked to respond to a legislative, judicial or executive action which threatened to end, or ended, the death penalty. In those circumstances, the issue generally has been put on the ballot by pro-death penalty politicians.

Yet whatever the form of the question, or the reasons for putting the death penalty to a vote, abolitionists have consistently taken an electoral beating. They lost 31 of the 34 times when voters were offered the chance to express their views.

Let’s consider the three times opponents of capital punishment won. In Oregon, abolitionists prevailed in 1914. But, just six years later, another referendum brought the death penalty back — only to have it voted down again in 1964. Arizona voters rejected the death penalty in 1916, but brought it back in 1918.

Abolitionists have consistently lost in even supposedly progressive states like Massachusetts, which voted in favor of the death penalty in 1968 and 1982.

June 23, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 19, 2017

By a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS decides failure of Alabama courts to provide expert mental health assistance to capital defendant was unreasonable

The Supreme Court handed down a notable split decision in a capital case this morning in McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017)(available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court for the usual coalition of Justices most skeptical of application of the death penalty, and that opinion starts this way:

Thirty-one years ago, petitioner James Edmond McWilliams, Jr., was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury and sentenced to death.  McWilliams challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the State had failed to provide him with the expert mental health assistance the Constitution requires, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief. We now consider, in this habeas corpus case, whether the Alabama courts’ refusal was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was.  Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Id., at 83.  Petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.

A sharp dissent in McWilliams, which runs longer than the majority opinion, is authored by Justice Alito (and joined by the newest Justice), and it starts this way:

We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the defense.

The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.  Indeed, “Ake appears to have been written so as to be deliberately ambiguous on this point, thus leaving the issue open for future consideration.” W. LaFave, Criminal Law § 8.2(d), p. 449 (5th ed. 2010) (LaFave).  Accordingly, the proper disposition of this case is to affirm the judgment below.

The Court avoids that outcome by means of a most unseemly maneuver.  The Court declines to decide the question on which we granted review and thus leaves in place conflicting lower court decisions regarding the meaning of a 32-year-old precedent.  That is bad enough.  But to make matters worse, the Court achieves this unfortunate result by deciding a separate question on which we expressly declined review.  And the Court decides that factbound question without giving Alabama a fair opportunity to brief the issue.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

SCOTUS summarily reverses Sixth Circuit reversal of Ohio death sentence

The US Supreme Court this morning issued this order list that did not include any grants of certiorari, but did include a summary reversal in the Ohio capital habeas case of Jenkins v. Hutton, No. 16-1116 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017) (available here).  Here are some key passages from this brief per curiam opinion: 

According to Hutton, the court gave the jurors insufficient guidance [when deciding on whether to recommend a death sentence] because it failed to tell them that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase.  Hutton, however, had not objected to the trial court’s instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal, and the District Court on federal habeas concluded that his due process claim was procedurally defaulted....

Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit held that the [miscarriage of justice] exception justified reviewing his claim. The court gave two reasons: First, Hutton was not eligible to receive a death sentence because “the jury had not made the necessary finding of the existence of aggravating circumstances.” 839 F.3d, at 498–499.  And second, since the trial court “gave the jury no guidance as to what to consider as aggravating circumstances” when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the record did not show that the jury’s death recommendation “was actually based on a review of any valid aggravating circumstances.” Id., at 500....

The Sixth Circuit was wrong to reach the merits of Hutton’s claim.... Hutton has not argued that the trial court improperly instructed the jury about aggravating circumstances at the guilt phase.  Nor did the Sixth Circuit identify any such error. Instead, the instruction that Hutton contends is incorrect, and that the Sixth Circuit analyzed, was given at the penalty phase of trial.  That penalty phase instruction plainly had no effect on the jury’s decision — delivered after the guilt phase and pursuant to an unchallenged instruction — that aggravating circumstances were present when Hutton murdered Mitchell.

The Sixth Circuit’s second reason for reaching the merits rests on a legal error.  Under Sawyer, a court may review a procedurally defaulted claim if, “but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found the petitioner eligible for the death penalty.”  505 U.S., at 336 (emphasis added).  Here, the alleged error was the trial court’s failure to specify that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury could consider only the aggravating circumstances it found at the guilt phase.   Assuming such an error can provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered the following: Whether, given proper instructions about the two aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that those aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"Are 18-year-olds too immature to face the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is part of a headline of this local Kentucky article describing an effort to extend the reach of the Supreme Court's Roper ruling. The article's headline continues with the phrase "Lexington attorney says yes." Here are excerpts from the article:

Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone will soon decide whether to exclude the death penalty for a murder defendant who was 18 when he was charged with murder and robbery.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. The defense team for Travis Bredhold wants Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Bredhold, 21, was 18 when he was charged Dec. 13 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukheshbhai Patel.

Police said surveillance camera footage indicates that Patel, 51, was trying to comply with a robber’s demand for cash when he was shot. He died later at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

Bredhold was “only five months and 13 days older than the limitation” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, public defender Joanne Lynch said. More importantly, Lynch said, research indicates that people’s brains don’t mature until they are in their mid-20s. The Supreme Court ruled that people who are young and immature and who are likely to be more impulsive are not as culpable as a group and shouldn’t be up for the death penalty.

Bredhold’s defense team is asking to extend the exclusion “because people under the age of 21 are almost completely like people under the age of 18. You really don’t mature until you are in your mid-20s,” Lynch said.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn argued during a hearing Friday that there isn’t a “national consensus” on whether to extend the death-penalty exclusion to defendants 21 and younger.

June 11, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (17)