Sunday, December 17, 2017

Looking at latest notable Texas death penalty realities

Number_of_executions_between_2000-2017_the_united_states_texas_harris_county_chartbuilder_8a62cc520e6ffbae4480cedf31ee36ed.nbcnews-ux-600-480This new NBC News article, headlined "Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people," reviews how Texas has become fairly representative of the entire United States with a more limited use of capital punishment. Here are excerpts:

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people.  That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.  Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death an astonishing number of people: zero. This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole. The number of executions has been trending downward across the United States, but it's particularly noticeable in Texas and Harris County.

“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country — and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country. Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county’s district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn’t say she would abandon it altogether.  Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the “worst of the worst” — such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases.  It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases. “The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing,” Ogg said. “We’re reframing the issues.  It’s no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It’s making sure the punishment meets the crime....”

But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions.  The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas’ new sentencing option of life without parole.  The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances — such as an abusive childhood or mental illness — for an alleged murderer’s crime.

Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide. “We’ve seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others,” said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.

December 17, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

DPIC releases 2017 year-end report noting "second lowest" executions and death sentences in a quarter century

SentencingTrendsThis press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "U.S. Sees Second Fewest Death Sentences and Executions in 25 Years," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2017 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here are excerpts from the press report:

Executions and death sentences remained near historically low levels in 2017, as public support for the death penalty fell to its lowest level in 45 years, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).  Eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991.  Only the 20 executions in 2016 were lower.  Fourteen states and the federal government are projected to impose 39 new death sentences in 2017, the second lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.  It was the seventh year in a row that fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed nationwide.

“Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States.  For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.

“Across the political spectrum, more people are coming to the view that there are better ways to keep us safe than executing a handful of offenders selected from a random death-penalty lottery.  There will be times when numbers fluctuate — particularly following historic highs or lows – but the steady long-term decline in the death penalty since the 1990s suggests that in most of the country, the death penalty is becoming obsolete,” Dunham said.  DPIC provides information and analysis and tracks data on the death penalty, but does not take a position for or against capital punishment.

The new death sentences imposed in 2017 highlight the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty, Dunham said.  “By themselves, three outlier counties  — Riverside, CA; Clark, NV; and Maricopa, AZ —  were responsible for more than 30% of all the death sentences imposed nationwide. The other 3,140 counties and parishes imposed fewer new death sentences than even last year’s record low.”  Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two.  It was the second time in three years that Riverside sentenced more people to death than any other county.

States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them — more than 70 percent — were never carried out.  Nearly 75 percent of executions took place in four states: Texas (7); Arkansas (4); Florida (3); and Alabama (3).  But Texas’s state courts stayed seven other executions using new laws to permit those prisoners to obtain judicial review of false or misleading evidence, and its execution total tied 2016 for the fewest conducted by the state since 1996.

December 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Will any state really start conducting executions with opioids?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article, headlined "States to try new ways of executing prisoners. Their latest idea? Opioids." Here is how it gets started:

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row.

As Nevada and Nebraska push for the country’s first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They have warned that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs proposed for lethal injection to human experimentation.

States are increasingly pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining the drugs they long have used, primarily because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions. The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to turn to novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method — something no state or country has tried. Officials have yet to say whether it would be delivered in a gas chamber or through a gas mask. Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair.

“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”

Supporters of capital punishment blame critics for the crisis, which comes amid a sharp decline in the number of executions and decreasing public support for the death penalty. States have put 23 inmates to death in 2017 — the second-fewest executions in more than a quarter-century. Nineteen states no longer have capital punishment, with a third of those banning it in the past decade.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”

Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states cloak their procedures in secrecy to try to minimize legal challenges. But fentanyl offers several advantages. The obvious one is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

Another plus with fentanyl: It is easy to obtain. Although the drug has rocketed into the news because of the opioid crisis, doctors frequently use it to anesthetize patients for major surgery or to treat severe pain in patients with advanced cancer. Nevada officials say they had no problem buying fentanyl. “We simply ordered it through our pharmaceutical distributor, just like every other medication we purchase, and it was delivered,” Brooke Keast, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

Notably, Nevada has not had an execution since 2006 and Nebraska has not had an execution from 1997, and that reality leads me to question whether these states are likely to be conducting opioid-based executions anytime soon. But, as the Post article details, Nevada was fully geared up for a fentanyl-included execution last month before a court intervened, and they may have plans for another execution early in 2018.

December 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Lots of juicy SCOTUS relists for sentencing fans

Over at SCOTUSblog, John Elwood does regular yeoman's work via his "Relist Watch" postings that highlight cases that the Supreme Court considered but did not resolve during its recent certiorari review conferences.  Often (though not always), the relisting of a case is a precursor to a grant of certiorari or at least some notable ruling or commentary by some Justices.  And this week's installment of "Relist Watch" has all these exciting tales for sentencing fans:

The best-known of this week’s relists is Hidalgo v. Arizona, 17-251, which presents two questions involving capital punishment.  The first involves so-called “aggravator creep.” To “minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious” executions, the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia wrote that the discretion of sentencing juries “must be suitably directed and limited” through legislatively prescribed aggravating circumstances -- such as committing murders for hire or committing multiple murders. Since the Gregg era, the Arizona legislature has more than doubled its aggravating factors to 14 -- and still doesn’t include driving slowly in the left lane. Hidalgo argues that as a result of Arizona’s long list of aggravating factors, 99 percent of those convicted of first-degree murder are eligible for execution, which does not do enough to perform the narrowing function that Gregg contemplated.  The case also presents a far broader all-the-marbles issue: “whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.” In other words, the case seeks to answer Justice Stephen Breyer’s call to bring an end to capital punishment....

There’s plenty for nerds to love about the remaining eight cases....  Lindsey v. Virginia, 17-132, involves the burden of production for a crime and whether it violates the due process clause to instruct a jury that a criminal defendant’s actions are “evidence of [the requisite] intent … unless there is believable evidence to the contrary.”...

That brings us to the last four cases, which present a single question (along with some extra issues you’ll have to read the actual petitions to catch up on) – Kasowski v. United States, 16-9649, Richter v. United States, 16-9695, C.D., E.F., and G.H. v. United States, 16-9672, and Koons v. United States, 17-5716. These cases all involve 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits a district court to reduce a previously imposed sentence “in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”  All four cases involve defendants whose sentences were based on a statutory mandatory-minimum sentence, or who were sentenced below the statutory mandatory minimum because they provided the government substantial assistance, as permitted by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e).  The government now maintains that such defendants’ sentences were based on statutes rather than the sentencing guidelines and that those defendants therefore are ineligible for sentence reductions because they were not “sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”  Several courts of appeals have adopted that view.  These four petitions seek to challenge that conclusion.

Though the Hidalgo cert petition has already gotten lots of attention for lots of reasons, I consider the § 3582(c)(2) federal sentencing issue to be the one of this bunch most like to result in a actual grant of certiorari.   I certainly expect Justice Breyer and maybe other Justices will have something to say about the Hidalgo case if (when?) cert is denied, and gosh knows a grant in that case would add a lot of extra capital intrigue to this SCOTUS Term (which many think will be Justice Kennedy's last).

December 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

New lawsuit claims Nebraska's death penalty repeal, before voter capital punishment preservation by initiative, precludes execution of already condemned

As reported in this local article, headlined "ACLU of Nebraska sues to block executions, says Ricketts overstepped in referendum process," a notable advocacy group has filed a notable new lawsuit on behalf of a notable prisoner group. Here are the details:

The 11 men on Nebraska death row do not have valid death sentences, a leading anti-capital punishment group argued in a lawsuit filed [Monday]. The ACLU of Nebraska charged that the death penalty repeal, enacted by the State Legislature over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, was in effect long enough to convert the death sentences for the 11 men to life in prison.

Last year’s vote by Nebraskans to restore capital punishment did so only for future heinous murders, according to the 29-page lawsuit filed shortly after midnight. The suit also alleges that Ricketts violated the separation of powers clause of the State Constitution when he “proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated and controlled” the signature-gathering campaign that allowed voters to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.

The ACLU claims that the governor “exhausted” his executive powers when he vetoed the repeal law passed by lawmakers and that his subsequent steps to back a referendum that restored the death penalty were unlawful “legislative” activities that are reserved, via the separation of powers clause, for the State Legislature.

The referendum process, the civil rights group argued, is for citizens, but Ricketts had encouraged formation of the signature drive, played a leading role in financing it and had lent key employees to the effort, which was officially led by people with strong ties to the governor. “This is way beyond what the governor can do in his personal capacity,” Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said Sunday. “This is about blurring the lines and overstepping the bounds.”

A spokesman for Ricketts said Monday that the “frivolous” ACLU lawsuit was another attempt by the “liberal advocacy group” to overturn the “clear voice” of the people. Taylor Gage, the spokesperson, rejected any wrongdoing by the governor. “The Governor’s Office holds itself to a high standard and follows state law regarding the use of taxpayer resources,” Gage said in a prepared statement. “The administration remains committed to protecting public safety and creating a safe environment for our corrections officers.”

The Ricketts administration recently gave notice that it may soon seek an execution date for one of those 11 death row inmates, Jose Sandoval, who was sentenced to die for his leading role in the slaying of five people inside a Norfolk bank in 2002. A month ago, state prison officials notified Sandoval that four lethal injection drugs had been purchased for use in an execution. The notice is required before an execution date can be requested....

Monday’s lawsuit names the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row as plaintiffs, and follows other legal action launched by the civil rights group against the state in recent months. In August, the ACLU asked a federal judge to intervene to reduce the chronic overcrowding in state prisons and address the shortage of medical and mental health care for inmates. In addition, the ACLU went to court on Friday to force the state to reveal the supplier of four lethal-injection drugs, citing state public records laws and the state’s botched past attempts to obtain such drugs.

Conrad said the legal actions reflect the ACLU’s commitment to defend the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions, and is in step with the organization’s long-running opposition to the death penalty. Conrad, a former state senator and a Democrat, was among the leaders of Nebraskans for Public Safety, the group that campaigned unsuccessfully to persuade voters to retain the repeal of the death penalty. She said that today’s lawsuit is about policy, not politics.

The complaint in this action is available for download at this link.

December 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Two Justices make statement about Alabama capital case in which cert is denied

There was not too much of note in today's order list from the Supreme Court, though sentencing fans might be intrigued by Justice Sotomayor's short statement, joined by Justice Breyer, regarding the denial of certiorari in Floyd v. Alabama. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Petitioner Christopher Floyd was sentenced to death by an Alabama jury that was selected in a manner that raises serious concerns under our precedent in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., 511 U.S. 127 (1994), and Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).  Although the unique context of Floyd’s case counsels against review by this Court, I find the underlying facts sufficiently troubling to note that in the ordinary course, facts like these likely would warrant a court’s intervention....

That we have not granted certiorari should not be construed as complacence or an affirmance of all of the reasoning of the courts below.  The unusual posture in which Floyd raised his Batson and J.E.B. claims warrants caution in the exercise of the Court’s review here.  Yet, courts reviewing claims in circumstances like these must be steadfast in identifying, investigating, and correcting for improper bias in the jury selection process.  Such discrimination “‘casts doubt on the integrity of the judicial process,’ and places the fairness of a criminal proceeding in doubt.” Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. 400, 411 (1991) (citation omitted).

December 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and executions statistics for the first year of recent presidential terms

This recent story, reporting that Texas' last scheduled execution of the year was canceled, suggests it is not too early to start taking stock of 2017 with respect to the application of the death penalty.  This DPIC upcoming execution page reports that no more executions are slated to go forward in 2017, meaning that Ohio closed the books on 2017 executions with its failed efforts to kill Alva Campbell (details here) and that Texas and Florida were the last states to actually complete executions with their separate executions on November 8th (details here).  Notably, the AP has this new accounting headlined "US executions increase slightly in 2017," which includes these details:

The year-end numbers also show that Texas will regain its standing as the nation’s most active state in carrying out capital punishment....

Texas put to death seven prisoners this year, matching the state total from 2016. They were among the 23 inmates — up from 20 last year — put to death in eight states in 2017. Arkansas carried out four executions, followed by Alabama and Florida with three each, and Ohio and Virginia with two each. Georgia, which topped the nation in 2016 with nine, executed one prisoner this year, as did Missouri.

Oklahoma, which typically has one of the busiest execution chambers in the country, went another year without putting any inmates to death as the state struggles with implementing a new execution protocol. Oklahoma put all executions on hold two years ago after several mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015, and the state’s attorney general’s office has said it won’t request any execution dates until at least 150 days after new protocols are released....

Executions in the U.S. peaked in 1999, when 98 inmates were put to death. The following year, Texas alone carried out a record 40 executions. As recently as 2010, the national total was 46, but it has been declining steadily. “Partly it’s because of impediments to execution, like the embargo of the optimum drugs,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.  “Although Texas seems to have found ways to get them, many states have not.” Scheidegger also attributed the decline to a “dramatically lower” homicide rate compared with the 1990s and “greater selectivity in which defendants are sentenced to death, by both prosecutors and juries.”...

At least eight inmates — five from Texas and one each from Missouri, Alabama and Ohio — are set to die in the first quarter of 2018. The first, scheduled for Jan. 18 in Texas, is Anthony Allen Shore, who confessed to killing multiple people and is known in the Houston area as the “Tourniquet Killer.”

As the title of this post hints, one (distorting?) way to look at this year's execution numbers is to reflect on the impact (or lack of impact) from a change in presidential leadership in 2017. Because executions take place almost exclusively at the state level — there has not been a federal execution in nearly 15 years — arguably the politics and actions of the person in the Oval Office has little or no impact on yearly execution realities. But I actually think a President (and an Attorney General) can and historically have, at least in subtle ways, an impact on capital policies and practices nationwide. And, as the accounting below suggests, the raw first-year-of-term US execution numbers (drawn from DPIC here) are just intriguing:

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977

 

Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985

 

George H.W. Bush only term: 16 executions in 1989

 

Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997

 

George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005

 

Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013

 

Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017

 

So, in last four decades we have had: five Democratic Prez first terms with a total of 204 executions (40.8/year); six Republican Prez first terms with a total of 184 executions (30.7/year). 

This fact that there have been, in modern times, an average of 10 more executions in the year starting Democratic terms than in the year starting Republican terms is itself perhaps proof that who is in the Oval Office is of no matter to state execution practices. But I still find even this facile sort of number crunching interesting, as will be watching whether Prez Trump and his Department of Justice gives any attention to these matters in the years ahead.

December 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Finality and the Capital/Non-Capital Punishment Divide"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This book chapter examines the role that concerns about finality have played in both capital cases and juvenile life-without-parole sentencing cases.  It will describe how finality has shaped the Supreme Court’s death penalty cases, as well as the role it has played in recent juvenile life-without-parole cases.  It will then offer some tentative thoughts on whether the non-capital finality concerns — specifically, the perceived need for post-sentencing assessments — should be extended to capital defendants and how post-sentencing assessments might inform the ongoing debate over the death penalty abolition in the United States.

November 30, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"The Law of Abolition"

the title of this post is the title of this new article by Kevin Barry available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Three themes have characterized death penalty abolition throughout the Western world: a sustained period of de facto abolition; an understanding of those in government that the death penalty implicates human rights; and a willingness of those in government to defy popular support for the death penalty.  The first two themes are present in the U.S.; what remains is for the U.S. Supreme Court to manifest a willingness to act against the weight of public opinion and to live up to history’s demands.

When the Supreme Court abolishes the death penalty, it will be traveling a well-worn road.  This Essay gathers, for the first time and all in one place, the opinions of judges who have advocated abolition of the death penalty over the past half-century, and suggests, through this “law of abolition,” what a Supreme Court decision invalidating the death penalty might look like.  Although no one can know for sure how history will judge the death penalty, odds are good that the death penalty will come to be seen as one of the worst indignities our nation has ever known and that a Supreme Court decision abolishing it will, in time, be widely accepted as right.

November 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Is California finally going to get it machinery of death operational come 2018?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Los Angeles Times article headlined "Pace of executions in California may be up to Gov. Jerry Brown." Here are excerpts:

When the California Supreme Court upheld a voter initiative in August to speed up executions, some death penalty advocates assumed lethal injections would resume before the end of the year. Three months after the court’s action, both backers and opponents of the death penalty concede that executions might be more than a year away.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has yet to finalize an execution protocol, which is necessary to resolve a federal court case that has blocked lethal injection in California for nearly 12 years.  An injunction stopping executions also is pending in state court.

“Brown is the shot caller” in the litigation over lethal injection, said Michele Hanisee, president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys for L.A. County. Hanisee expects the state to finalize a lethal injection protocol by January, but if Brown “doesn’t want it to move forward quickly, it won’t move forward quickly,” she said.

Although no one can now predict when executions will resume, UC Berkeley law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said “it is just a matter of time.”

“The uncertainty in all of this,” he added, “is what will Jerry Brown do.”  Brown personally opposes the death penalty but enforced it as attorney general.  He took no position on two recent and unsuccessful ballot measures that would have ended the death penalty.

Chemerinsky and other lawyers said it was conceivable that Brown and defense lawyers could delay executions until Brown steps down as governor in January 2019. Brown also could try to commute death sentences to life without parole, but his power is limited by the California Constitution. Unlike former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who just before leaving office in 2003 commuted the death sentences of all of Illinois’ condemned inmates, Brown would need the support of the state Supreme Court to spare inmates with multiple felonies on their records.

Lawyers estimate that at least half of all death-row inmates have committed two felonies. The governor would need the support of four of the seven California high court justices to commute those inmates’ sentences. Brown has three appointees on the court and a fourth vacancy to fill. But whether his appointees would support commutations is questionable. Two of them — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — are moderately liberal, but Justice Leondra Kruger, the third, has voted with conservatives on criminal justice issues.

Ronald Reagan was the last California governor to commute a death sentence, deciding in 1967 to move Calvin Thomas off death row because Thomas had serious brain damage. Under former Gov. Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father, 35 death row inmates were executed. The elder Brown commuted the capital sentences of 20 others.

Among the most famous executions under Pat Brown’s watch was that of Caryl Chessman, convicted of robbery, sexual assaults and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death under a law, later repealed, that made certain kidnappings capital offenses. Chessman, who represented himself at trial, wrote four books on death row and attracted international sympathy. The elder Brown tried to commute Chessman’s sentence, but the California Supreme Court refused to go along, on a 4 to 3 vote.

Jerry Brown has never faced the wrenching decisions that confronted his father over executions, and the issue also is new for Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, appointed by Brown after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. Becerra, now the top law enforcement officer in California, has testified that he supports the death penalty, but not “the way it is being executed,” and would enforce Proposition 66, the execution speed-up measure largely upheld by the state supreme court in August. Becerra also has said he would run for election to continue as attorney general.

Prosecutors are expected to press Becerra to move quickly to overturn the injunctions preventing executions, but his role is to represent Brown’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the case, a Becerra press aide said. Prosecutors, who sponsored Proposition 66, and crime victims also are considering trying to intervene in the two court cases preventing executions....

“There is no enthusiasm inside the administration to do anything” to hasten executions, said Michael D. Rushford, the founder and top executive of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that helped write Proposition 66. Voters narrowly approved the measure a year ago. The state Supreme Court ruling that permitted its enforcement became final only a few weeks ago, delayed by an unsuccessful request from challengers for the court to reconsider. “There are laws in this state that if the administration doesn’t want to enforce, they don’t,” Rushford said, “and this is one of them.”

Rushford’s group sued to force the Brown administration to produce a single-drug lethal injection method, which has not yet been made final, and has warned it would sue the administration again if it does not move toward executions.

There are about 18 inmates who could immediately be executed because they have no appeals left. But these inmates have obtained federal stays to prevent their executions until the lethal injection case overseen by Seeborg is concluded. For the stays to be lifted, Seeborg would have to decide that California’s new single-drug method of execution, once finalized, did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Whatever he decides could then be appealed....

Brown’s press office referred questions about executions and possible commutations to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which said it was revising a lethal injection protocol but declined to estimate how long that might take.

Ana Zamora, a policy director of the ACLU of Northern California, said she does not expect executions to resume soon. “The D.A.s and the proponents of Prop. 66 really sold voters a false bill of good,” she said. “Nothing has changed. There are still significant problems around lethal injection, and those are not going to go away anytime soon.”

If I understand the sequence of events that needs to take place before a California execution goes forward, it includes (1) California officials finalizing an execution protocol, (2) the federal district court approving that protocol, (3) the Ninth Circuit and SCOTUS affirming a decision about the protocol. and (4) setting a real execution date by California officials.  I am inclined at this moment to predict that California will not complete these tasks (in part because it seems many do not wish to) before the end of 2018.

November 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Furman and Finitude"

The title of this post in the title of this new deep paper authored by Adam Thurschwell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract

Martin Heidegger's ontological interpretation of death as the possibility of an impossibility — Dasein's (Being-There's) not-being-there — had been a repeated object of Jacques Derrida's critique prior to the Death Penalty Seminar he delivered in 1999 and 2000, and he returned to it again in the Seminar, although only briefly.  His primary goal lay elsewhere, in an investigation into the conceptual structure supporting capital punishment with the practical aim of its eventual abolition.  Nevertheless, a critique of Heidegger's existential analysis lies at the center of the seminar's intention.

In this essay, expanding on that insight, I first present Derrida’s notion that it is the phenomenon of the death penalty, not Heidegger's ontological analysis, that best expresses our precomprehension of the meaning of death.  Next, I explain the central paradox of contemporary abolitionist discourse that Derrida confronts in the seminar: the fact that the fundamental values supporting abolitionists' philosophical arguments lie equally on the side of the death penalty.  I then develop Derrida's resolution of this paradox by drawing out his deconstruction of Heidegger's analytic of death (what I call Derrida's "quasi-existential analysis"), and place this deconstruction in relation to Derrida's other writings on law more generally and to the United States Supreme Court's current death penalty jurisprudence.  I conclude by suggesting that, notwithstanding the weight of its theoretical apparatus, his resolution of the paradox is best understood in terms of praxis, specifically, the legal defense of capital cases.

November 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Louisiana justice gets a bit too candid expressing his views about capital punishment

This local story, headlined "Louisiana Supreme Court justice recuses self from 'Angola 5' death penalty appeal over radio interviews," reports on some notable comments concerning the death penalty made by a notable public official in the Pelican State. Here are the details:

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton recused himself on Tuesday from the pending appeal of death row inmate David Brown in the "Angola 5" prison-guard murder case, a day after Brown's attorneys cried foul over comments the judge made about capital punishment on Shreveport talk radio.  Crichton's one-sentence "notice of self-recusal" came without explanation.  It leaves the remaining six state high court justices to weigh Brown's direct appeal over his conviction and death sentence in the 1999 group beating and stabbing death of Angola State Penitentiary guard Capt. David Knapps.  The court could also appoint an ad hoc judge to fill Crighton's seat in the case.

Brown's attorneys filed a motion late Monday claiming Crichton's commentary in recent radio interviews raised at least the appearance of bias in the high-profile capital case. Crichton, 63, mentioned the Angola 5 case on the KEEL morning show on Oct. 23 to illustrate his view that the death penalty can be a valuable deterrent.  A former Caddo Parish prosecutor and district judge who rose to the high court bench three years ago, he agreed with a show host that "if you're in for life, you have nothing to lose" without it.

Brown was serving a life sentence for a different murder when Knapps was killed inside a bathroom at the state penitentiary. Brown's attorneys argued that Crichton's mention of the Angola 5 case alone warranted his recusal.  Crichton went further on the airwaves, however, and Brown's attorneys argued that his other on-air remarks also revealed potential bias in Brown's case, and perhaps in any capital case that reaches the court.

On the Oct. 23 show, Crichton first acknowledged that he "can talk about anything other than a pending case before the Louisiana Supreme Court," then mentioned the Angola 5 case.  He went on to lament the lengthy appeals process in death-penalty cases and argued for well-publicized executions. "If it's carried out and the public knows about it, I believe it's truly a deterrent," he said.  "What really boggles my mind is the inmate who has committed capital murder who is on death row who is begging for his life.  Think about the fact that the victim gets no due process."

Crichton also suggested a workaround to problems many states have had in acquiring one of three drugs in a commonly used "cocktail" for state killings — a shortage he blamed on drug companies being "harassed and stalked" by death-penalty opponents.  Crichton said he favors giving condemned inmates a choice in their death: the cocktail; a new method using a single drug, nitrogen hypoxia; or another, time-tested execution method.  "Firing squad is one," he said.

November 22, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Anyone eager to draw sentencing lessons in the wake of mass murderer Charlie Manson's demise?

There are any number of old and new California sentencing stories that surround the murderous Manson family, especially as some members of the "family" continue to pursue parole.  With the death of the leader, this extended Daily Beast article, headlined "Charles Manson’s Prosecutor Says He Deserved to Be Killed Years Ago," provides a useful reminder of the awful carnage and legacy of Manson.  Here are snippets with some of the enduring sentencing details:

Charles Manson should have died a long time before today. That’s according to one of the prosecutors who sent Manson and his murderous followers to Death Row, only to see their sentences later commuted to life in prison.

Manson, 83, died Sunday at Kern County hospital in California, corrections officials said. Manson’s death spells “the end of a very evil man,” Stephen R. Kay told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview earlier this year prior to Manson’s death.

Kay was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who worked with fellow deputy Vincent Bugliosi to secure guilty verdicts for Manson and his flock of killers, who came to be known as “The Family.” Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles “Tex” Watson, Steve “Clem” Grogan, and Bruce Davis were convicted in all or some of the 1969 murders of nine people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s child.

“No, that was a pretty easy decision based on the gruesomeness of the crimes and the motives: wanting to start a race war,” Kay said. “I think there are some crimes that are so heinous that in order for us to exist as a society that we have to say we will absolutely not accept this type of behavior and the person will have to suffer the ultimate penalty. “It’s not that we’re giving Charles Manson the death penalty; it’s that he earned it.”...

At 73, and now retired, Kay said he can still hear the sinister threats on his life made by Manson and his disciples. “Squeaky [Fromme] and Sandy Good snuck up behind me and said they’re going to do to my house what was done at the Tate house,” Kay said....  During one of Manson’s many parole hearings, the death-cult leader detailed how he was going to take out Kay. “The most direct one was after the parole hearing—he told me he was going to have me killed out in the parking lot on the way to my car,” he said. “I mean, that to me was the most memorable one. It was so direct.” Kay acknowledged even with protection, he was merely testing fate if he felt like he was immune to becoming another Manson victim. “When Manson says something like that after what he’s done, you have to take it seriously,” he said.

It’s the kind of power wielded by Manson that the former prosecutor feels was lorded over Fromme, who was caught with a pistol trying to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975. “I happen to believe that there’s no way Squeaky Fromme on her own would have thought up the idea of trying to assassinate President Ford in the park in Sacramento,” he said. “I believe Manson put her up to that.”

In 1970, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Watson (in a separate trial later) were convicted of murder and conspiracy for the Tate-LaBianca killings and were all sentenced to death.  Sealing their fates was fellow Family member Linda Kasabian, who testified against them in exchange for immunity.  In a 1971 trial, Manson was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1969 murders of Donald “Shorty” Shea and Gary Hinman. When Shea, who was a ranch hand and stuntman on Wild Western films returned to Spahn Ranch with a black wife, it allegedly set Manson off. Manson was also convinced that Shea had “snitched” on the group, having tipped off cops on a boosted car, which led to an Aug. 16, 1969, raid at dawn on their compound by police....

All of the Family members who were sentenced to death, including Manson, were spared when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty back in 1972 and commuted their sentences to life in prison. The state would later bring back the death penalty, but the life sentences for Manson and his killer kin stuck.  “It would be ex post facto violation of the Constitution to go back and reinstate it because you can only be prosecuted with what the law was when you committed the crime, and these laws were committed in 1969,” Kay said. “And the death penalty that was in effect in ’69 was held to be unconstitutional.”...

Ironically, most of Manson’s former followers have outlived him, save for Susan Atkins, who died in prison from brain cancer back in 2009.  Leslie Van Houten, now 68, held Rosemary Labianca down and covered her face with a pillowcase while another Family member carved “War” into her husband’s stomach after stabbing him in the couple’s home. (Then they helped themselves to chocolate milk in the fridge.)  Van Houten was also the one who scribbled missives on the house walls using their victims’ blood.  “I don’t let myself off the hook,” Van Houten told a parole panel. “I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”  Van Houten was granted parole in September, but Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to reverse the decision as he did last spring.

Charles “Tex” Watson, now 72, did a stint in Atascadero State Mental Hospital and said he has since found God while serving his life sentence as a chaplain at Mule Creek Prison in Ione. Watson failed more than a dozen times to convince a parole board to free him for his part in being Manson’s hitman; his was the last face so many victims saw before they were tortured and slain with a wrench, knife, or pistol.

Patricia “Krenny” Krenwinkel, 70, remains California’s oldest female inmate and has been serving life at California Institution for Women in Corona. She has since renounced Manson and The Family. “What a coward that I found myself to be when I look at the situation,” Krenwinkel said during a 2014 interview with The New York Times.  Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, 61, was granted parole back in 2009 after serving 34 years hard time for the attempt on President Ford’s life. She has reportedly relocated to upstate New York, where she lives in isolation....

That Manson managed to hold on for this long was like an open wound for so many families. “It made the case go on forever,” Kay said. “If the penalty was put into effect then the case would have been done in the 1970s. There’s never really any closure.”...  Tate’s mother, who died in 1992, became an outspoken crusader for justice.  “I think at one time she was the most powerful woman for victims rights in California,” Kay said, adding that if you were a politician worth your salt in California you sought out Tate’s endorsement. “She really started the victims’ rights movement that is still so powerful even today.”

Kay isn’t blind to the irony that had the sentence gone forward Manson wouldn’t have become quite the diabolical deity that has haunted popular culture for decades.  “We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kay said.

November 20, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Reviewing Ohio's unique execution difficulties ... which perhaps explains seemingly ho-hum reaction to latest botched Ohio execution

As detailed in this DPIC listing, this past week, there were scheduled executions in Nevada, Ohio and Texas, but two of these planned lethal injections were stayed.  And in Ohio, as first reported here, Ohio tried but failed to complete the lethal injection of a double murderers.  Only thrice in recent US history has the execution process been started and then halted with the condemned inmate living on, and two of those cases have taken place in the last decade in Ohio.  Moreover, as reviewed in this recent ACLU posting, Ohio has an extraordinary recent history with troubled executions (links from the original):  

Ohio’s lethal injection team spent more than 30 minutes poking Alva Campbell’s decrepit body in search of any decent vein into which they could inject their lethal cocktail to no avail. They finally relented — but only temporarily.  Hours later, Gov. John Kasich announced not a commutation — or a plan to investigate what went wrong — but that Campbell’s execution would be rescheduled for 2019....

It was predictable and avoidable not only because of information furnished to the state by the defense, but because Ohio had already committed a similar bungle in 2009 when it failed to find a suitable vein to execute Rommell Broom after sticking him with needles for over two hours.

The ability to find a suitable vein is basic to lethal injection. When it cannot be done — because of lack of training and qualifications of the lethal-injection team or the health of the prisoner — the process becomes impossible and the risk of a failure or botch undeniable.

The botched two-hour execution of Christopher Newton in 2007 also stemmed from the execution team’s inability to access a suitable vein. The state’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014 has been attributed to the use of midazolam — great if you need a sedative for a medical procedure but unsuitable for executions.

The takeaway should be clear. Ohio cannot be trusted to use the death penalty, as time and time again the state fails and causes needless pain and unconstitutional torture. But Ohio is forging ahead.  The state’s schedule of more than two dozen lethal-injections through 2022 gives Ohio the dubious distinction of maintaining the longest list of upcoming executions in the nation. A second attempt to take Campbell’s life is now set for 2019, while Rommell Broom’s new date is in 2020. Last year, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio could attempt to execute Broom, yet again....

Because I know and have respect for lots of folks involved in Ohio's criminal justice system, I am somewhat amazed and greatly troubled that Ohio has a uniquely disconcerting recent record in the carrying out of executions. At the same time, I have this week also been somewhat intrigued that Ohio's latest botched execution has not received all that much attention in Ohio or nationwide.

As highlighted via this post and this one, when Oklahoma had an ugly execution in 2014, it engendered lots of national attention and commentary and calls for a national moratorium on executions.  Of course, that ugly execution was arguably more grotesque that what happened this past week in Ohio, and surely death penalty abolitionists figured in 2014 they had more national leaders who were sympathetic to their capital punishment criticisms.  Still, I think it is notable and telling that the reaction to Ohio's latest execution difficulties is relatively "ho-hum."

Recent prior related posts:

November 18, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ohio unable to complete execution for elderly murderer once called death penalty “poster child”

As detailed in this AP report, headlined "Ohio calls off execution after failing to find inmate's vein" the state of Ohio had the wrong kind of eventful lethal injection experience this morning.  Here are the details:

It was only the third time in U.S. history that an execution has been called off after the process had begun.

The execution team first worked on both of Alva Campbell's arms for about 30 minutes Wednesday while he was on a gurney in the state's death chamber and then tried to find a vein in his right leg below the knee.  Members of the execution team used a device with a red flashing light that appeared to be a way of locating veins while also periodically comforting Campbell, patting him on the arm and shoulder.

About 80 minutes after the execution was scheduled to begin, the 69-year-old Campbell shook hands with two guards after it appeared the insertion was successful. About two minutes later, media witnesses were told to leave without being told what was happening.

Gary Mohr, head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the team humanely handled the attempt, but the condition of Campbell's veins had changed since checks in Tuesday.  He said he called off the execution after talking with the medical team. "It was my decision that it was not likely that we're going to access veins," Mohr said.

Campbell, who was scheduled to die for killing a teenager during a carjacking two decades ago, shook hands with execution team members and wiped away tears after being informed the execution was being called off, said his attorney, David Stebbins.  "This is a day I'll never forget," Campbell said, according to Stebbins. 

Stebbins said he doesn't know what will happen next, but he added that Campbell's health problems and poor veins are a continuing problem.  Campbell, who was scheduled to die for killing a teenager during a carjacking two decades ago, will be sent back to death row and there will be some consideration for a future execution date, Mohr said....

Campbell's attorneys had warned the inmate's death could become a spectacle because of his breathing problems and because an exam failed to find veins suitable for IV insertion.  They argued he was too ill to execute, and also should be spared because of the effects of a brutal childhood in which he had been beaten, sexually abused and tortured....

Franklin County prosecutor Ron O'Brien called Campbell "the poster child for the death penalty." Prosecutors also said Campbell's health claims were ironic given he faked paralysis to escape court custody the day of the fatal carjacking.  On April 2, 1997, Campbell was in a wheelchair when he overpowered a Franklin County sheriff's deputy on the way to a court hearing on several armed robbery charges, records show. Campbell took the deputy's gun, carjacked the 18-year-old Charles Dials and drove around with him for several hours before shooting him twice in the head as Dials crouched in the footwell of his own truck, according to court records....

Earlier this month, Campbell lost a bid to be executed by firing squad after a federal judge questioned whether lawmakers would enact the bill needed to allow the method.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ACLU of Ohio already has issued this press release headed "Ohio Must Enact Moratorium on Executions."  It will be interesting to see if the rhetoric at the start of the press release becomes used by abolitionists throughout not just Ohio but the country:

After nearly 30 minutes of torture as medical personnel attempted to find a useable vein for the lethal injection of Alva Campbell, Jr the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections called off his execution. This comes after weeks of advocacy from Campbell’s counsel explaining that he was too ill and death by lethal injection would be tortuous. The following statement can be attributed to ACLU of Ohio Senior Policy Director Mike Brickner:

"This marks the fifth botched execution for Ohio in recent years, and the second time the state could not complete an execution.  This is not justice, and this is not humane.  Campbell was poked and prodded for nearly two hours as prison officials and medical personnel attempted to find a useable vein.  This type of state-sponsored torture is not acceptable and the state of Ohio must place a moratorium on executions immediately.  Today the state made a spectacle of a man’s life, and the cruel and unusual practice of lethal injection must end."

Recent prior related post:

November 15, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Voting intrigue in SCOTUS capital case dissent on latest order list

The Supreme Court wrapped up its formal pre-Thanksgiving public activities toady with the release of this order list.  The list will surely generate news based on the granting of cert in three First Amendment cases, one dealing with abortion issues, one dealing with polling places, and one with some criminal procedure elements.  But sentencing fans, particularly those eager to predict the future of the Supreme Court's capital jurisprudence, will want to give some attention to this lengthy cert denial dissent by Justice Sotomayor in Reeves v. Alabama.  This dissent was joined (only) by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, and it starts this way:

Petitioner Matthew Reeves was convicted by an Alabama jury of capital murder and sentenced to death. He sought postconviction relief in state court based on, as relevant here, several claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel.  Among those claims, Reeves argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to hire an expert to evaluate him for intellectual disability, despite having sought and obtained funding and an appointment order from the state trial court to hire a specific neuropsychologist.  His postconviction counsel subsequently hired that same neuropsychologist, who concluded that Reeves was, in fact, intellectually disabled.  Reeves contended that this and other evidence could have been used during the penalty phase of his trial to establish mitigation.

The Alabama Circuit Court held an evidentiary hearing on Reeves’ postconviction petition, at which Reeves presented substantial evidence regarding his intellectual disability and his counsel’s performance.  He did not, however, call his trial or appellate counsel to testify.  The court denied the petition, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. In doing so, the Court of Criminal Appeals explained that a petitioner seeking postconviction relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel must question his counsel about his reasoning and actions.  Without considering the extensive record evidence before it regarding Reeves’ counsel’s performance or giving any explanation as to why that evidence did not prove that his counsel’s actions were unreasonable, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that Reeves’ failure to call his attorneys to testify was fatal to his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.  The Alabama Supreme Court denied review.

There can be no dispute that the imposition of a categorical rule that counsel must testify in order for a petitioner to succeed on a federal constitutional ineffectiveassistance-of-counsel claim contravenes our decisions requiring an objective inquiry into the adequacy and reasonableness of counsel’s performance based on the full record before the court. Even Alabama does not defend such a rule.  Instead, the dispute here is whether the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in fact imposed such a rule in this case.  I believe it plainly did so.  For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

After this start, Justice Sotomayor goes on for 10+ pages to provide great detail on the proceedings below and the errors she sees therein.  Her dissent concludes with a call for a summary reversal and remand "so that the Court of Criminal Appeals could explain why, given the full factual record, Reeves’ counsel’s choices constituted reasonable performance."  This concluding recommendation, along with length of the dissent, leads me to wonder if it was drafted with the hope that there would be five or more votes to send this case back to the Alabama courts given that, as Justice Sotomayor explains, Alabama itself "does not attempt to defend the Court of Criminal Appeals’ rule on its merits."

Of course, the issuance of this dissent shows that Justice Sotomayor could not get five or more votes to send this case back to the Alabama courts.  But, as SCOTUS fans know, only four votes are needed to grant certiorari, and Justice Breyer would seem to be an obvious candidate to provide a fourth vote for taking this capital case up on its merits.  I am inclined to guess that Justice Breyer decided to issue a so-called "defensive denial" vote: as explained here, Justice Breyer's vote in Reeves may involve the "strategy by which a justice will vote to deny review because the justice fears that, if review is granted, the Court will reach the wrong result and make bad law."

Because I am not a SCOTUS procedure guru, I am not going to spend too much time speculating about what the voting dynamics might reveal in Reeves.  But in the wake of his Glossip opinion and other subsequent comments and votes, some have been coming to believe that Justice Breyer would now vote in favor of a capital defendant in any and every close or tough case.  His vote to deny cert in Reeves suggests that, in deciding how to resolve capital cert petitions, he is still concerned with matters other than just how he thinks he should resolve each and every particular capital case that comes before him.

November 13, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Former state Arizona AG, only now, says his state's death penalty is "unconstitutional" and "bad policy"

Terry Goddard, who served as the Arizona's attorney general from 2003 to 2011, apparently just now got around to figuring out that how his state administers the death penalty makes it unconstitutional and bad policy.  He explains his new thinking in this commentary headlined "Arizona's 40-year experiment with the death penalty has failed."  Here are excerpts (with some emphasis added for my follow-up commentary):

As the attorney general, I was responsible for overseeing dozens of appeals from sentences of death.  Six people were executed during my tenure.  It was critical for me that we imposed the ultimate sanction only on those most deserving.

Tragically, our state has failed in this undertaking in fundamental ways.  The breadth of our statute, capturing nearly every first-degree murder, makes it unconstitutional.  But more than that, Arizona’s use of the death penalty is bad policy.

Arizona does not have a good track record for getting it right.  At least nine times our death penalty has swept up the innocent in its net.  Nationwide, 160 people have been exonerated from death row.  Getting it wrong once is one time too many.  Death, in its finality, means correcting a wrongful sentence is not an option.  Sentencing the innocent to die undermines the public’s confidence in the entire criminal justice system, and is reason alone to abandon the death penalty.

Moreover, Arizona’s death penalty scheme has unsettling racial disparities in its application.  People in Arizona who are accused of murdering white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty.  Hispanic men who are accused of murdering whites are more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants accused of murdering a Hispanic victim.  Any other state policy with that sort of disparity would be quickly repudiated.  The Legislature should end this horrible death penalty malfunction.

The spiraling costs of seeking and imposing a death sentence are further reason to abandon the policy.  These costs have caused the location of the crime to take precedence over its heinousness.  Several counties simply cannot afford to pursue the death penalty, creating imbalances having nothing to do with the crime....

The costs associated with defending Arizona’s statute (never mind the cases themselves) have been substantial. Dozens of convictions have been set aside because Arizona, unlike almost every other state, did not provide for jury sentencing in capital cases.  Arizona was one of two states to extend the death penalty to felony murders, leading to a rebuke by the Supreme Court and further reversals.  The Arizona Supreme Court narrowly interpreted our state’s prohibition on executing the intellectually disabled until they were recently forced to reconsider.  And case after case has been reversed because of flaws in the instructions given in capital sentencing proceedings....

We’ve been here before. In 1972, the court struck down every state’s death-penalty statute because they operated to execute a “capriciously selected random handful,” rather than the worst offenders.  Similar to other states’ efforts, then-state Sen. Sandra Day O’Connor and Rudy Gerber (who later became an Arizona judge) rewrote Arizona’s statute to comply with the court’s narrowing requirements by obligating the prosecutor to prove one or more aggravating factors before the death penalty could be imposed.

More than four decades have passed and we are back to square one.  Despite the efforts of O’Connor and Gerber, Arizona has failed to narrow the application of the death penalty and has been unable or unwilling to provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the death penalty is only imposed on the worst offenders.

Though I am not an expert on the statutory and practical ins-and-outs of the death penalty in Arizona, I am pretty sure that the vast majority of the problems cited here by former state AG Goddard were plenty evident circa 2003 when he started serving his eight years at the top lawyer and law enforcement official in the state.  For example, this DPIC list of death row exonerations indicates that eight of the nine exonerations in Arizona occurred by 2003.  If "getting it wrong once" is, as Goddard says now, "one time too many" and "reason alone to abandon the death penalty," why didn't Goddard while serving as AG become a vocal opponent of capital punishment?

Similarly, I believe the breadth of the Arizona statute allowing capital punishment for nearly all first-degree murders is not a new reality.  If that reality makes the statute unconstitutional in the view of Goddard, why did he work vigorously to uphold death sentences under that statute for eight years?  In his role as AG, Goddard swore an oath to uphold the US Constitution, and he should have felt duty-bound not to seek to preserve capital convictions secured via an unconstitutional statute.  But, it would seem, Goddard was very slow to achieve this critical constitutional wisdom.

Likewise, I would guess that "unsettling racial disparities" in the  application of Arizona's death penalty did not only recently become evident.  (Linked here, for example, is a 1997 article with data on this kind of disparity and discrimination in Arizona.)   Did Goddard even care about the data on disparities when serving in the AG role for eight years?   If he really believes "any other state policy with that sort of disparity would be quickly repudiated," I would like to ask him why he did not quickly repudiate the death penalty over the eighth years he was in an ideal official position to do something about this state policy. 

I make these points not only to suggest that there is a notable johnny-come-lately quality to Goddard's capital criticisms, but also to wonder if Goddard might someday write another commentary that explains why a person in the role of Attorney General cannot or will not face up to problems in a state's criminal laws until long after completing service.  I have always wondered whether it is just political and institutional pressures that prompt government officials to defend questionable criminal laws and practices, or whether other sets of personal and professional factors are the heart of this story.  Some first-person accounting of just how and why Goddard has now come to a different view of these issues a number of years after his extended tenure as state AG could actually make his commentary much more valuable than the standard abolitionist review of reasons to oppose the death penalty.

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nebraska moving forward with execution plans involving a new four-drug(?!) lethal injection protocol

The state of Nebraska has not had an execution in two decades, and the state's legislature actually abolished the death penalty back in 2015.  But voters in 2016 brought the death penalty back, and this local article reports on recent work by the state's Attorney General to carry out the will of the people.  And the article, headlined "State of Nebraska moves closer to executing Jose Sandoval by lethal injection, but legal challenges appear likely," explains why the novel execution method adopted in the state seems sure to engender litigation:

The State of Nebraska took a big step Thursday toward executing its first death-row inmate in 20 years, using an untried combination of lethal-injection drugs.

Attorney General Doug Peterson said Thursday that he is prepared to request a death warrant for Jose Sandoval after at least 60 days, which is the minimum notice period for condemned inmates under the state’s execution protocol. The Nebraska Supreme Court issues death warrants if an inmate has no pending appeals. A check of state and federal court records Thursday showed that Sandoval’s last legal challenge was decided against him in 2011 and that he has no active appeals. It’s unclear whether he currently has a lawyer or will contest the state’s plan to execute him.

But experts say the new four-drug combination officials unveiled Thursday has never been used by another state in a lethal injection execution. Legal challenges over the drugs could further delay what would be the first time Nebraska has used lethal injection to carry out an execution. Twenty years ago, the state relied solely on the electric chair. “It’s yet another experimental protocol. Now the lawsuits begin,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services notified Sandoval that it will inject four drugs in the following order: diazepam, fentanyl citrate, cisatracurium besylate and potassium chloride. Diazepam (brand names include Valium) is a benzodiazepine that is used to produce a calming effect. Fentanyl citrate is a general anesthetic that has been used since the 1960s. As an opioid, it also blocks pain, which has made it a popular a street drug linked to lethal overdoses.

Cisatracurium besylate (brand name: Nimbex) relaxes or paralyzes muscles and is used along with a general anesthetic when intubating patients or doing surgery. The final drug, potassium chloride, is used to stop the inmate’s heart. It was the only drug that was also used in Nebraska’s former three-drug combination.

Dunham said the four drugs selected by Nebraska have not been used in combination by another death penalty state. The third drug, cisatracurium besylate, has not been used before in an execution, he added.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California, said that in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court established “a fairly high hurdle for those who would stop a lethal injection.” In deciding a lethal injection dispute in Oklahoma, the court said that to prevent an execution, the drug must present a “demonstrated risk of causing severe pain” in the inmate and the risk must be substantial compared with known alternative drugs, Scheidegger said. “The objection that a drug has never been used before is not valid by itself,” he said.

The announcement that Sandoval had been selected for execution was somewhat surprising, given that several other inmates have been on death row longer than he has. Sandoval was the ringleader of a 2002 botched bank robbery that left five people shot to death. He was later convicted of killing two men before the bank shootings. Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter, Evonne, was gunned down by Sandoval as she stood in line to cash a check, said she had been waiting for this day. “He needs to be executed, and Nebraska has the drugs to do it now,” Tuttle said Thursday....

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the leading opponent of capital punishment in the state, said the new and untested protocol would inspire lengthy legal action. “They’re far from being at the point at which an execution can be carried out,” Chambers said. “I think the rough ride has just begun.”

The senator said he thought that Thursday’s announcement was more a “political and public relations” move tied to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ bid to win a second term as governor. The Republican governor helped organize and fund a petition drive to reinstate capital punishment last year after the Legislature in 2015 overrode his veto to repeal the death penalty.

Danielle Conrad, director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said she was “horrified” that the state plans to use Sandoval as a test subject for an unproven lethal drug combination. Her organization, she said, will closely evaluate the constitutional questions raised by the state’s plan. “This rash decision will not fix the problems with Nebraska’s broken death penalty and are a distraction from the real issues impacting Nebraska’s Department of Corrections: an overcrowded, crisis-riddled system,” she said in a press release....

Sandoval was considered the leader of four men who attempted to rob the Norfolk bank. He shot and killed three of the victims. He is one of 11 men on death row, which is at the Tecumseh State Prison.

November 10, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Florida and Texas carry out executions on same night

As reported in these two articles, two states carried out two death sentences via lethal injection yesterday:

I believe this is the first time since January 2015 in which two different states carried out executions on the same day. (Arkansas back in April carried out two executions in one state in one day.)

This development is not quite conclusive proof that machineries of death are humming along again, but it serves as still more evidence to support my belief that the results of the 2016 election cycle — especially the vote in support of improving the operation of the death penalty in California and the election of Donald Trump as President — may have significantly turned around the declining fortunes of the death penalty in the US.  I doubt we will get back to 1990s levels of death sentences and executions in the US absent a huge spike in homicides.  But there are still over 2800 condemned persons on death rows throughout the US, and it seems quite possible we could before long start seeing 50 or more executions per year again (which was, roughly speaking, the average during the administrations of Bill Clinton and Geotge W. Bush).

November 9, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 06, 2017

A number of executions in a number of states generating a number of notable stories and commentary

As detailed in this DPIC listing of upcoming executions, there are scheduled five executions in five different states over the next 10 days.  As is always the reality, each of these cases involve notable stories that can generate notable news.  Here are a few recent stories and commentaries about some of the cases in some of these states (in the order of planned executions):

In the case from Texas: "Mexico says upcoming U.S. execution of national is 'illegal'"

In the case from Arkansas: "Arkansas Death Row Inmate Wants Brain Examined If Executed"

In the case from Nevada: "Against a 'Cruel and Unusual' Death: Nevada must not allow a death-row inmate to 'volunteer' for execution by fentanyl and other drugs."

In the case from Ohio: "Ohio death row inmate wants firing squad as execution alternative"

November 6, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two notable summary reversals from SCOTUS after circuits failed, yet again, to properly follow AEDPA

The US Supreme Court this morning released this order list which does not grant cert in any new cases but does concludes with two notable summary reversals both of which result from circuit courts failing to follow properly the commands of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

The longer per curiam ruling (without dissent) comes in Kernan v. Cuero, No. 16-1468 (S. Ct. Nov 6, 2017) (available here), which gets started this way:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of1996 provides that a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner based on a claim adjudicated by a state court on the merits if the resulting decision is “contrary to,or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1). In this case, a California court permitted the State to amend a criminal complaint to which the respondent, MichaelCuero, had pleaded guilty. That guilty plea would have led to a maximum sentence of 14 years and 4 months. The court acknowledged that permitting the amendment would lead to a higher sentence, and it consequently permitted Cuero to withdraw his guilty plea. Cuero then pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a term with a minimum of 25 years.

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently held that the California court had made a mistake of federal law. In its view, the law entitled Cuero to specific performance of the lower 14-year, 4-month sentence that he would have received had the complaint not been amended.

The question here is whether the state-court decision “involved an unreasonable application o[f] clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Ibid. Did our prior decisions (1) clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected; or (2) instead permit the State’s sentence-raising amendment where the defendant was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea? Because no decision from this Court clearly establishes that a state court must choose the first alternative, we reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

The other per curiam ruling comes in Dunn v. Madison, No. 17-193 (S. Ct. Nov 6, 2017) (available here), includes these passages:

Neither Panetti nor Ford “clearly established” that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case. The state court did not unreasonably apply Panetti and Ford when it determined that Madison is competent to be executed because — notwithstanding his memory loss — he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.

Nor was the state court’s decision founded on an unreasonable assessment of the evidence before it. Testimony from each of the psychologists who examined Madison supported the court’s finding that Madison understands both that he was tried and imprisoned for murder and that Alabama will put him to death as punishment for that crime.

In short, the state court’s determinations of law and fact were not “so lacking in justification” as to give rise to error“beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Richter, supra, at 103.  Under that deferential standard, Madison’s claim to federal habeas relief must fail. We express no view on the merits of the underlying question outside of the AEDPA context.

Notably, Justice Ginsburg penned this brief concurrence in Dunn that was joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor:

The issue whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense is a substantial question not yet addressed by the Court. Appropriately presented, the issue would warrant full airing. But in this case, the restraints imposed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, I agree, preclude consideration of the question. With that understanding, I join the Court’s per curiam disposition of this case.

And Justice Breyer also added a concurrence in Dunn to note that the "case illustrates one of the basic problems with the administration of the death penalty itself. That problem concerns the unconscionably long periods of time that prisoners often spend on death row awaiting execution." Notably, no other Justice joined this concurrence by Justice Breyer.

November 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Spotlighting challenges facing federal prosecutors in capital pursuit of Sayfullo Saipov

Andrew McCarthy has this notable recent National Review commentary under this amusing headline/subheadline: "Your Sentencing Advice Isn’t Helpful; Bergdahl is to loyalty as Trump is to tact."  Though the headline suggests the piece is mostly about taking Prez Trump to task, it actually focuses effectively on just how the battle facing federal prosecutors in the Saipov case was made a bit harder by the Prez.  Here is part of McCarthy's analysis:

The Justice Department has an exacting process before the death penalty may be charged. The process is meant to impress on the judiciary — much of which is philosophically predisposed against capital punishment — that the attorney general seeks the death sentence only after extremely careful deliberation, which includes hearing a presentation from the defense. Now, since the attorney general answers to the president, Saipov’s lawyers will argue that the DOJ process is, shall we say, a joke and a laughingstock, the president having already ordered his subordinate to seek the defendant’s execution.

In the end, I’m pretty sure defense motions to throw out any capital charges will be denied.  But the burden on the prosecutors to prevail on the matter of a death sentence will be tougher. Make no mistake: They already have an uphill battle on their hands. 

Saipov richly deserves the death penalty. (Like you, dear readers, I’m not the president, so I get to say that without screwing up the case.)  But the problem is, while this jihadist atrocity should result in a straight-up, slam-dunk state multiple-murder prosecution, the State of New York has done away with capital punishment.  If he is going to get a death sentence, it will have to be a federal case. Thus, I’m proud to say, the case has been taken over by my former stomping grounds, the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. There is still a problem, however: Finding a federal murder charge that fits the facts well is not simple. 

The SDNY prosecutors are a clever lot.  In a two-count complaint, they theorize (in Count Two) that Saipov caused eight deaths in the course of damaging an automobile in interstate commerce. But the criminal statute invoked (section 33(a) of the U.S. penal code) is really addressed at incidentally endangering human beings while doing violence to a car, not incidentally endangering the car while doing violence to human beings.  The latter is what Saipov did — an attack with a truck, not on a truck.

Plainly aware that this allegation may not fly, the prosecutors also charge material support to terrorism (under section 2339B).  They plausibly allege (in Count One) that Saipov’s savage attack was done on behalf of the Islamic State terror network (ISIS).  Yet defense lawyers will surely counter that Saipov has no known connections to ISIS, and that his attack was not coordinated with ISIS.  The government has a good argument.  Even assuming Saipov had no ISIS ties, he fully intended his act to contribute to ISIS’s sharia-supremacist cause. Plus, ISIS has responded by embracing Saipov, albeit after the fact. Still, the ISIS connection will be hotly contested. And, more to the point, neither the material-support charge nor the damaging-an-automobile charge is a death-penalty offense.

Of course, the criminal complaint is only the first step in the case, really just a means of keeping Saipov detained without bail, not the formal indictment on which he will ultimately be tried. When that indictment is filed, I am hopeful it will include charges of murder in aid of racketeering. This offense (section 1959) is a capital crime, prohibiting murder (as well as other violent crimes) committed “for the purpose of gaining entrance to” a racketeering enterprise. ISIS clearly qualifies as such an enterprise under federal law (under section 1961, it is a group of individuals associated in fact — even though not a legal entity — and it engages in acts of murder, among other depravities). Further, even if Saipov was not a member of ISIS before his killing spree, he was patently seeking entry into the network . . . and he succeeded in getting it. ISIS branded him “one of the caliphate soldiers” in its claim of responsibility.

All that said, this is not an easy prosecution — certainly not as easy as the blatant brutality of Saipov’s attack would make it appear.  I am quite confident that whichever judge is assigned to the case will deny the inevitable motions to dismiss death counts.  When we step back, a foolish outburst, even from the White House, is trivial juxtaposed to Saipov’s barbarity.  But understand that the judge will still be incensed over the need to address presidential ranting (particularly if it continues).  The prosecutors’ margin for error, already thin in a death case, will narrow all the more.  Not being a lawyer, Trump may not grasp how many ways a pissed-off judge — especially one who is philosophically opposed to capital punishment — can undermine a prosecutor’s case without formally tossing it out.

Prior related posts:

November 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Ohio legislator claims condemned inmates "don’t like" her bill to abolish death penalty

It was the headline of this local article, "Republicans join effort to abolish death penalty in Ohio," that first caught my attention. But a quote and claim within prompted the title of this post, and here are excerpts:

With another execution looming next week in Ohio, a Democratic lawmaker is pushing a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in the Buckeye State. Although similar tries in three previous legislative sessions have gone nowhere, this time some Republicans are on board.

House Bill 389, sponsored by Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, would replace capital punishment with a life sentence without parole. “The consideration of death by the state would be off the table. ... This doesn’t mean they aren’t prosecuted to the fullest extent by the law,” Antonio said....

Antonio’s bill has bipartisan support. Reps. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, and Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, are co-sponsors. “It’s a life issue,” Antani said. He says the ability to put someone to death is “way too big of a power” for the government.

As a Roman Catholic, Riedel opposes capital punishment. “It’s my faith that has led me to believe to not support the death penalty,” Riedel said. “Mankind is not in charge of natural death.”

This is not the first legislative effort that has tried to put an end to capital punishment in Ohio. In fact, this is the fourth time Antonio has introduced the same bill to the General Assembly. “We are not saying do not punish the criminal,” Antonio said. “Punish the criminal through a sentence of life without parole.”...

“I’ve visited death row inmates and they don’t like my bill,” Antonio said. She said they view the death penalty as a way to put them out of their misery....

Almost 140 prisoners were on death row in Ohio as of Oct. 2, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction....

Despite the shift in public attitudes, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association continues to support capital punishment.... The association has maintained opposition to the repeal of the death penalty, said Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson, president of the group. “We believe it’s a deterrent factor of the most serious crimes,” Dobson said.

Notably, this DPIC webpage accounting of "volunteers" lists 7 Ohio executed killers "who continued to waive at least part of their ordinary appeals at the time of their execution."  This accounting suggests that more than 10% of Ohio's 55 executed killers would not have been supportive of the abolition of the death penalty, but it suggests that more than 85% of those executed would have liked to have seen the death penalty abolished.   Because Ohio has 143 current killers on death row, assuming the same based breakdown suggests that maybe as many as 18 condemned Ohio killers do not like the idea of capital abolition.  But I suspect well over 100 of the Ohio condemned would vote in favor of Rep. Nickie Antonio's bill.

November 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Prof Tribe makes standard policy arguments to advocate that Supreme Court "hold the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide"

Because Harvard Law Prof Laurence Tribe has long been among the nation's most highly regarded constitutional thinkers, I got excited when I saw he penned this new Washington Post opinion piece headlined "The Supreme Court should strike down the death penalty."  I was hoping that Prof Tribe might be presenting  some novel arguments for declaring capital punishment per se unconstitutional. But, as detailed below, his piece just makes familiar policy arguments against the punishment based on how it gets applied:

After more than 40 years of experimenting with capital punishment, it is time to recognize that we have found no way to narrow the death penalty so that it applies only to the “worst of the worst.”  It also remains prone to terrible errors and unacceptable arbitrariness.

Arizona’s death-penalty scheme is a prime example of how capital punishment in the United States unavoidably violates the Eighth Amendment’s requirement that the death penalty not be applied arbitrarily.  The Supreme Court will soon consider accepting a case challenging Arizona’s statute and the death penalty nationwide, in Hidalgo v. Arizona....

As a result of Arizona’s ever-expanding list of aggravating factors, 99 percent of those convicted of first-degree murder are eligible for execution.  This wholly fails to meet the constitutional duty to narrow the punishment to those murderers who are “most deserving” of the punishment.

It has also opened the door to disturbing racial trends.  Studies show that people in Arizona (and nationally) accused of murdering white victims are much more likely to receive the death penalty.  There are also geographic disparities: Some counties do not pursue the death penalty, while Maricopa County, where the defendant in the Hidalgo case was tried, imposed the death penalty at a rate 2.3 times higher than the rest of the state over a five-year period....

Instead of continuing, in the words of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, to “tinker with the machinery of death,” the court should hold the death penalty unconstitutional nationwide.

In doing so, the court would be recognizing our country’s movement away from capital punishment: Eleven states that have the death penalty on their books have not had an execution in the past 10 years — four states have suspended the death penalty, and 19 have abolished it entirely.  Each year, the death penalty continues to shrink as its use becomes not less but more arbitrary: Death sentences have declined by more than half in just the past five years.  Executions went from a modern-era high of 98 in 1999 to 20 in 2016. A handful of counties — just 2 percent — are driving the death penalty while the rest of the nation has moved on.

One reason jurors are increasingly uncomfortable in choosing death is the growing awareness that too many condemned people are, in fact, innocent.  In the modern era of the death penalty, 160 people have been exonerated and freed from death row because of evidence that they were wrongly convicted.  A painstaking study from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 4 out of every 100 people sentenced to death in the United States are innocent.  When even 1 in 1,000 would be unacceptable, the continued use of the death penalty undermines the public’s confidence in the criminal-justice system.

The court should acknowledge that capital punishment — in Arizona and everywhere else — violates human dignity and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. At the very least, it should enforce the requirement that the death penalty be available only in the rarest of circumstances.

Though supporters of the death penalty can readily dicker with some particulars in Prof Tribe's complaints about arbitrariness, "racial trends," geographic disparities and wrongful convictions in the capital context, I am always struck by the suggestion that these problems of capital administration justify constitutional abolition of the death penalty and only the death penalty.  Arbitrariness, "racial trends," geographic disparities and wrongful convictions plague just about every facet of our justice systems and implicate punishments in arenas ranging from life without parole to federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to plea practices to juvenile court adjudications.  If the policy concerns expressed by Prof Tribe here justifies the Supreme Court declaring one punishment per se unconstitutional, it arguably justifies declaring many other punishments per se unconstitutional.

Of course, the Supreme Court has long developed a unique jurisprudence for capital cases that dramatically shapes and limits its application, and many abolitionists like Prof Tribe would surely like to see the Court finally convert policy arguments against the death penalty into a categorical constitutional prohibition.  But, especially with so few members of the Court now showing any eagerness to take up Justice Breyer's suggestion in Glossip to reconsider the facial constitutionality of the death penalty, there seems little reason to expect that a majority of Justices will want to do what Prof Tribe is urging anytime soon.

November 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Is Prez Trump making a capital prosecution for NYC terror killer harder with his death penalty tweets?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Guardian article, headlined "Trump's 'alarming' death penalty call threatens suspect's chance of fair trial, experts warn." And that article was prompted by this series of tweets by Prez Trump this morning:

Prez Trump tweet around midnight on 11/2: "NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room.  He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!"

Prez Trump tweets around 8am on 11/2:  "Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system... ...There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!"

I welcome all sorts of comments from all sorts of litigators about whether and how they think these tweets might impact the federal prosecution of Sayfullo Saipov for mowing down people in NYC.

Prior related posts:

November 2, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

"Trump labels US justice system 'laughing stock' "

In this post last night, I flagged the prospect of yesterday's NYC terror attack becoming the first big federal capital prosecution of the Trump era.  But some sharp commenters surprised me by noting that it was not entirely clear that a federal criminal statute carrying the possibility of the death penalty was violated by Sayfullo Saipov.  Moreover, as reflected in this new CNN article which carries the headline that serves as the title of this post, it is not entirely clear that Prez Trump would be content with having Sayfullo Saipov subject to federal prosecution in the same way as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof:

President Donald Trump called for "quick" and "strong" justice for terror suspects in the wake of the deadly New York City attack, saying that it is not surprising terror attacks happen because the way the United States punishes terrorists is "a laughing stock."

Tuesday's terror attack in New York was the city's deadliest since 9/11.  Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a rented van down a bike path, law enforcement sources have said.  The attack killed six victims instantly, while two others died later.  New York politicians and officials quickly labeled the incident a terror attack.

Trump's comments, made during a White House Cabinet meeting Wednesday, malign the justice system for a lack of toughness.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the head of the so-called 'laughing stock' justice system, was in the room for this comment -- sitting across from Trump.

The President also said he would consider sending the attacker to the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay. "We also have to come up with punishment that's far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now," Trump told reporters. "They'll go through court for years. And at the end, they'll be -- who knows what happens."

He added: "We need quick justice and we need strong justice -- much quicker and much stronger than we have right now.  Because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughing stock.  And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, defending the President, claimed during her Wednesday briefing with reporters that Trump said "the process has people calling us a joke and calling us a laughing stock" -- which is not what Trump said.  Sanders also added that Trump was "voicing his frustration with the lengthy process that often comes with a case like this."...

Legal scholars are divided on whether Trump could actually send people to Guantanamo, with most acknowledging that such an action would set up an unprecedented constitutional showdown. Daphne Eviatar, the Human Rights Director with Amnesty International, slammed Trump's suggestion that he would consider sending Saipov to Guantanamo, stating that he was "a criminal suspect and should be treated as such by the US justice system."

Trump also derided political correctness in his Wednesday remarks, complaining that the country is "so politically correct that we're afraid to do anything."

Prior related post:

November 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Will NYC terror attack become the first big federal capital case for Trump's Department of Justice?

Despite the fact that Prez Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder sometimes hinted at having some ambivalence about the modern death penalty, the Justice Department during the Obama era consistently pursued and secured federal death sentences against high-profile mass murderers such as the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.  Now, sadly, we have our first high-profile mass murder of the Trump era in which the murderer lives on to be subject to criminal prosecution.  The headline, "NYC terror attack leaves 8 dead, several injured; suspect's notes pledged ISIS loyalty," and first few paragraphs of this Fox News report highlight some of the reasons I would expect this latest mass murderer to soon be facing a federal capital charge:

A suspect accused of plowing a pickup truck onto a bike path and into a crowd in New York City Tuesday, killing at least eight people and injuring 11 more, is not a U.S. citizen and is originally from Uzbekistan, federal law enforcement sources have confirmed to Fox News.

The suspected driver, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, had handwritten notes pledging his loyalty to the Islamic State terror network and shouted "Allahu Akbar" after the crash, law enforcement officials told Fox News. Saipov, who was shot by police, was taken into custody and remains hospitalized.

The suspect, from Ukbekistan, had a green card, a source told Fox News. Saipov came to the U.S. in 2010, and, according to The Associated Press, has a Florida license but may have been living in New Jersey.  Saipov was an Uber driver who had passed a background check, the company told Fox News.  It added that Saipov has now been banned from the app, and Uber has offered assistance to the FBI.

His notes, written in Arabic and pledging loyalty to ISIS, turned up in and near the vehicle, Fox News is told. In addition, The New York Post reported that investigators found "an image of the ISIS flag inside his vehicle."

Four of the injured were teachers and students who were riding on a short yellow school bus near Stuyvesant High School when they were hit by the suspect's Home Depot rental truck. One student remains in critical condition.

A victim killed in the attack was a Belgian citizen, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Belgium Didier Reyners tweeted on Tuesday. Three Belgians were also injured.  Others killed in the attack were Argentine citizens, according to Argentina's Foreign Ministry. Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported five of the eight people killed were Argentines traveling in the U.S. on a celebratory vacation.

As I have said after other similar horrible mass killing incidents, jurisdictions that retain the death penalty presumably do so in order to have the ultimate punishment available for these kinds of ultimate crimes.  Especially because both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions have be express supporters of the death penalty, I would be truly shocked if Sayfullo Saipov is not soon a capital defendant.

October 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"What Constitutes 'Consideration' of Mitigating Evidence?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Emad Atiq and Erin Lynn Miller. Here is the abstract:

Capital sentencers are constitutionally required to “consider” any mitigating evidence presented by the defense.  Under Lockett v. Ohio and its progeny, neither statutes nor common law can exclude mitigating factors from the sentencer’s consideration or place conditions on when such factors may be considered.  We argue that the principle underlying this line of doctrine is broader than courts have so far recognized.

A natural starting point for our analysis is judicial treatment of evidence that the defendant suffered severe environmental deprivation (“SED”), such as egregious child abuse or poverty.  SED has played a central role in the Court’s elaboration of the “consideration” requirement.  It is often given what we call “narrow-scope consideration,” because its mitigating value is conditioned on a finding that the deprivation, or a diagnosable illness resulting from it, was an immediate cause of the crime.  We point out, first, that the line of constitutional doctrine precluding statutory and precedential constraints on the consideration of mitigating evidence rests on a more general principle that “consideration” demands an individualized, moral — as opposed to legalistic — appraisal of the evidence.  When judges determine mitigating significance based on precedential reasoning or judge-made rules they fail to give a reasoned moral response to the evidence.  We articulate a three-factor test for when legalistic thinking prevents a judge from satisfying the constitutional requirement.  Narrow-scope consideration of SED evidence, in many jurisdictions, fails the test.

We contend, second, that, when the capital sentencer is a judge rather than a jury, she has a special responsibility to refrain from narrow scope consideration of mitigating evidence.  The Constitution requires that death sentences must be consistent with community values.  Broad scope consideration of mitigating evidence ensures that the diverse moral views of the community are brought to bear on the question of death-deservingness before a capital sentence is issued.

October 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"A Culture that is Hard to Defend: Extralegal Factors in Federal Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Jon Gould and Kenneth Leon. Here is the abstract:

Empirical research has exposed a troubling pattern of capital punishment in the United States, with extralegal factors such as race, class, and gender strongly correlated with the probability of a death sentence.  Capital sentencing also shows significant geographic disparities, although existing research tends to be more descriptive than explanatory.  This study offers an alternative conception of local legal culture to explain place-based variation in the outcomes of federal capital trials, accounting for the level of attorney time and expert resources granted by the federal courts to defend against a death sentence.

Using frequentist and Bayesian methods — supplemented with expert interviews — we empirically assess the processes determining the total allocation of defense resources in federal death penalty trials at the peak of the federal death penalty — between 1998 and 2004. Our findings strongly connect extralegal factors to the lowest levels of defense resources, which in turn correlate with a higher risk of a death sentence.  Far from being idiosyncratic discrepancies, these are systemic and systematic extralegal factors that stand between a defendant and his opportunity to defend against a death sentence.  Ultimately, we argue for a reconceptualization of extralegal influences and the relationship between local legal culture and capital case outcomes.

October 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

"The Right Way: More Republican lawmakers championing death penalty repeal"

The-Right-Way-Thumbnail-232x300The title of this post is the title of this new report released this past week by the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.  Here is its executive summary and part of its introduction:

More Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it.  This report documents that shift by analyzing sponsorship of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures between 2000 and 2017.

During the first part of this time period, from 2000 to 2012, Republican sponsorship of legislation to end the death penalty was relatively rare, with the number of Republican sponsors per year never exceeding single digits. But that has changed during the past five years, when there has been a significant increase in the number of Republican sponsors of repeal legislation.

In 2016 and 2017, dozens of Republican lawmakers sponsored death penalty repeal bills. In fact, during these two years, Republicans constituted around a third of all sponsors of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures. As these data show, death penalty repeal efforts are becoming more bipartisan in many states.

These developments come as a number of conservatives have coalesced under the banner of Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP) to raise concerns about the death penalty in the media and other forums. Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays, the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life.

Such concerns are increasingly impacting policy debates in state legislatures, among grassroots conservatives, and between conservative faith and party leaders. For many of us, our conservative principles inevitably lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is a failed government program that must end....

Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty launched in March 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  At that time, death penalty use was rapidly declining. The number of executions was down to less than half of its peak in 1999. Annual death sentences were down to just over one quarter of their record high in 1996, and public support was down 20 points from its highest point in 1994....

Some of the biggest death sentencing drops occurred in reliably red states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana. Many point to the action of a Republican governor in January 2000 as the death penalty’s turning point when Illinois’ then-Governor, Republican George Ryan, imposed the nation’s first state-based moratorium on executions. This set off a wave of increased scrutiny and institutional opposition to the death penalty. That same year, New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, only to have its Democratic governor veto it.

Despite this history of efforts from Republicans, death penalty repeal was still largely seen as a liberal concern.

CCATDP’s launch in 2013 put conservative death penalty opposition on the national radar. For many conservatives, our launch was their first exposure to the conservative case against the death penalty.  For many others, it was the first time they realized they weren’t alone.

Since then, dozens of national, state, and local conservative leaders have lent their support to CCATDP.  Eleven local CCATDP branches have formed in states across the country. More than 1,400 media stories have included our conservative take on the death penalty. Among those, we have appeared on conservative talk radio stations in every state in the country. And Republican lawmakers have taken on death penalty repeal in statehouses from Virginia to Washington, Louisiana to Utah.

This report documents this last point – the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty. It includes profiles of several Republican lawmakers who are leading the way, and it highlights some of the other trends that helped contribute to this rise.

October 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, October 27, 2017

"How to Assess Real World Application of a Capital Sentencing Statute: A Response to Professor Chad Flanders's Comment"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by John Mills now available via SSRN. As the title indicates, this piece is a response to a recent article by Chad Flanders, blogged here, about capital sentencing procedures. Here is the abstract:

In assessing the constitutionality of a capital sentencing regime, the raw number of aggravating factors is irrelevant. What matters is their scope.  To pass constitutional muster, aggravating factors (or the equivalent) must narrow the scope of death eligibility to the worst-of-the-worst.  Professor Chad Flanders wants courts to ignore empirical assessments of the scope of aggravating circumstances and uses an imagined State of Alpha as his jumping off point.  This response to Prof. Flanders makes the case for looking at the actual operation of a law, not just its reach in the abstract.  This response focuses on Arizona’s capital sentencing regime to illustrate the importance of understanding the real world operation of the law and discusses the well-established basis in law and policy for relying on empirical studies in support of narrowing claims.

Prior related post:

October 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gallup reports reduced levels of support for death penalty in US

Tfkakmgl20mit7ddmcueeqAs reported in this new posting from Gallup, "Americans' support for the death penalty has dipped to a level not seen in 45 years. Currently, 55% of U.S. adults say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers." Here is more:

The latest results, based on an Oct. 5-11 Gallup poll, continue a trend toward diminished death penalty support as many states have issued moratoria on executions or abolished capital punishment.  Gallup first asked about the death penalty using the current question format in 1936. Support has generally been 60% or higher throughout most of the past 80 years, but has been as low as 42% and as high as 80%.

The low point came in 1966 during a period spanning the late 1950s through early 1970s when a series of court cases challenged the legality of capital punishment. This culminated with the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia that halted all U.S. executions. Three months before that ruling, 50% of Americans said they favored the death penalty.  Four months after it, 57% were in favor, the last time support was below 60%.

State legislatures responded to the Furman ruling by rewriting state laws to address the high court's concerns that the death penalty was not applied fairly.  Those new laws were deemed constitutional, leading to the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s. Death penalty support generally increased from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, peaking at 80% in 1994, a time when Americans named crime as the most important problem facing the nation.

Most of the decline in death penalty support in recent years is attributable to a drop in support among Democrats. In the early 2000s, consistent majorities of Democrats favored capital punishment -- but their support has been below 50% in each of the past five years, including just 39% in the current poll.

In contrast, Republicans continue to largely back the death penalty, with typically around eight in 10 in favor of the practice, though slightly fewer, 72%, do so in the current poll.  Independents' support is similar to the national average, at 58%, but has been lower the past three years than it was in most of the previous two decades....

Currently, 39% of Americans say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, 26% say it is used too much, and 26% say its use is about right.  Those views have been fairly steady in recent years but reflect a decline since 2010 in the percentage saying the death penalty is not used often enough.  That decline has mostly been accompanied by an increase in the percentage saying it is used too often.

Attitudes about the fairness and usage of the death penalty correspond with basic support or opposition toward capital punishment more generally.  Thus, the declines in recent years in the percentage of U.S. adults who say the death penalty is applied fairly or who are critical of how often it is used are largely related to the decline in basic death penalty support.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has a few comments about these Gallup numbers, including this important observation:

The question Gallup has asked since 1936 is, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" The question is misleading as it asks about the death penalty for murder generally rather than just the worst murders. So understood, I would answer that question "no" myself. Gallup seems oblivious to the deficiency in this question, though, and regularly headlines the results in its reports. This year's "favor" answer to that question is the lowest since March 1972 (before Furman v. Georgia), and that is the headline on their report.

October 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lengthy look into latest significant(?) execution in Alabama

This lengthy local article, headlined "'I hate you': Inside the execution chamber as Alabama cop-killer put to death," provides an extended account of the lethal injection process to complete the sentence given to Torrey McNabb for murdering a police officer back in 1997. The folks at the Death Penalty Information Center suggest in this posting that the execution is significant because of how long the lethal injection process took.  In contrast, as evidenced by posts here and here, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences instead found significant the willingness of the Supreme Court to vacate lower court stays concerning executions protocols to ensure this execution went forward.

I have put a question mark in the title of this post because I am not sure any individual executions or individual stay ruling are really all that significant in the long-running litigious lethal injection wars.  Some lower court judges still seem inclined to find problems in nearly every possible state lethal injection plan, while a majority of the Supreme Court Justices seem now content that the latest standard approaches states have been adopting are sufficient for constitutional purposes. This leads me to predict continued lower-court legal wrangling that gums up the works of the machinery of death, but still allows a few states to complete an execution or two every so often.

Notably, this DPIC review of yearly executions indicates that this latest Alabama execution was the 21st of 2017, meaning this year already represents an uptick in execution compared to 2016.  But it also means that we are still on pace this year to have the second or maybe third fewest years executions in a quarter century. 

UPDATE: This new USA Today article, headlined "Executions rise in 2017, but downward trend continues," provides a broader context for recent developments. It starts this way:

The nation's rapidly declining rate of executions has leveled off, but opponents of capital punishment say the death penalty remains on borrowed time. The execution Thursday of Alabama cop killer Torrey McNabb was the 21st this year, marking the first time that number has risen since 2009. The 2017 total could approach 30 before the year is out, depending on last-minute legal battles.

That ends a relatively steady drop in executions since 2009, when there were 52. Only three times has the annual number increased since executions peaked at 98 in 1999.

Several factors have contributed to this year's hiatus in the broader trend. Eight states carried out executions, a spike from recent years. Among them were Arkansas, which executed four prisoners over eight days in April before its supply of lethal injection drugs expired, and Florida, which had halted executions for 18 months after the Supreme Court found its sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

Other executions this year have illustrated the problems opponents highlight in their quest to end capital punishment. Claims of innocence and requests for additional forensic testing went unheeded. Faced with complaints from pharmaceutical companies, some states used secretive methods to obtain drugs for lethal injections. And amid charges of racial disparities, nearly all the murder victims were white.

Yet another issue will be on display during oral arguments at the Supreme Court next week: whether indigent defendants in capital cases must prove they need more experienced lawyers and resources before they will be provided.

Despite all those factors, death penalty opponents say they're not worried about the slight uptick in executions. They note that three-, five- and 10-year trends remain down.

October 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

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 (3)

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)