Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence

The Supreme Court handed down three opinion this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:

A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.

Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....

Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....

Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....

[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:

Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.  But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here.  The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.

February 22, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reversing course, Florida Supreme Court allows capital prosecutions to proceed while state legislature still working through Hurst fix

As explained in this local article, on Monday the Florida Supreme Court issued a new ruling about the administration of the death penalty, and issue which has been a big mess for the state since the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling last year.  Here are the basics:

In what was described as an “about-face” after a previous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered that death penalty cases can proceed, even with an unconstitutional law still on the books. The order came as the Legislature prepares to address a pair of Florida high court rulings last fall that struck down the state’s most recent death-penalty sentencing scheme as unconstitutional and effectively halted capital cases.

In a pair of October opinions, the state court ruled that a new law — passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida — was unconstitutional because it required only 10 jurors to recommend death “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.” The October majority opinion in the case of Larry Darnell Perry also found that the new law “cannot be applied to pending prosecutions.”

But in a reversal of that decision Monday, the majority ruled that capital cases can move forward, even before lawmakers fix the statute. Attorney General Pam Bondi hailed the ruling, saying in a statement it “provides our courts with the clarification needed to proceed with murder cases in which the death penalty is sought.”...

The majority on Monday decided that the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions — and is constitutional — “if 12 jurors unanimously determine that a defendant should be sentenced to death.”

But in her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente argued that what could be a “temporary” fix, until lawmakers address the issue, could lead to more litigation. “Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislature, not this (Supreme) Court, to enact legislation curing the act’s fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to be imposed in Florida,” Pariente wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Peggy Quince.

But [House Judiciary Chairman Chris] Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the decision “finally” tells lower courts they can proceed with capital cases. “That is what I think people within the criminal justice system would expect. What they did not expect is to have a paralysis created and that’s what the court had done. Today they have alleviated that paralysis by at least allowing cases to proceed,” he said.

Defense lawyers, however, took a harsher view. “As a society, we rely upon court precedent to determine how to interpret and apply the laws. The (Supreme) Court’s about-face within these opinions is confounding. They also seem incongruent with the court’s unanimous plea, in (a case known as) Steele, to the Legislature to fix what the court said it couldn’t,” 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, told The News Service. Mills was referring to a 2005 opinion in State vs. Steele in which the court urged the Legislature to require a unanimous jury vote, rather than the previous simple majority vote, in capital-case proceedings.

While Monday’s opinion may have resolved questions about how the courts can proceed, for now, it likely won’t slow down the Legislature’s rush to address the issue early in the session that begins March 7. “We still want to move it rapidly, get it up and out to make sure there’s no question that this is what the statute says and that we have a working death penalty scheme in the state of Florida,” Sprowls said.

Sprowls’ committee is slated to consider a measure (HB 527) Tuesday that would do away with the 10-2 jury recommendations and instead require unanimity for death sentences to be imposed. A Senate panel will give a final vetting to a similar proposal the following day. The issue deals only with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases, after jurors unanimously find defendants guilty of crimes. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service — before the court’s decision Monday — they wanted to send a death penalty measure requiring unanimous jury recommendations to Gov. Rick Scott by the end of the session’s first week.

“My position on it is that you have about 200 death penalty cases that are in abeyance right now, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and I can’t think of anything more important to the family of victims and also to a person charged with a capital felony that their cases proceed justly and with due process through the criminal justice system,” Negron said Wednesday. “To me, it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that the law is appropriately enforced. That would be a top priority.” The cases “in abeyance” referred to more than half of Florida’s Death Row inmates who are eligible for new sentencing hearings under a separate state court ruling addressing retroactivity of the Hurst decision, which was predicated on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona.

The full Florida Supreme Court ruling discussed here is available at this link.

February 21, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) authors lengthy dissent to denial of cert in Alabama lethal injection protocol challenge

This morning, the US Supreme Court got back to work through the issuance of this lengthy order list.  The one cert grant was involves a federal criminal case, Class v. US, concerning whether a defendant who pleads guilty can still challenge the constitutionality his statute of conviction (SCOTUSblog case page here).  But the part of the order list likely to get the most attention is this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari  authored by Justice Sotomayor in a Alabama capital case concern lethal injection protocols.  Here is the start, heart and end of the extended opinion (which Justice Breyer joined in full):

Nearly two years ago in Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), the Court issued a macabre challenge. In order to successfully attack a State’s method of execution as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, a condemned prisoner must not only prove that the State’s chosen method risks severe pain, but must also propose a “known and available” alternative method for his own execution. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 13, 15).

Petitioner Thomas Arthur, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row, has met this challenge. He has amassed significant evidence that Alabama’s current lethal-injection protocol will result in intolerable and needless agony, and he has proposed an alternative — death by firing squad.  The Court of Appeals, without considering any of the evidence regarding the risk posed by the current protocol, denied Arthur’s claim because Alabama law does not expressly permit execution by firing squad, and so it cannot be a “known and available” alternative under Glossip.  Because this decision permits States to immunize their methods of execution — no matter how cruel or how unusual — from judicial review and thus permits state law to subvert the Federal Constitution, I would grant certiorari and reverse.  I dissent from my colleagues’ decision not to do so....

The decision below permits a State, by statute, to bar a death-row inmate from vindicating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment. Under this view, even if a prisoner can prove that the State plans to kill him in an intolerably cruel manner, and even if he can prove that there is a feasible alternative, all a State has to do to execute him through an unconstitutional method is to pass a statute declining to authorize any alternative method.  This cannot be right....

The decision below is all the more troubling because it would put an end to an ongoing national conversation — between the legislatures and the courts — around the methods of execution the Constitution tolerates.  The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments “is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791” but instead derives from “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).  Evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle: States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time.  Science then reveals that — unknown to the previous generation — the States’ chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering.  A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues.  The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation.  States should not be permitted to silence it by statute....

Twice in recent years, this Court has observed that it “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 48 (plurality opinion); Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (same).  In Glossip, the majority opinion remarked that the Court “did not retreat” from this nonintervention strategy even after Louisiana strapped a 17-year-old boy to its electric chair and, having failed to kill him the first time, argued for a second try — which this Court permitted. Id., at ___– ___ (slip op., at 3–4).  We should not be proud of this history.  Nor should we rely on it to excuse our current inaction.

February 21, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

BYOD in Az: spotlighting Arizona's (cheeky?) drug acquisition provision in its latest execution protocol

This AP article reports on a notable an unusual provision in Arizona's new execution protocol.  The article is headlined "Arizona to death-row inmates: Bring your own execution drugs," and here are details:

The recent revelation that condemned prisoners in Arizona can now provide the lethal drugs to be used in their executions has received attention around the world and raised questions about the state's rules for the death penalty.

The novel policy has drawn sneers from defense attorneys who were puzzled as to why the state would think that they would assist in killing their clients.  It has inspired wisecracks about Arizona's penchant for taking on envelope-pushing criminal justice policies and left some readers on social media asking whether the bring-your-own-drugs policy was actually the product of a news parody website.

Criminal defense lawyers and death penalty experts say they have never heard of a state suggesting that condemned inmates can line up drugs to be used in their executions.  However unlikely it is that any of Arizona's 119 death-row inmates will take up the offer, the change is a reflection of the difficulties that Arizona, like other states, faces in finding execution drugs now that European pharmaceutical companies have blocked the use of their products for lethal injections.

Executions in Arizona have been on hold since the 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller and who took nearly two hours to die.  The state will not be able to carry out executions until the resolution of a lawsuit that alleges Arizona has abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in past executions.

The state hasn't publicly explained its aim in taking on the new policy, which surfaced last month in the lawsuit. The Arizona Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, didn't respond to requests for comment. The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Under the policy, the state's top prison official would be required, in one execution drug protocol, to use the barbiturate pentobarbital that's obtained by lawyers for inmates or someone acting on their behalf.  The corrections director also would have the choice of picking one of two drug protocols involving the sodium pentothal if the barbiturate is obtained on behalf of a prisoner....

Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents the inmates in the lawsuit,... explained that the policy is unfeasible because the Controlled Substances Act prohibits attorneys and inmates from getting the drugs. "As a lawyer, I just can't go to local Walgreens and pick up a couple of vials of pentobarbital," Baich said.

It's the responsibility of the state, not condemned prisoners, to carry out executions, Baich added. The policy would seem to appeal to inmates who have abandoned their appeals and want to speed up their executions. But Baich said the Controlled Substances Act would still prevent those prisoners from getting lethal-injection drugs.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has been critical of the way executions are carried out in the United States, said the policy also raises ethical concerns. Death-penalty lawyers are supposed to zealously represent their clients and have a duty not to take actions that harm them, Dunham said. "No one has done it before, and the fact that it is impossible, impractical, illegal and unethical may have something to do with that," he said.

Timothy Agan, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix who has handled several death penalty cases, said he can't imagine condemned prisoners lining up to seek their own execution drugs and couldn't foresee a situation in which the policy would be used.

Arizona's revised executions protocol is available at this link, and on page 28 one finds this language (with my emphasis added):

The Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol will be used for the scheduled execution. This decision will be provided to the inmate and their counsel of record in writing at the time the state files a request for Warrant of Execution in the Arizona Supreme Court. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical pentobarbital in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A, then the Director shall use the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A as the drug protocol for execution. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are unable to obtain such pentobarbital, but are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical sodium pentothal in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart B or the three-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart C, then the Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol (Chart B or Chart C) will be used for the scheduled execution.

February 18, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"The American Death Penalty Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Brandon Garrett, Alexander Jakubow and Ankur Desai. Here is the abstract:

American death sentences have both declined and become concentrated in a small group of counties. In his dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross in 2014, Justice Stephen Breyer argued today’s death penalty is unconstitutional, noting that from 2004 to 2006, “just 29 counties (fewer than 1% of counties in the country) accounted for approximately half of all death sentences imposed nationwide.”  That decline has become more dramatic.  Just fifty-one defendants were sentenced to death in 2015 in thirty-eight counties.  In 2016, just thirty defendants were sentenced to death in twenty-seven counties. In the mid-1990s, by way of contrast, over three hundred people were sentenced to death in as many as two hundred counties per year.

While scholars and journalists have increasingly commented on this decline and speculated as to what might be causing it, empirical research has not examined it.  This Article reports the results of statistical analysis of data hand-collected on all death sentencing, by county, for the entire modern era of capital punishment, from 1990 to 2016.  This analysis of death sentencing data from 1990 to 2016, seeks to answer the question why a few counties, but not the vast bulk of the others, still impose death sentences.  We examine state and county-level changes in murder rates, population, victim race, demography, and other characteristics that might explain shifting death sentencing patterns.

We find that death sentences are strongly associated with urban, densely populous counties.  Second, we find that death sentences are strongly associated with counties that have large black populations.  Third, we find homicide rates are related to death sentencing in three ways: contemporaneously within and between death sentencing counties, lagged within and between death sentencing counties. and that counties with more white victims of homicide have more death sentencing.  Fourth, we find that death sentencing is associated with inertia or the number of prior death sentences within a county.  These results suggest what remains of the American death penalty is quite fragile and reflects a legacy of racial bias and idiosyncratic local preferences.  We conclude by discussing the practical and legal implications of these trends for the much-diminished death penalty and for criminal justice more broadly.

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ohio Gov forced to delay scheduled executions yet again due to lethal injection ltigation

As this local article reports, "Gov. John Kasich has delayed eight scheduled executions because of continuing litigation over lethal injection drugs." Here are the details:

The governor used his executive clemency authority to reschedule the executions, beginning with Ronald Phillips who was to be put to death on Wednesday for the 1993 rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans. Phillips will now be executed on May 10, under the revised schedule.

The delays follow the Jan. 26 decision by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Craig Merz barred the state's use of a three-drug protocol, declaring it unconstitutional, and blocked the pending execution of Phillips and two other inmates. The state has appealed the ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"While Ohio is confident its appeal will ultimately be successful ... the appellate court's scheduling will not allow the matter to be resolved in time to allow the state to move forward with its current execution dates," Kasich's office said in a statement this morning. "Accordingly, these delays are necessary to allow the judicial process to come to a full resolution, and ensure that the state can move forward with the executions."

Merz's lengthy order cited problems with executions in other states with the use of midazolam, one of the three drugs in Ohio's protocol, along with rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Ohio hasn't had an execution since Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire choked, gasped and struggled against his restraints for much of the 26 minutes it took for him to die. Midazolam was one of the drugs used to execute McGuire.

The revised schedule after Phillips [includes] Gary Otte, moved to June 13 from March 15 [and] Raymond Tibbetts, moved to July 26 from April 12.

Ever since Ohio announced it had acquired execution drugs and had a new execution protocol in early Fall 2016, I have been expecting and sort-of predicting that Ohio would finally find a way to get its machinery of death back up and running again in 2017. Given some prior Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court rulings, I continue to think Ohio will be able to complete some executions this year. But, of course, lethal injection litigation can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never quite know what you are gonna get.

February 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mississippi taking steps to have firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods again

As reported in this new Fox News piece, "Mississippi lawmakers want to bring back the firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods, a step three other states have taken recently, but for a different reason." Here is more:

Oklahoma reintroduced the gas chamber, Utah the firing squad and Tennessee the electric chair in response to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates.

Mississippi legislator Andy Gipson said he introduced House Bill 638 in response to lawsuits filed by “liberal, left-wing radicals” challenging the use of lethal injection drugs as cruel and unusual punishment. "I have a constituent whose daughter was raped and killed by a serial killer over 25 years ago, and that person's still waiting for the death penalty. The family is still waiting for justice," Gipson told the Associated Press.

Gipson’s bill passed the House Wednesday, 74-43, and moves to the Senate for more debate.

Mississippi hasn't been able to acquire the execution drugs it once used, and it last carried out an execution in 2012. The state has 47 people on death row, and some have been there for decades.

The 33 states with the death penalty all have lethal injection as the primary method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center and its executive director, Robert Dunham. The center says only Oklahoma and Utah have firing squads as an option; eight states have electrocution, five have the gas chamber, and three have hanging.

The firing squad became an option in Utah in 2015. That same year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to use nitrogen gas as an option. Tennessee enacted a law bringing back the electric chair in 2014.

“It’s interesting that what we anticipated would happen is happening,” Dunham told FoxNews.com Friday. “As states are having difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections, they’re looking at different options.” He expects legal challenges in states that reintroduce old execution methods. “What you will see is when states change their method of execution, there are invariably legal challenges that arise,” Dunham said.

Jim Craig, an attorney who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that each of the proposed new methods of executions would be challenged in court. "Every single one, in essence, just injects a whole new series of issues in the existing case," said Craig, who is with the New Orleans-based Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. He said with the firing squad, for example, the state would have to set protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of torture, and he doubts the Department of Corrections has prepared to do that....

Oklahoma officials told Fox 25 in November they haven’t established protocols to use nitrogen gas as a backup execution method but have heard from a company offering pain-free and mistake-free gas chamber executions. The company sent a letter to Oklahoma Department of Corrections guaranteeing the “demise of any mammalian life within four minutes,” according to the station.

February 10, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Third Circuit finds death row inmates granted resentencing stuck in solitary confinement have protected liberty interests

A unanimous panel ruling by the Third Circuit yesterday in Williams v. Secretary of PA Dep't of Corrections, No. 14-1469 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2017) (available here) spotlights an interesting connection between death row and solitary confinement.  Here is the start of the opinion and a key paragraph from its heart:

We are asked to decide whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that there is and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore limits the State’s ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions is no longer operative.  However, we also hold that, because this principle was not clearly established before today, the prison officials (“Defendants”) in this consolidated appeal are entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, we will affirm the district courts’ grants of summary judgment in favor of Defendants based on qualified immunity. In reaching this conclusion, we stress that this liberty interest, as explained more fully below, is now clearly established....

In our ruling today, we now explicitly add our jurisprudential voice to this growing chorus [of concerns about the use of solitary confinement]. In doing so, we rely, in part, upon the scientific consensus and the recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. Those decisions advance our inquiry into the unique, yet analogous, scenario presented here. Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty.  Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row.  The State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.

February 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

"The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Kevin Barry, and here is its abstract:

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

Now, 40 years after Gregg, the question is being asked once more.  But this time seems different. That is because, for the first time in our Nation’s history, the answer is likely to be yes.  The Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy at its helm, is poised to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.  No matter what the Court’s answer, one thing is certain: dignity will figure prominently in its decision.

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

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

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

February 7, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Florida legislature finally moving toward really fixing its capital procedures after Hurst

As reported in this AP article, "with death penalty cases grinding to a halt across the state, the Florida Legislature is finally taking its first — and probably only steps — to fix the law so prosecutors can resume cases once again." Here is more:

Legislators are moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in cases where the death penalty is being sought. Just a year ago legislators rejected the idea, but the state Supreme Court last October struck down a 2016 law that said the death penalty could be imposed after a 10-2 jury vote.

A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill requiring a unanimous jury verdict and a similar measure is being considered in the state House. The legislation could be among the first bills passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott when the session officially kicks off in March.

"It is important that we have an orderly system of justice in place for both families of victims and individuals charged with serious crimes," said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This legislation removes ambiguity from our death penalty statute, which will help reduce delays in due process for all parties involved in death penalty cases."

Bracy's bill, however, doesn't address other questions raised by recent court decisions, including whether or not the state's nearly 400 current death row inmates deserve a new sentencing hearing if a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty. Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said he wants to keep the legislation narrow to get it passed quickly....

Bracy wanted to amend his bill so all current death row inmates would be treated the same but said he didn't have the votes to get the proposal adopted. Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, complained that legislators should be taking a comprehensive look at the death penalty to avoid having to deal with the issue year after year. But he said that some legislators are concerned they would look "weak" on the death penalty.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee reported that there are more than 300 death penalty cases pending across the state, including 66 that are now ready for trial. Prosecutors have put some of these trials on hold while they wait for the Legislature to act.

February 7, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 06, 2017

The hardest of cases for death penalty abolitionists: convicted murderer who keeps murdering while in prison

This local news report of an apparent murder by an Ohio inmate already convicted in two other murders serves as a reminder that there are limits on how much you can incapacitate some persons who seem intent on being violent.  The article is headlined "Two-time murderer suspected of killing another inmate, " and here are the ugly details:

A two-time murderer is suspected of killing another inmate, a Franklin County man, aboard a prison transport bus while it traveled south on Rt. 23 from Columbus on Wednesday evening.  The body of David L. Johnson, 61, was found in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction bus on Thursday evening when it stopped to deliver him to the Ross Correctional Institution, said Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt.

Johnson, who was serving an eight-year sentence for sexual battery, apparently was strangled; Casey Pigge, 28, is "absolutely the suspect" in the death, Schmidt said. Other inmates also were locked into a caged section of the bus with Johnson and Pigge, but apparently did not alert the guards and driver at the front of the bus of the assault, Schmidt said. The guards apparently cannot see back into all sections of the bus, he said.  The inmates were wearing handcuffs, and perhaps belly chains, but could move around, the prosecutor said.

Inmates, including from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville and the Ross Correctional Institution near Chillicothe, were taken aboard the bus to Columbus for medical treatment on Thursday and were on the return leg of the trip south when the apparent slaying occurred.

Pigge is serving a 30-year to life sentence at the Lucasville prison for the 2008 murder of Rhonda Sommers, 52, the mother of his then-girlfriend. Pigge was convicted of stabbing the woman and then setting her apartment on fire.  Last week, Pigge pleaded guilty to using a cement block last year to repeatedly strike to kill his cellmate, Luther Wade, 26, of Springfield, at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County. Wade, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated burglary, was repeatedly struck in the head. Pigge faces another life sentence in the slaying.

Schmidt... questioned Pigge having access to other inmates aboard the bus given his history of violence. Investigators are working to determine if Johnson died in Franklin County, Pickaway County or Ross Country as the bus traveled south, Schmidt said. "He crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block. You would think the sensible thing to do would be to make sure he doesn't have free access to other inmates at any time.  Apparently that is not an issue for the folks at DRC," Schmidt said.

Given that Pigge is seemingly due to get an LWOP sentence for previously having "crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block," he would be essentially getting a "free" murder if he were not at least potentially subject to something worse than LWOP for his latest murder.  Moreover, given than Pigge has now slaughtered two fellow inmates during his first decade of incarceration, the only real public safety options for him would seem to be long-term solitary confinement or the death penalty. 

I am not asserting that folks like Pigge make the death penalty a must, but I am saying that it seems quite difficult to figure out what a just and effective punishment is for a murderer who seems keen and able to keep killing even while incarcerated.

February 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, February 04, 2017

"The Death Penalty as Torture From the Dark Ages to Abolition"

9781611639261The title of this post is the title of this new book authored by John Bessler about to be published by Carolina Academic Press.  Here is the blurb from the Press webpage:

During the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe’s monarchs often resorted to torture and executions. The pain inflicted by instruments of torture — from the thumbscrew and the rack to the Inquisition’s tools of torment — was eclipsed only by horrific methods of execution, from breaking on the wheel and crucifixion to drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. The English “Bloody Code” made more than 200 crimes punishable by death, and judicial torture—expressly authorized by law and used to extract confessions—permeated continental European legal systems. Judges regularly imposed death sentences and other harsh corporal punishments, from the stocks and the pillory, to branding and ear cropping, to lashes at public whipping posts.

In the Enlightenment, jurists and writers questioned the efficacy of torture and capital punishment. In 1764, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria — the father of the world’s anti–death penalty movement — condemned both practices. And Montesquieu, like Beccaria and others, concluded that any punishment that goes beyond absolute necessity is tyrannical. Traditionally, torture and executions have been viewed in separate legal silos, with countries renouncing acts of torture while simultaneously using capital punishment. The UN Convention Against Torture strictly prohibits physical or psychological torture; not even war or threat of war can be invoked to justify it. But under the guise of “lawful sanctions,” some countries continue to carry out executions even though they bear the indicia of torture.

In The Death Penalty as Torture, Prof. John Bessler argues that death sentences and executions are medieval relics. In a world in which “mock” or simulated executions, as well as a host of other non-lethal acts, are already considered to be torturous, he contends that death sentences and executions should be classified under the rubric of torture. Unlike in the Middle Ages, penitentiaries—one of the products of the Enlightenment—now exist throughout the globe to house violent offenders. With the rise of life without parole sentences, and with more than four of five nations no longer using executions, The Death Penalty as Torture calls for the recognition of a peremptory, international law norm against the death penalty’s use.

February 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

"The Predictable Disarray: Ignoring the Jury in Florida Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Both the United States Supreme Court, and the Florida Supreme Court have now made it clear that the Florida death penalty statutes that have been in use over the past 45 years are unconstitutional.  This result has been predicted since the original adoption of the statutes, and made clear by the Supreme Court's decisions in Sullivan v. Louisiana, Apprendi v. New Jersey, and Ring v. Arizona.

How the courts address the 393 prisoners currently on Florida's death row, sentenced to death under an unconstitutional statute, is yet to be determined. This paper reviews the history of the Florida death penalty statutes and provides a census of cases in Florida.

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

"Constitutional Liberty and the Progression of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Robert J. Smith and Zoe Robinson. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has long been interpreted by scholars and judges to provide very limited protections for criminal defendants.  This understanding of the Eighth Amendment claims that the prohibition is operationalized mostly to prevent torturous methods of punishment or halt the isolated use of a punishment practice that has fallen into long-term disuse.

This Article challenges these assumptions.  It argues that while this limited view of the Eighth Amendment may be accurate as a historical matter, over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally broadened the scope of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.  The Court’s contemporary Eighth Amendment jurisprudence — with its focus on categorical exemptions and increasingly nuanced measures of determining constitutionally excessive punishments — reflects an overt recognition that the fundamental purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect vulnerable citizens uniquely subject to majoritarian retributive excess.

Animating these developments is a conception of constitutional liberty that transcends the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, 2015’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, reflects a similar trajectory in the Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence.  Taken together, these doctrinal developments illustrate a concerted move to insert the Court as the independent arbiter of legislative excesses that undermine the basic right to human dignity by virtue of unnecessarily impinging upon individual liberty.  Ultimately, these liberty-driven developments signal new possibilities for the protection of defendant rights in a variety of contemporary contexts, including juvenile life without parole for homicide offenses, life without parole for non-violent drug offenses, the death penalty, certain mandatory minimum sentences, and the prolonged use of solitary confinement.

February 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Missouri completes fourth execution in US in 2017

As reported here by the AP, "nearly 19 years to the day that Susan Brouk and her two children were taken to a Missouri pond and killed, one of the men responsible for the crime was put to death Tuesday." Here is more:

Mark Christeson was given a lethal injection -- Missouri’s first execution since May. Christeson, 37, was hours away from execution in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay. This time, though, the court allowed the execution to proceed, and Gov. Eric Greitens declined a clemency request for Christeson, the first inmate to be put to death since the Republican took office.

As the execution drug was administered, Christeson appeared to mouth “I love you” a couple times to people who were gathered to watch the lethal injection on his behalf.  Soon, the inmate’s eyes closed.  He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. CST, eight minutes after the lethal injection, a Department of Corrections spokesman said.

The killings of Brouk, her 12-year-old daughter, Adrian, and 9-year-old son, Kyle, traumatized the rural area around the south-central Missouri town of Vichy.  “It was a heinous crime. I’m just happy to see justice finally served,” said Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman, who witnessed Christeson’s execution.  “I have regrets for the family that it took so long, but I hope it provides closure to them.” ...

The U.S. Supreme Court intervened in 2014 amid concerns about the ineptitude of Christeson’s earlier lawyers, who missed a 2005 deadline to file a federal appeal of his death sentence -- standard procedure in death penalty cases. Attorneys for Christeson again argued that he deserved a federal court review, and raised concerns about his mental competence, claiming he had an IQ of 74. But this time, the courts declined to step in.

Missouri executed 16 men from 2014 to 2015, second only to the 23 executions in Texas over the same two years.  Last year, Missouri had just one execution, largely because most of the 25 men on the state’s death row have appeals remaining or are unlikely to be executed due to medical or mental health concerns.

I have flagged that this execution was the fourth in the US in January 2017 because that is the most in a single month since last January.

February 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Texas completes its second execution of 2017

As reported in this AP piece, a "man convicted of a fatal robbery at a Dallas-area Subway shop just weeks after he was fired from his job there was executed Thursday night." Here are a few more details:

Terry Edwards, 43, received lethal injection for the $3,000 holdup at a Subway restaurant where two employees were shot to death in 2002. Asked by a warden if he had a final statement, Edwards replied: "I'm at peace with God. I hope y'all find peace in this." As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he began snoring quickly. Within about 30 seconds, all movement stopped.

He was pronounced dead at 10:17 p.m. CST, 23 minutes after the sedative began flowing into his arms. Edwards never looked at five relatives of the two murder victims who stood a few feet from him, looking through a window.

Edwards' execution, the second this year in Texas and the third nationally, was delayed about four hours until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected multiple last-day appeals that sought to halt his punishment. Lawyers for Edwards wanted to reopen his case to investigate claims that a court-appointed lawyer earlier in the appeals process provided deficient help by abandoning him. Attorneys also contended Dallas County prosecutors at his trial incorrectly portrayed Edwards as the shooter, that he was innocent of the shootings, that prosecutors manipulated evidence and testimony at his trial and improperly excluded black people from the jury. Edwards was black....

Mickell Goodwin, 26, and Tommy Walker, 34, were each shot in the head in the holdup. Walker, the store manager, had seven children and stepchildren. Goodwin was mother of two daughters. No one else was inside the store. "Tonight is a time for us to remember Mickey and Tommy," their families said in a statement following the execution. "Though this chapter of our journey is now over, we will always feel the loss of them in our lives."...

Edwards was on parole at the time of the shootings. He'd been released in October 1999 after prison time for car theft and possession with intent to deliver cocaine. The second man involved, Edwards' cousin, Kirk Edwards, turned himself in to police a day after the shootings. He had a previous criminal record for burglary and theft and now is serving 25 years for aggravated robbery for the sandwich shop case.

January 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (32)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Federal magistrate judge rules Ohio's new 3-drug lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional and blocks coming scheduled executions

As reported in this local piece, a "federal magistrate judge on Thursday barred the use of a three-drug cocktail the state of Ohio planned to use to execute death-row inmates, declaring the method the state prefers to be unconstitutional." Here is more about the opinion:

Magistrate Judge David Merz of Dayton also halted the executions of three inmates scheduled to be executed in the coming months, two of which came from Northeast Ohio. Merz, in his 119-page order, ruled that there were enough problems with all three of the drugs Ohio intends to use in its execution protocol to warrant this disallowance. Two states, Arizona and Florida, have discontinued the use of one of the drugs, named midazolam.

"The Court concludes that use of midazolam as the first drug in Ohio's present three-drug protocol will create a 'substantial risk of serious harm' or an 'objectively intolerable risk of harm' as required by (Supreme Court precedent)," Merz wrote.

The ruling is a success for the inmates challenging Ohio's execution protocols and anti-death-penalty advocates who have sought to chip away at the state's ability to execute people since executions resumed in 1999. It may be short lived, though, as the ruling is all but guaranteed to be appealed. A spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office said the office is reviewing the decision.

Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when it took killer Dennis McGuire 25 minutes to die from a previously unused execution drug combination. McGuire was administered a cocktail that included midazolam. Witnesses said he appeared to gasp several times during his execution and made loud snorting or snoring sounds.

State officials and the courts put executions on hold until the state picked a new lethal-injection drug combination of midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride last October. The challenge that led to Merz's ruling Thursday was also borne out of McGuire's execution. During a hearing earlier this month, Merz heard testimony on all three drugs. His ruling Thursday said that the state cannot use any cocktail that contained potassium chloride or rocuronium bromide, a paralytic agent, since the state told a court in a previous proceeding that it would not use such drugs during future executions....

Ohio has had trouble in recent years getting drugs to use for lethal injections in part because pharmaceutical companies don't want their products used for killing people. In 2014, state lawmakers passed a secrecy law hoping to encourage small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies to make its lethal-injection drugs. That law was challenged, though courts have declined to declare the law unconstitutional.

The full 199-page opinion In re Ohio Execution Protocol Litigation, No. 2:11-cv-1016 (S.D. Ohio Jan 26, 2017), is available at this link.  I have an inkling that the state of Ohio may get around to appealing the decision even before I get around to reading it in full because the state likely is eager to preserve the scheduled Feb 15 execution date for child murderer Ronald Phillips.

January 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Pro-Con: Death Penalty Exemption For Severly Mentally Ill"

The title of this post is the label given by a Cleveland paper to these two dueling commentaries addressing the recommendation from the Ohio Death Penalty Task Force (on which I had the honor of serving) to create a statutory exemption from capital punishment for people with serious mental illnesses. Here are the headlines and links to the commentaries:

January 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Questions about guilt phase theory of case and misconduct surround Texas death row inmate schedule for next execution

Texas is scheduled to carry out its second execution of 2017 tomorrow, but there are some seemingly serious questions about the guilty theory of the case and the prosecution's conduct.  A local article and a Slate commentary provides the particulars:

January 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (20)

Monday, January 23, 2017

SCOTUS denies cert on handful of Alabama cases raising Hurst and other issues

This most recent Relist Watch posting by John Elwood at SCOTUSblog noted that the Supreme Court had relisted a few times a few cases from Alabama raising various challenges to how that state rolls its tide toward death sentences.  But this new Supreme Court order list, released this morning, has all of the relisted Alabama capital cases now on a certiorari denied list.

Interestingly, it appears that a few method-of-execution cases that were previously relisted are not on the latest cert denied list.  My guess would be that this is because someone is working on a dissent from denial of cert, but you never know just what SCOTUS is up to.

January 23, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Noting that two death row inmates were among the latest batch of commutations by Prez Obama

I am intrigued and a bit surprised that there has not been more media attention surrounding the fact that two of the persons granted clemency by Prez Obama earlier this week were murderers on federal death row.   This posting at the Death Penalty Information Center reports on the basics, with also interesting links to some clemency materials:

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th.

Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty.

In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment."

Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die.

Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This new Marshall Project piece, headlined "How Obama Disappointed on the Death Penalty: Two commutations this week was less than many had hoped for," discusses these two clemencies while also suggesting that they provide only a little succor to the capital abolitionist community.

January 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Using execution protocol with midazolam, Virginia completes second execution of 2017

As reported in this Reuters piece headlined "Virginia inmate executed despite arguments against drug 'cocktail'," Virginia carried out an execution last night that was notable in part because of the type of lethal injection drugs acquired and utilized.  Here are the details:

Ricky Gray, 39, died by lethal injection at 9:42 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in an emailed statement.

Gray's lawyers filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday, saying that the three-drug combination could cause Gray unnecessary suffering and thereby violate constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.  Kinney told reporters after the execution there did not appear to be any complications with the injection.

According to Gray's stay request, the execution marks the first time a U.S. state has used two of the drugs — midazolam and potassium chloride — provided by a compounding pharmacy. Gray's lawyers argue that compounding pharmacies typically follow an informal recipe attempting to approximate the patented process approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration....  Gray's attorneys say that midazolam has already failed to render prisoners unconscious during executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have stopped making some drugs available for use in executions, and Virginia state law allows the vendor's identity to remain secret. Arizona last month reached a settlement with lawyers for death row inmates that would bar midazolam from use in executions.

Gray was sentenced to die for the 2006 slayings of sisters Ruby Harvey, 4, and Stella Harvey, 9, in Richmond. He also killed their parents, Bryan Harvey, 49, and Kathryn Harvey, 39. His accomplice, Ray Dandridge, was sentenced to life. The pair also killed Ashley Baskerville, 21, who had been a lookout when Gray killed the Harveys as well as her mother, Mary Tucker, 47, and stepfather Percyell Tucker, 55.

Gray has said he is willing to die by firing squad, which is not an option for executions in Virginia. Gray's execution marks the second in the United States this year.

I believe the execution protocol used in Virginia in this instance is similar to the protocol that Ohio wants to use to get back into the execution game next month, and thus I suspect Ohio correction officials are hoping this execution sets a precedent allowing Ohio to move forward. Ohio, notably, has had only one execution over the last three years because of problems acquiring lethal injection drugs. But if they get these problems worked out, there is every reason to suspect the state may get back into the habit of completing five or more executions every year because it has dozens of death row inmates with "serious" execution dates.

January 19, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Making a provocative case for constitutional amendments to enable more executions to drive down crime

I just noticed this recent commentary by Karl Spence titled "How Donald Trump and Friends Can Crush the Great Crime Wave" with the subheadline "A law-and-order constitutional amendment would speed up the process of justice." The piece is provocative and meandering and a bit dated as it suggests that constitutional protections given to criminals, especially with respect to the death penalty, accounts for the nation's crime problems. I recommend the piece in full because of its notable range of historical and rhetorical flourishes, and here is a taste:

Between 1960 and 1991, the per capita murder rate doubled. Property crime tripled. Robbery and forcible rape more than quadrupled, and aggravated assault — boosted by the same advances in emergency trauma care that retarded the murder rate — more than quintupled. Even after receding from its crest of the early ’90s, violent crime remains twice what it was two generations ago. And today, the mayhem is resurgent.

In the last half-century, crime has killed more Americans than died in all our country’s wars combined, save the Civil War.  Its toll dwarfs that of 9/11 — it even dwarfs that of the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004....

Enter Donald Trump. I was thrilled to hear him pronounce himself “the law-and-order candidate.” Such defiance of the PC gods helped him gain a convincing victory over Hillary Clinton. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will go from talking to thinking about crime, and then to actually doing what is necessary to reach the goal he set forth while accepting the party’s nomination: “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end.”...

For decades, some two-thirds of Americans have told pollsters they favor the death penalty for murder. Yet it’s capital punishment’s opponents who get their way nearly all the time.  In the past half-century, fewer than 1,500 murderers have been put to death in America; murderers, meanwhile, have killed more than 900,000 of us.

How many of those 900,000 innocent lives were lost needlessly?  How many could have been saved by a credible and effective deterrent? Studies have repeatedly shown that the death penalty can be such a deterrent when — and only when — it is actually enforced.  Those studies have been rebutted but not refuted, and the stakes in the dispute are these: If the deniers of deterrence are mistaken, then their interference with capital punishment is itself a death sentence for future murder victims....

What of the fact that most criminals stop short of murder? ... How do you reach those people? With a rope. That’s because most robbers depend on the threat of murder to secure their victims’ compliance, as do many rapists. And aggravated assault is, in many if not most cases, simply unsuccessful murder. Hang murderers, and every hoodlum in the land will notice. And, like the outlaws who fled the vigilantes, they will change their behavior....

The ratification of such an amendment [to overturn Fifth and Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment precedents impeding capital punishment] would free the deep-red states to ramp up enforcement of the death penalty until they achieved results even more dramatic and unmistakable than those seen in Texas, where executions increased from zero in 1980 to a record 40 in 2000 — and the murder rate plunged by almost two-thirds, while murder in non-death-penalty states fell only 21 percent. Seeing crime collapse in places where death for murder had become the rule, people elsewhere would clamor for their states to follow suit, and liberals would immolate themselves in a vain attempt to preserve the crime-ridden status quo, with all its injustice, pain, and horror.

Call it the Madison-Roosevelt-Cardozo Amendment. Donald Trump may be fond of boasting, “I alone can fix it,” but if he really wants to restore law and order, “and I mean very soon,” he’ll need all the help he can get.

January 18, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Some notable local death penalty headlines from two very different localities

These two local capital punishment headlines and stories caught my eye this afternoon:

The Georgia story is just a report on an advocacy group that surely faces an uphill battle getting the Peach State to consider seriously the repeal of the death penalty.  But abolitionists should be revved up about the Washington story as it seems political forces are lining up to make repeal there a real possibility.

January 17, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New report spotlights five Florida counties often condemning to death murderers have mental impairments

A few weeks ago, as noted in this prior post, Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project (FPP) released a report detailing and lamenting the composition of Oregon's death row under the title "Oregon’s Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments."  Today, FPP has this new report bringing a similar analysis and criticism to a portion of a different state.  This new report is titled "Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments in Five Florida Counties,"  and here are excerpts from the introduction:

The Florida Supreme Court recently held that the state’s capital punishment statute is unconstitutional. Approximately 380 people sentenced to death under the now-invalidated sentencing scheme remain on the death row. While litigation is still pending over whether the decision applies to all Florida death sentences, the Court has clarified that the approximately 150 people who were convicted after the Ring v. Arizona decision in 2002 must have their sentences reconsidered. Roughly one-third of these individuals convicted since 2002 come from just five of Florida’s 67 counties: Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, and Pinellas.

This report examines the 48 invalidated death sentences from these five Florida counties. We examined legal pleadings and opinions, trial testimony, and media reports, and consulted with several legal experts in Florida who are familiar with the individuals on death row.

Our research revealed that 63 percent of these individuals exhibit signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred. The pervasiveness of these crippling impairments among Florida’s death row population is significant when evaluating whether the death penalty was the appropriate sentence. Although all murders are gruesome and deserving of serious sanction, the Constitution limits the death penalty to the most heinous murders. Even then, the Constitution and established Supreme Court doctrine have limited application of the death penalty to adults who exhibits mental and emotional functioning that is equal to or exceeds that of the typically developed adult. So, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that, regardless of the severity of the crime, the death penalty cannot be imposed upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults. To do otherwise would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her “inherent dignity as a human being.”

January 12, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Texas completes first execution of 2017

As reported in this new AP piece, "Texas has executed death row inmate Christopher Wilkins, who was convicted of killing two men after one of them mocked him for falling for a phony drug deal."  Here is more:

The lethal injection of the 48-year-old Wilkins Wednesday is the nation’s first execution this year.  Twenty were carried out in the U.S. last year, the lowest number since the 1980s.  Wilkins explained to jurors at his capital murder trial in 2008 how and why he killed his friends in Fort Worth three years earlier, saying he didn’t care if they sentenced him to death.

The Supreme Court declined to block Wilkins’ execution about three hours before the scheduled lethal injection. Wilkins’ attorneys had argued to the Supreme Court that he had poor legal help at his trial and during earlier appeals and that the courts improperly refused to authorize money for a more thorough investigation of those claims to support other appeals and a clemency petition.

In their unsuccessful appeal to the high court, Wilkins’ attorneys contended he had poor legal help at trial and during earlier appeals and that the courts improperly refused to authorize money for a more thorough investigation of his claims.  State attorneys said courts have rejected similar appeals and that defense lawyers are simply employing delaying tactics.

Wilkins was released from prison in 2005 after serving time for a federal gun possession conviction. He drove a stolen truck to Fort Worth, where he befriended Willie Freeman, 40, and Mike Silva, 33.  Court records show Freeman and his drug supplier, who wasn’t identified, duped Wilkins into paying $20 for a piece of gravel that he thought was a rock of crack cocaine.  Wilkins said he shot Freeman on Oct. 28, 2005, after Freeman laughed about the scam, then he shot Silva because he was there. Wilkins’ fingerprints were found in Silva’s wrecked SUV and a pentagram matching one of Wilkins’ numerous tattoos had been carved into the hood.

Wilkins also testified that the day before the shootings, he shot and killed another man, Gilbert Vallejo, 47, outside a Fort Worth bar in a dispute over a pay phone, and about a week later used a stolen car to try to run down two people because he believed one of them had taken his sunglasses. “I know they are bad decisions,” Wilkins told jurors of his actions. “I make them anyway.”...

Twenty convicted killers were executed in the U.S. last year, the lowest number since the early 1980s. That tally includes seven executions in Texas — the fewest in the state since 1996.  Wilkins is among nine Texas inmates already scheduled to die in the early months of 2017.

January 11, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof sentencing to death by federal jury

As reported in this local article, only "a few hours after he told a crowded courtroom 'I still feel like I had to do it,' a federal jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death for carrying out a cold, calculated massacre inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in a bid to spark a race war." Here is more about an unsurprising verdict:

The 12-member panel – three white jurors, nine black – deliberated for a little less than three hours before unanimously deciding that the 22-year-old white supremacist should die for his crimes rather than spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It will be up to the presiding judge to formally impose that sentence, but he is bound by law to follow the jury’s decision. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has scheduled the formal sentencing hearing for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Roof, who sat stone-faced and silent through most of his hate crimes trial, betrayed no emotion as the jury’s verdict was read. During his closing argument earlier in the day, he passed on the chance to argue for his life, saying “I’m not sure what good that will do anyway.”

After the jury announced its verdict, Roof stood and asked the judge if he would appoint him new lawyers to help him file a request for a new trial. Gergel told Roof a significant amount has been spent on the current legal team that Roof sidelined for the trial's penalty phase, a team led by noted capital defense lawyer David Bruck. The judge said he would be "strongly disinclined" to bring in new lawyers at this point, but he will listen to any motions Roof wants to make during Wednesday's proceedings.

Earlier in the day, Roof told the jury that prosecutors don't understand him or the meaning of hate in their quest to put him to death for the June 2015 church massacre. “Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I am filled with hate has no idea what real hate is,” Roof said, speaking to jurors from a podium about eight feet away from the jury box. “They don’t know anything about hate."

After Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson delivered a two-hour closing statement, Roof walked to the podium with a single sheet of yellow notebook paper. He appeared to read from it, pausing at times to glance down. His remarks lasted less than five minutes.

January 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, January 09, 2017

Will new Trump Justice Department seek death penalty for Fort Lauderdale airport mass murderer given apparent mental illness?

The question in the title of this post emerges from the news of federal charges filed and a planned court appearance for Esteban Santiago.  This Reuters article, headlined "Florida airport shooting suspect due in court Monday, could face death penalty," provides the details:

The 26-year-old Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at a busy Florida airport in the latest U.S. gun rampage was due to appear in a federal court on Monday on charges that could bring him the death penalty.

Esteban Santiago, who had a history of erratic behavior, has admitted to investigators that he planned Friday's attack in Fort Lauderdale and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Alaska to carry it out, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities say they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and that they are investigating whether mental illness played a role.  In November, Santiago went to a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Anchorage and told agents he believed U.S. spies were controlling his mind.

Bond for Santiago, who is being held at the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, may be set at the hearing scheduled for 11 a.m. EST on Monday near Fort Lauderdale, and he would be assigned a public defender if he cannot afford his own lawyer.  He could face the death penalty if convicted on charges of carrying out violence at an airport, using a firearm during a violent act, and killing with a firearm.  But it may be months before prosecutors reveal what lies in Santiago's future.

"They've then got two weeks to indict him, and then they've got to go through the whole death penalty review," said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who is now a partner with Miami law firm Clarke Silverglate.  Executions have been on hold in Florida since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty laws a year ago.  The Florida Supreme Court overturned a rewritten version in October....

Information surfaced over the weekend that police in Alaska took a handgun from Santiago in November after he told FBI agents there his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency.  They returned it to him about a month later after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill....

Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico and Alaska national guards, including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon. Relatives have said he acted erratically since returning from Iraq.

The on-going federal capital trial of the Charleston church mass murderer Dylann Roof has prompted a number of folks, especially those in the abolitionist community, to be talking about mental illness and the inappropriateness of sentencing a mentally disturbed individual to death.  Those discussions and debates would surely reach another level if (dare I say when) the incoming Trump Administration and its new Attorney General decide to pursue capital charges against Esteban Santiago.

January 9, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 06, 2017

"Facing the Firing Squad"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Andrew Jensen Kerr available via the Georgetown Law Journal website. Here is the abstract:

The recent Supreme Court decision in Glossip v. Gross affirmed the legality of midazolam for use in lethal injection.  The 5–4 majority opinion reads the Constitution to require an available form of execution.  But it does little to counter Professor Denno’s claim in “Lethal Injection Chaos Post-Baze” that pragmatic supply-side concerns should dismantle the economy for lethal injection.  Off-brand substitutes for lethal injection drugs have led to recent high-profile botches.  Both Utah and Wyoming have proposed a return to the firing squad.  Lethal injection is comparatively sanitary and bureaucratic.  But I respond that the firing squad is more coherent with death penalty administration heuristic concerns of retribution and dignity.  The visibility of the firing squad also serves an abolitionist, information-forcing function by requiring a candid look at death penalty process from the perspective of the executed.

January 6, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Florida Supreme Court adds to the mess that is the current Florida death penalty limbo

These three headlines spotlight the remarkable (and still unclear) story surrounding an important death penalty ruling by the Florida Supreme Court which was released and then withdrawn today:

"Typo upends Florida Supreme Court’s death penalty ruling"

"Florida's High Court Takes Puzzling Turn on Death Penalty"

"Florida Supreme Court: Prosecutors can't seek death penalty - or can they?"

Here are the basics from the first of these linked reports:

Just hours after declaring prosecutors could not seek death sentences under existing state law, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday rescinded the order, an uncommon move that casts fresh uncertainty on the state’s death penalty.

The reason: A typo.

In a 5-2 ruling Wednesday morning, the court rejected Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request to let prosecutors seek the death penalty as long as juries voted unanimously. The court threw out the state’s revamped death sentencing law in October because it required only a 10-2 super majority of the jury to put someone to death.

Then at 1 p.m., the Supreme Court rescinded the order, saying it was “prematurely issued,” and deleted it from the court’s website. The Wednesday morning ruling was vacated because of a “clerical error,” said Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court.

Makes me think of the famous words of one of my favorite philosophers.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Dylann Roof Has a Right to the Death Penalty" ... OR "Why Dylann Roof Representing Himself Is A Constitutional Tragedy"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective and timely new NBC News commentary authored by Andrew Cohen.  Here are excerpts:

Dylann Roof has a constitutional right not to try to spare his own life....

In the end, despite the drama of a closed hearing in the middle of a capital trial, it likely wasn't a close call as a matter of law to allow Roof to continue to represent himself.  The standard for "competency" in these circumstances is low, on purpose, to give defendants the chance to control their own fates.  Roof has consistently shown he understands the nature of the proceedings against him.  The truth is that Roof's decision not to present mitigating evidence seems entirely consistent with his racist beliefs and with his evident antipathy toward psychiatry and psychology.  He wrote in the past that he is "morally opposed to psychology," calling it a "Jewish invention."

Roof also appears to share the mentality of other notable murderers who for one reason or another eschewed a defense their lawyers would have chosen for them. For example, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, rejected his attorneys' plans for an insanity defense on his behalf before accepting a plea deal that spared him the death penalty.  Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh gave up the rest of his appeals following his capital conviction and opted for an expedited execution, which took place at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. The Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, also sparred with his own lawyers in Virginia before he was convicted and sentenced to death.

For all the hand-wringing over the constitutionality (and morality) of self-representation in a capital case, for all the arguments that every capital defendant should always present every non-frivolous defense at trial, the truth is that Roof has a constitutional right not to present a defense, to choose to increase the likelihood he'll get the death penalty instead of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It is not necessarily a sign of mental illness, or mental instability, or mental incompetence, to take responsibility for one's murderous actions rather than blame them, in some fashion, on some sort of mental disease or defect. Some killers, like McVeigh, saw it as one final act of control over their lives. This may be why Roof on Wednesday in his first direct interaction with jurors chose not to beg for his life but rather to tell the panel: "There is nothing wrong with me psychologically."

Nor is it necessarily a sign of mental incompetency to chose to want to die sooner, rather than later, after spending years in solitary confinement in a federal prison — which is where Roof will be headed no matter what his jury decides. If he doesn't want to save himself, in other words, or if he doesn't want the world ever to perceive him as having been mentally ill when he killed those innocent people inside that church, there is nothing his lawyers can do to save him so long as he's judged competent.

Finally, a point that's been under-reported these past few days: Just because Roof won't put on any mitigating evidence doesn't guarantee he'll get the death penalty. All it would take for the jury to preclude a capital sentence for Roof is for one juror to decide that consigning the 22-year-old defendant to 50 or 60 or 70 years in ADX-Florence, the federal prison in Colorado that Roof soon will call home, is a punishment worse than a death penalty. That, too, is not an unreasonable position to take.

UPDATE: Not more than an hour after I posted the Andrew Cohen commentary above, I learned of this new Huffington Post commentary by lawprof Scott Sundby which has the headline I have added to the title of this post.  Here are this piece's final two paragraphs:

The Supreme Court has justified the current death penalty regime on the premise that the jury will act as the conscience of the community. Jurors can only carry out this sacred function, however, if they hear all of the evidence, both for and against imposing a death sentence. Jurors often feel betrayed in cases when they later learn that a defense lawyer’s ineffectiveness meant they did not hear compelling evidence about a defendant’s mental illness or abusive childhood. And well they should. The justice system asked them to make a profoundly difficult moral and spiritual decision and then failed to give them the information that they needed to carry out their mandate.

In Roof’s case, the court may believe that its ruling furthers certain values, but it has missed a far more important constitutional principle: a death sentence should never be imposed unless we have complete confidence that the jury’s decision is a reliable and knowing one based on all of the facts. With Dylann Roof representing himself, that outcome is simply impossible. We owe it to the jurors and to ourselves as the society for whom the jurors speak that they hear all about Roof’s life before we ask them whether he should be sentenced to death.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Texas sues feds over confiscated execution drugs"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Dallas Morning News article reporting on some notably different kind of execution drug litigation. Here are the details:

For nearly a year and a half, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has detained a shipment of about 1,000 vials of execution drugs headed for Texas' death chamber. On Tuesday, Texas officials demanded an end to the delays, filing a lawsuit that seeks to force the feds to turn over the drugs. "My office will not allow the FDA to sit on its hands and thereby impair Texas' responsibility to carry out its law enforcement duties," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.

Texas and other states that still execute inmates have been hard-pressed to find lethal injection drugs in recent years. American companies have stopped making the drugs, and European makers have stopped selling them to the U.S. Amid the drug shortage in 2012, Texas switched from the three-drug cocktail it used since 1982 to a single overdosing injection of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, but that drug, too, is in short supply.

In July 2015, the FDA intercepted about 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental, also a barbiturate, that Texas was attempting to import from a foreign seller at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. FDA officials said that the drugs lacked the required warnings and directions for use and that they needed federal approval. The state responded to the FDA, explaining that the drugs were legal for importation for law enforcement use. In April 2016, the FDA issued a tentative decision denying admission of the drugs. But since then, the agency hasn't issued a final decision and has kept the drugs.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Paxton argued the delays are unwarranted and should come to an end. "Because FDA's delay is unreasonable, TDCJ requests the Court to declare that the delay is unlawful and compel FDA to render a final admissibility decision," the lawsuit states.

As execution drugs have become harder to obtain, the state has turned to compounding pharmacies to make them, has sought drugs from foreign providers and has sought to restrict public access to information about where and how it gets drugs used in lethal injections....

"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lawfully ordered and obtained the necessary license to import drugs used in the lethal injection process, yet the Food and Drug Administration stopped the shipment and continues to hold it without justification. This has left the agency with no other recourse than to challenge the unjustified seizure in court," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement.

Clark said the TDCJ has enough drugs on hand to complete the nine executions scheduled for the first six months of this year. "We cannot speculate on the future availability [of] drugs, so the agency continues to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process," Clark said.

January 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Death penalty in Pennsylvania so dysfunctional that it cannot complete long-overdue report on its dysfunction

Unless and until the newly enacted reform ballot initiative magically fixes a whole bunch of problems, California will still be able to lay claim to having the most dysfunctional death penalty system in the United States.  But this new local article, headlined "Three years late, seminal death penalty report still unfinished," highlights why Pennsylvania come in a pretty close second. Here are excerpts: 

Already three years behind schedule, a committee studying flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty is still a long way away from issuing its much-anticipated report.  The stakes for the Senate's Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment are high, ever since Gov. Tom Wolf vowed nearly two years ago to block executions until its recommendations are issued and acted upon.

But elevated from obscurity by Wolf's moratorium, the all-volunteer committee has no individual budget and no dedicated staff members, and has consistently seen its time line pushed further and further into the future, much to the unhappiness of death-penalty backers.  The new year will see "meaningful, significant progress" in the panel's work, said Steve Hoenstine, a spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a point man in the effort.  But Hoenstine wouldn't commit to the report being completed this year, given the scope of the questions being tackled.  "The goal isn't to produce something as quickly as possible that may or may not be correct," said Hoenstine, whose boss is a staunch opponent of capital punishment. "Studying bias in Pennsylvania's death penalty, it is just an enormous undertaking."

Wolf, a Democrat, announced his moratorium in February 2015, when he called the death penalty "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." He has since issued reprieves to five inmates facing the death chamber, including Lehigh Valley mass murderer Michael Eric Ballard, who stabbed to death four people in a Northampton home in 2010 while on parole for a prior killing. Even without issuing findings, the advisory committee has proven controversial to death-penalty supporters, who charge the makeup of its 27 members is weighted against capital punishment.

Given the moratorium, it is no surprise that the report continues to be delayed, said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a Democrat who is a vocal death penalty backer. With executions halted, there's no incentive for the committee to finish its work, he said. "I don't think it is ever going to come," Morganelli said. "Why would they release it?"

The committee, approved by the Senate in 2011, is looking into 17 aspects of capital punishment, including its cost, its impact on public safety, its potential for racial or economic bias, and whether there are sufficient safeguards against the innocent being executed.  The report originally was due in December 2013. The panel includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clergy members, college professors, a relative of a murder victim, victims advocates, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and two other nonprofits, and police and corrections representatives.

Hoenstine said delays have nothing to do with the moratorium.  He noted the committee was established while Wolf's predecessor, Tom Corbett, a Republican former prosecutor, was governor.  "This is something that happened long before Gov. Wolf took office and, therefore, long before this moratorium took place," Hoenstine said. "It is a bipartisan search for the truth. It is nothing but that."

Like much of the nation, the state has contentiously debated capital punishment, under which scores of Pennsylvania inmates have seen their sentences reversed. None have been executed here against their will since John F. Kennedy was president.

The committee's work is spearheaded by the Joint State Government Commission, a research wing of the Legislature, with assistance from a state commission on fairness in the courts and by researchers from Penn State University.  Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, has said research has proven laborious, given the need for data collectors to go from county courthouse to county courthouse gathering statistics about homicide cases, when the death penalty is sought and when it is imposed.  According to Hoenstine, that work is ongoing. "We want it to be data driven and based on clean data, reliable data," Hoenstine said. "That's a time-consuming process."...

Pennsylvania has 175 prisoners on death row, but it rarely performs an execution, going back well before Wolf's moratorium. Just three men have been put to death in the modern era of capital punishment, and all were volunteers who abandoned legal challenges to their sentences. The last was Philadelphia "house of horrors" murderer Gary Heidnik, who was lethally injected in 1999.

January 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 02, 2017

Understanding why Dylann Roof will not present penalty phase evidence at his capital trial

Last week in this post I noted the news that Dylann Roof, at a hearing before the penalty phase of his capital trial, told the district judge that "he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present evidence to ask a jury to spare his life." This new New York Times article, headlined, "Dylann Roof Himself Rejects Best Defense Against Execution," provides some explanatory backstory.  Here is how the lengthy piece begins:

Twenty-two pages into the hand-scribbled journal found in Dylann S. Roof’s car — after the assertions of black inferiority, the lamentations over white powerlessness, the longing for a race war — comes an incongruous declaration.

“I want state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” wrote the young white supremacist who would murder nine black worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont.”

Mr. Roof, who plans to represent himself when the penalty phase of his federal capital trial begins on Tuesday, apparently is devoted enough to that proposition (or delusion, as some maintain) to stake his life on it. Although a defense based on his psychological capacity might be his best opportunity to avoid execution, he seems steadfastly committed to preventing any public examination of his mental state or background.

“I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence,” he wrote to Judge Richard M. Gergel of Federal District Court on Dec. 16, a day after a jury took only two hours to find him guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations. At a hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Roof told the judge that he planned to make an opening statement but not call witnesses or present evidence on his behalf.

The testimony presented by prosecutors during the guilt phase of Mr. Roof’s trial detailed with gruesome precision how he had plotted and executed the massacre during a Wednesday night Bible study in the church’s fellowship hall. It was less satisfying in revealing why he had done it. With his choice to sideline his legal team and represent himself, the second phase — when the same jury of nine whites and three blacks will decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison — may prove little different.

Death penalty experts said it was exceedingly rare for capital defendants to represent themselves after allowing lawyers to handle the initial part of a case. Mr. Roof, who also faces a death penalty trial in state court, has not publicly explained his reasoning. But legal filings strongly suggest a split with his court-appointed defenders about whether to argue that his rampage resulted from mental illness.

January 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Split Sixth Circuit ruling upholding protective order concerning lethal injection drugs might(!?!) enable Ohio to get back into execution game

As this local article reports, in the afternoon of the last business day of 2016, a Sixth Circuit panel "upheld a protective order shielding the state of Ohio from having to disclose the names of those who make or use the state's lethal-injection drugs."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court panel ruled that a district court judge was justified in issuing the secrecy order, which was made on the grounds that it was needed to protect lethal-injection drugmakers from public intimidation and harassment. The lawsuit, brought by more than 65 death-row inmates, contended that the state shouldn't be allowed to use drugs procured from anonymous suppliers and evaluators.

Ohio had postponed its next three executions by several weeks at the behest of a federal magistrate, who feared the appeals court wouldn't make this ruling before a Jan. 3 court hearing for the first three inmates scheduled to die. As a result, Gov. John Kasich delayed the resumption of executions from Jan. 12 to Feb. 15, starting with convicted child killer Ronald Phillips of Akron. It's unclear whether that revised schedule will stay in place now that the appeals court has ruled....

Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when killer Dennis McGuire took 25 minutes to die from a previously unused execution drug combination. State officials and the courts put executions on hold until the state picked a new lethal-injection drug combination of midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride last October....

In 2014, state lawmakers passed a secrecy law hoping to encourage small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies to make its lethal-injection drugs.

The full ruling is available at this link, and the fact that the panel opinion included a dissent could entail further en banc or SCOTUS appeals on just this semi-procedural issue involving a protective order. Even without further appeals, though, there is an evidentiary review on tap for the first week of January concerning Ohio's new execution drug protocol, and that litigation has already led in part to a short delay of scheduled executions. In other words, this Sixth Circuit panel ruling may clear one obstacle for Ohio resuming executions, but there are additional litigation road-blocks still ahead.

December 31, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Will Ohio get back in the business of state killing in 2017?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by my awareness of lots of messy on-going litigation in the Buckeye State over execution protocols and in part by this new local AP article headlined "Court weighs challenge of order blocking Ohio execution info."  Here are excerpts from the AP piece:

A federal appeals court is weighing a challenge by attorneys for death row inmates of a judge's order blocking them from information about Ohio's new lethal injection process. The pending decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals will help determine whether Ohio will proceed with its first executions in three years beginning in February.

Ohio plans to execute Ronald Phillips on Feb. 15 for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Another execution is scheduled for April.

At issue are new efforts the state is making to shield information about lethal injection in hopes of jumpstarting executions in Ohio, which have been on hold since January 2014. That's when it took condemned inmate Dennis McGuire 26 minutes to die from a never-before-used two-drug method while he repeatedly gasped and snorted.

For example, a 2015 law blocks anyone from getting information about individuals or entities participating in executions, including companies that make or mix drugs. The 6th circuit last year upheld that law while rejecting free speech allegations raised by death row inmates.

What's before the appeals court now is a protective order issued by a federal judge last fall that bars the release of information about lethal injection requested by attorneys for Phillips and two other inmates scheduled for execution in 2017.  That order, by retired Judge Gregory Frost, held that the state's need to obtain the drugs outweighs concerns by death row inmates that the information is needed to meaningfully challenge the source of the drugs, such as names of the manufacturers.

Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Merz in Dayton cited the current 6th Circuit case earlier this month when he put executions on hold. He said the hold could be lifted after the court rules. Attorneys for death row inmates argue they can't meaningfully challenge the use of the drugs without the information. They also said the secrecy protections are unnecessary given the history of lawsuits over lethal injection in Ohio....

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in October announced plans to use a new three-drug combination — midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride — for at least three executions. Phillips and other inmates want to block the new procedure, arguing that it will result in a painful and barbaric death.

December 29, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Federal military execution seemingly on track for mass rapist/murderer

This CNN article, headlined "US military could carry out first execution in over 50 years," reports on some notable developments in a notable federal capital setting. Here are the interesting details:

A former US Army soldier who has been on death row since 1988 for raping and murdering several women could now face execution after a judge denied his bid for another stay of execution. Judge J. Thomas Marten of the US District Court for the District of Kansas wrote last week that a previously granted stay of execution to Ronald Gray was "no longer in effect," denying his request to further block the military from carrying out the death sentence.

If Gray is put to death, it will be the first military execution since 1961, when John Bennett was hanged at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas after he was convicted of raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl. The current military method of execution is lethal injection.

Gray is one of six former servicemen currently on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth. The most recent addition to that group is former Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was convicted of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder after his 2009 shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas.

Gray was convicted and condemned to death in military court in 1988 for two murders and three rapes in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area while stationed at Fort Bragg and serving as a cook. He pleaded guilty in civilian courts to two other killings and five rapes....

Gray came close to being put to death in 2008, when then-President George W. Bush signed a warrant authorizing his execution. But a federal court gave Gray a last-minute temporary stay.

In 1983, a military appeals court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional because of problems with the armed forces' sentencing guidelines, but President Ronald Reagan soon after reinstated capital punishment in the military. The President has the power to commute a death sentence and no service member can be executed unless the President confirms the death penalty.

While no execution date has yet been set, Army regulations state that a could be set sometime in the next 30 days. Gray's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

December 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dylann Roof tells federal judge he does not plan to present any evidence at penalty phase of his capital trial

As reported in this new AP story, "Dylann Roof told a judge Wednesday he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present evidence to ask a jury to spare his life for killing nine black worshippers at a Charleston church in a hate crime." Here is more:

But there also is mystery evidence that Roof is working hard to make sure the public never sees in his federal death penalty trial.

Roof, who is acting as his own attorney in the penalty phase to prevent what he thinks would be further embarrassment to himself or his family, again was warned by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel at a hearing Wednesday that being his own lawyer was a bad idea. "That's your decision," Gergel told Roof. "I think that highlights my advice to you that you aren't served by being your own counsel."

Gergel told Roof to talk to his grandfather, who is a lawyer, and other family members one last time. He told Roof he has until the start of the penalty phase Tuesday to change his mind and hire his high-powered, publicly funded defense team back.

The same jurors who convicted Roof earlier this month on 33 counts including hate crimes and obstruction of religion will return next week to decide if he faces life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Roof spoke for less than 10 minutes of the 35-minute hearing Wednesday. He told Gergel he does plan an opening and closing statement. He then told the judge he objects to prosecutors' plans to present a photograph of evidence in the court's possession. Roof, Gergel and assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson all carefully tiptoed around saying what that evidence was. Gergel did say there was a hearing in which he decided it could be admitted in the penalty phase.

Roof also wanted a jailhouse statement left out of the penalty phase and evidence that involved his mother. No specifics were given. Gergel told Roof to go back to jail and write a motion for him to consider. Roof's ankle chain clanked as he walked back to the defense table in his jail jumpsuit.

Prosecutors also laid out their case. Most of the penalty phase will involve up to 38 people related to the nine people killed and the three people spared when Roof went into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, sat through a 45-minute Bible study in the fellowship hall, then fired 77 shots as many of the worshippers hid under tables.

Gergel, who complained during the guilt phase that prosecutors were repeating themselves at times with witnesses, said he will allow Richardson to call as many witnesses related to the victims as he wants. "The statute provides broad leeway for the victims to be heard, and I plan on honoring that," the judge said....

Gergel spent much of the hearing going over the format of the penalty phase with Roof, warning him several times he was likely doing himself no favors leaving his defense team as just advisers to file briefs. After saying he planned no witnesses, Roof told Gergel he was just answering the same question the judge had asked prosecutors. Gergel said that wasn't necessary. "Don't do them any favors," the judge said. "They aren't going to do you any."

December 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New York Times made yet another editorial pitch for judicial abolition of the death penalty

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "The Continuing Collapse of the Death Penalty." Here are excerpts:

Piece by piece, the death penalty continues to fall apart. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court invalidated between 150 and 200 death sentences — nearly half of all those in the state — because they were imposed under a law the United States Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in January.  The law, which required judges and not juries to make the factual findings necessary to sentence someone to die, violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for an 8-to-1 majority.

The Florida decision is the most recent sign, in a year full of them, that the morally abhorrent practice of capital punishment is sliding into the dustbin of American history — where it should have been long ago.

Juries around the country imposed 30 death sentences in 2016, a 40 percent drop from last year and fewer than at any time since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that opposes capital punishment.  Twenty people were executed this year, the lowest number in a quarter-century.

The practice is not only increasingly rare, it is concentrated in an extremely narrow slice of the country. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, the report found, and only five imposed more than one death sentence. California sentenced nine people to die, the most of any state, but no one has been put to death there since 2006.

Public support for the death penalty keeps dropping, too — falling below 50 percent for the first time in more than four decades, according to a Pew Research survey. Support falls even further when respondents are given the alternative of a long prison term like life without parole.  Though voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma last month preserved the death penalty, the overall trend is toward growing discomfort with state-sanctioned killing.

The total abolition of capital punishment, however, will depend on the Supreme Court’s reading of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.  So far, only one current member of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer, a regular critic of the death penalty, has expressed openness to examining this question....  Justice Breyer is asking the right questions. It is up to a majority of his colleagues to listen closely and bring the only just result: the permanent abolition of capital punishment in America.

December 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Florida Supreme Court brings back to life some older death sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Florida Supreme Court: Death penalty cases finalized before 2002 will stand," it now appears that there is a little bit of life left in some old Florida death sentences.  Here are the basics: 

Some of the nearly 400 prisoners waiting on Florida's death row will not be allowed a re-sentencing under new death penalty laws, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 6-1 ruling in a death sentence appeal by Mark James Asay says that death row inmates are not entitled to a re-sentencing unless their case was finalized after the 2002 ruling in Ring vs. Arizona, which required juries to find aggravating factors to impose the death penalty.

The court also lifted a stay on Asay's execution, previously scheduled for March of this year. It appears executions could commence soon.

Florida's death penalty has been under siege for the past year. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional in Hurst vs. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws.  Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court found that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death, rather than a majority or supermajority required under old and existing laws. It was not clear until Thursday's ruling whether these changes entitled people already on death row to a re-sentencing hearing.

The lengthy Florida Supreme Court in Asay v. Florida is available at this link. Here is the key concluding paragraph from the majority opinion:

After weighing all three of the above factors, we conclude that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case, in which the death sentence became final before the issuance of Ring. We limit our holding to this context because the balance of factors may change significantly for cases decided after the United States Supreme Court decided Ring. When considering the three factors of the Stovall/Linkletter test together, we conclude that they weigh against applying Hurst retroactively to all death case litigation in Florida. Accordingly, we deny Asay relief.

There can be little doubt that this ruling will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, though there can and should be much doubt about whether SCOTUS will take up the issue.

UPDATE: A helpful tweeter made sure I did not miss this additional ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that reaches this companion conclusion for cases in which a death sentence was imposed after 2002:

After weighing all of the considerations essential to a faithful Witt analysis, we conclude that Hurst should be applied retroactively to Mosley.  The purpose of the holdings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst is to prevent a violation of the fundamental and critically important right to a trial by jury. See Hurst, 202 So. 3d at 50-51, 55.

December 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

DPIC releases year-end report highlighting "historic declines" in use of the death penalty in 2016

NewDeathSentences1973-2016This press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Sentences, Executions Drop to Historic Lows in 2016," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2016 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here is the text of the press release:

Death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment all continued historic declines in 2016.  American juries imposed the fewest death sentences in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment, since the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972.  The expected 30 new death sentences in 2016 represent a 39 percent decline from last year’s already 40-year low of 49. The 20 executions this year marked the lowest number in a quarter century, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). National public opinion polls also showed support for capital punishment at a 40-year low.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment.  While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report.  “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.”

For the first time in more than 40 years, no state imposed ten or more death sentences. Only five states imposed more than one death sentence. California imposed the most (9) followed by Ohio (4), Texas (4), Alabama (3) and Florida (2).  Death sentences continued to be clustered in two percent of counties nationwide, with Los Angeles County imposing four death sentences, the most of any county. But death sentences were down 39 percent, even in those two-percent counties.

This year’s 20 executions marked a decline of more than 25 percent since last year, when there were 28 executions.  Only five states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states to do so since 1983.  Two states -- Georgia, which had the most executions (9), and Texas, which had the second highest number (7) -- accounted for 80 percent of all executions in the U.S.  Although Georgia carried out more executions than at any other time since the 1950s, juries in that state have not imposed any new death sentences in the past two years.

State and federal courts continued to strike down outlier practices that increased the likelihood a death sentence would be imposed.  The United States Supreme Court struck down practices in Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma that had disproportionately contributed to the number of death sentences imposed in those states.  And state courts in Florida and Delaware ruled that portions of their statutes that permitted the death penalty based upon a non-unanimous jury vote on sentencing were unconstitutional.

America’s deep divisions about capital punishment were reflected in voters’ action at the ballot box this year. Voters in California and Nebraska voted to retain the death penalty and Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment regarding capital punishment.  At the same time, prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that impose the most death sentences in the U.S. were defeated by candidates who expressed personal opposition to the death penalty or pledged to reform their county’s death penalty practices.  In Kansas, pro-death penalty groups spent more than $1 million to defeat four state supreme court justices who had voted to overturn several death sentences, but voters retained all four justices.

DPIC’s review of the 20 people executed in 2016 indicated that at least 60 percent of them showed significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment, and/or low intellectual functioning.  This suggests that, in spite of the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders, states continued to execute prisoners whose mental illness or intellectual disabilities are similar to impairments the Court has said should make a person ineligible for the death penalty.

I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because, as I have said before, I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.

December 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

New report spotlights that majority of condemned Oregon murderers have mental impairments

In this post earlier this year, I noted the initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  And, as regular readers now know, FPP is now regularly producing notable reports and research on the administration of various sentencing systems in various parts of the nation.  The latest report from FPP is titled "Oregon’s Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments," and here are parts of the start and heart of the document:

Oregon retains capital punishment mostly as an exorbitantly expensive legal fiction. In practice, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently noted, the State falls on the abolitionist “side of the ledger” because “Oregon has suspended the death penalty and executed only two individuals in the past 40 years.”  More revealing still: Over the past 10 years, Oregon juries have imposed an average of just one death sentence per year, which translates into less than 1.25% of homicides, a rate far lower than that which prevailed nationally in 1972 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White concluded that the infrequent use of the death penalty meant that the punishment had “ceas[ed] to be a credible deterrent or measurably to contribute to any other end of punishment in the criminal justice system.”  By all functional measures, Oregonians have abandoned the death penalty.

And yet, 35 condemned inmates remain on Oregon’s death row. What do we know about those people, and about the quality of justice that resulted in their death sentences?  This report examines the cases of the condemned men and women in Oregon to see how they ended up there, and what patterns, if any, emerged.  We examined legal pleadings and opinions, trial testimony, and media reports, and consulted with several legal experts in Oregon who are familiar with the individuals on death row.

Here’s what we found: In Oregon, two-thirds of death row inmates possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred.  The pervasiveness of these crippling impairments among Oregon’s death row population is important because though all murders are gruesome and deserving of serious sanction, the Constitution limits the death penalty to the most heinous murders; and even then only when the person who commits the crime is someone who appears to be more culpable than the typically developing adult....

Our research indicates that approximately one-quarter of individuals on Oregon’s death row may have some form of intellectual disability or brain damage. Nine of the 35 (26%) presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome....

Approximately one out of every four individuals on Oregon’s death row exhibits symptoms of mental illness, or has a confirmed diagnosis. Some exhibited signs of psychotic disorders with delusions and hallucinations at the time of the crime, one had been in a state run treatment program for individuals with mental illness, and another had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, the vast majority of the individuals exhibiting signs of mental illness, also presented evidence of secondary impairments such as intellectual disability, extreme childhood trauma, and youthfulness....

[A]pproximately one-third of Oregon’s death row prisoners suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma. One individual was born in prison, another suffered childhood sexual abuse, and several of the individuals were in and out of the foster care system. In many cases, this trauma led to, or was compounded by, other disabilities, such as fetal alcohol syndrome. 

December 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

The grand capital problems in the Grand Canyon state

This local article, headlined "After 2½-year hiatus, death penalty still up in the air in Arizona," reviews at great length all the legal and practical challenges facing the Grand Canyon state in the arena of the death penalty. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:

A federal judge has kept executions in Arizona on hold for 2½ years, and a flurry of year-end court actions in state and federal courts promise to prolong the chaotic status of the death penalty in the state.

While the state fights to resume executions of convicted murderers, litigation and court decisions challenge the way those executions are carried out, how capital cases are tried and how prosecutors decide when to seek death. Here is a digest of death-penalty issues at the close of 2016.

In July 2014, Joseph Wood snorted and gasped for nearly two hours on an execution gurney at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence because one of the drugs injected into him, midazolam, did not work as efficiently as the state of Arizona hoped it would.

U.S. District Judge Neil Wake was called while the execution was in progress. He held a telephonic hearing with attorneys for Wood and the state even as Wood was agonizing. Wake had been generally sympathetic to the Arizona Department of Corrections when it came to executions. But after the Wood execution, he set an injunction against executions in the state and demanded an analysis of the process. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the use of midazolam in an Oklahoma case despite another problematic execution with midazolam in that state.

More recently, midazolam was used Dec. 8 in a troublesome execution in Alabama, during which the condemned man coughed and flinched and took 34 minutes to die. Before pharmaceutical firms started refusing to sell them, more efficient drugs used to be available that led to death in 10 or so minutes. Those firms now refuse to sell midazolam to Arizona for future executions.

On Dec. 9, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office asked Wake to lift his injunction and declare the issues raised by Wood's case moot because it no longer has, and does not intend to obtain, midazolam. So far, Wake has refused to declare the case moot, reminding the Department of Corrections that it frequently veered from the protocol — the legal term for the specific method and drugs to be used — he had approved in court by changing execution drugs at the last minute. Defense attorneys who brought the case worry that the DOC will have the case mooted and then announce it has obtained a new drug. Corrections has yet to release a new protocol stating how it plans to carry out future executions. Drugs used before midazolam — thiopental and pentobarbital — also are no longer available.

The department has faced scrutiny for handling execution drugs in the past. In 2010, it purchased thiopental that was later ruled illegal from a supplier in England. In 2015, it tried to import the same drug from India. The shipment was stopped by federal officials at Sky Harbor International Airport.

A second federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of media outlets, including The Arizona Republic, seeks to force DOC to be more transparent in how it conducts executions, from revealing drug sources to allowing journalists to view all aspects of the execution, including how the prisoner is strapped to the execution gurney. At present, reporters and other witnesses can watch insertion of the catheters into the prisoner on closed-circuit TV and can watch the prisoner die through a glass window....

Corrections Director Charles Ryan has told reporters that he was looking into using firing squads in the event the state cannot not obtain any suitable drugs for execution by lethal injection. That change would require a voters’ initiative and an amendment to the Arizona Constitution.

Before the general election in November, The Republic polled voters about whether they would approve of firing squads as a means of execution. Sixty-eight percent said no. When respondents were broken down into subgroups, such as male and female, Republican and Democrat, the answer still was no.

UPDATE: This new BuzzFeed article reports on another new development in this arena. The headline and subhead tells the basic story: "After Botched Execution, Arizona Agrees To Never Use A Controversial Sedative Again: The state has agreed to stop using midazolam, a drug similar to valium that was linked to several botched executions in recent years. Without the drug, the state has few options on how to go forward with lethal injections."

December 20, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Philippine Prez Duterte talking up conducting thousands of executions yearly if death penalty restored

In prior posts here and here, I noted the eagerness of the Philippines new Prez to rachet up a "war on drugs" to almost unheard-of new levels.   This article from ABS-CBN News, headlined "Duterte threatens up to 6 executions daily if death penalty is restored," highlights the latest dimension of this story:

President Rodrigo Duterte has issued a grim warning, saying he will carry out daily executions of criminals once the death penalty is restored. 

"Ibalik mo sa akin 'yan...araw-arawin ko yan. Lima, anim," he said during Senator Manny Pacquiao's 38th birthday celebration in General Santos on Saturday. (Give it back to me, and I will perform daily executions. Five, six.)  "You destroy my country, I destroy you," he added.

The president believes capital punishment failed to deter crime in the past only because only few executions were carried out.

Death penalty in the country was abolished under the 1987 Constitution -- the first Asian country to do so -- but was reinstated under President Fidel V. Ramos in 1993 in response to increasing crime rates. It was again abolished under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006, reducing the harshest penalties to life imprisonment and reclusion perpetua.

Even before being elected in the 2016 polls, Duterte has been pushing for the revival of death penalty, saying it would serve as retribution for those who committed heinous crimes.

In a meeting after it was clear he won the elections, Duterte told some lawmakers he favors hanging over lethal injection as means of execution.

A bill seeking to reinstate the death penalty has recently been approved at the sub-committee level in the House of Representatives, and a principal author is optimistic on an "overwhelming" support from his colleagues. Pacquiao, who had filed Senate Bill 185 proposing that death penalty be reimposed and the penalties be increased for heinous crimes involving dangerous drugs in October, is positive that fellow senators would back the bill.

Prior related posts:

December 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Duties of Capital Trial Counsel Under the California 'Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016'"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and interesting new article authored by Robert Sanger now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Every trial lawyer who is handling a capital case in California or who has handled a capital case for which the decision of the California Supreme Court is not final on a pending habeas corpus petition, needs to be aware of certain specific duties and strategies required by The Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, Proposition 66, enacted by the voters on November 8, 2016.  The Act imposes new duties on capital trial counsel following a judgment of death, will require more prompt discharge of other duties and may even present an opportunity.  While the article focuses on trial counsel, post-conviction counsel will need to be familiar with much of this same information to both effectively work with trial counsel, to seamlessly raise issues and, eventually, to evaluate trial counsel’s conduct.

Trial counsel’s new duties include the duty to proactively assert herself as counsel of record after judgment by objecting and engaging in strategies in the trial court in response to the Act.  Trial counsel will have to advise her client during a difficult period and, when habeas counsel is appointed, work closely with that counsel to investigate and file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  The duty to object, the duty to engage in strategies to protect the client and the duty to counsel the client must be commenced in the trial court by trial counsel as soon as there is a judgment of death.  These duties will also extend to cases which may be transferred to the Superior Court by the California Supreme Court.  In addition, immediately upon appointment of habeas counsel and throughout the entire course of the habeas proceedings, counsel will have a more urgent duty than she did pre-Act to be available and responsive to assist habeas counsel.

Objections must be made to the Act on statutory grounds as well as both California and United States Constitutional grounds.  Some of the objections will be systemic and others will be case specific.  There are reasons for the trial court, or, eventually, the higher courts, to find the Act inoperable, unconstitutional or otherwise to stay or delay the process.  The Act is inoperable because it is not self-executing and because it is unfunded.  The Act is unconstitutional because it violates the right to habeas corpus, interferes with the jurisdiction of the courts generally and specifically regarding capital cases, violates the separation of powers and the single subject rule and, if applied retroactively, violates the ex post facto clause.  The Act also contributes to the overall unconstitutionality of the flawed capital punishment system in California.

Under the Act, trial counsel must also take specific action regarding the “offer” of counsel by the trial judge and the “orders” made pursuant to the “offer.”  Strategically, delay in implementation of the “offer” and the orders pursuant thereto may be required to assure appointment of qualified counsel, to avoid the premature commencement of the habeas filing limitation and to allow trial counsel to prepare the files, materials and record necessary for habeas counsel to commence work.  Trial counsel will have a duty to advise the client regarding the client’s rights following the “offer” which will be critical in light of the trial judge’s apparent power to make a finding that the client has waived habeas counsel, potentially forever.

Finally, trial counsel will have to make critical decisions and will have an important role regarding any potential claims of actual innocence or ineligibility of the client for execution.  For instance, trial counsel must decide with the client and habeas counsel what information will or will not be disclosed and what litigation strategy will be employed to resist waiver of privileges that purport to be compelled under the Act.  Finally, if there are grounds for factual innocence or ineligibility for the sentence of death, trial counsel must work with habeas counsel in presenting them early enough to obtain additional time to file the initial petition, if appropriate.

December 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 16, 2016

Noticing that other states are now messing with Texas for being capital punishment's capital

This new Vice article, headlined "Texas Is No Longer America's Death Penalty Capital," reports on the unique features of 2016 in the modern history of the death penalty in the United States. Here are highlights:

Texas has long been the heartland of the death penalty in America. Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the Lone Star State has executed 538 people — more than the next top six states combined. But 2016 saw a precipitous drop in the number of executions in the state. Thanks in part to new judicial scrutiny of death sentences, just seven Texans were executed this year, the fewest since 1996.

For the first time since 2001, Texas is not the most execution-happy state in the country — that grisly title belongs to Georgia, which executed nine people. This is the first year since 1984 that Texas didn't execute a single black person. And juries sentenced just three new Texas defendants to death for the second year in a row. The data was highlighted in a report released Thursday by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty [available here]....

One way to understand the decline is by looking at the people on death row who weren't executed. The Court of Criminal Appeals — the highest criminal court in the state — granted stays of execution to seven people who were scheduled to die this year, a higher number than normal: From 2012 through 2014, the court only granted three stays, according to the coalition. "The rising number of stays suggests that the Court of Criminal Appeals is registering the concerns about the fairness and accuracy of our state's capital punishment system," Kathryn Kase, executive director of the nonprofit criminal justice legal group Texas Defender Service, told me in an email. "These stays give the court opportunities to remedy the failures of past death penalty practices for which Texas has been roundly criticized."

In several of the cases where inmates received stays, the court leaned on a 2013 state law that gives inmates whose convictions were based on discredited science the opportunity for a new trial. Reformers say the law is among the most progressive in the country at fighting junk science in the courtroom.... Gregory Gardner, an attorney who represented two Texas death row defendants who received stays of execution this year — and a third client who was executed — believes the junk science law to be a powerful tool for defendants. "It shows how many convictions in the late 90s and the turn of the century were based on this crappy science that's been discredited," he said. "It's scary because we know people in Texas have been executed because of it in the past."

Of course, just because executions are down doesn't mean the ones taking place aren't still controversial. According to the anti-death penalty coalition's report, almost half of the people executed in the state in the last two years had a significant mental impairment. Similarly, the fact that Texas didn't execute any black people this year doesn't mean the death penalty is suddenly race-blind. All three of the Texas defendants sentenced to death in 2016 were black, and 80 percent of new death sentences in the state over the last five years have been imposed on people of color. Research has also consistently shown that murders of white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than murders of minority victims....

And it's possible that Texas's slump in executions won't last. The state has already scheduled nine executions in the first six months of 2017. Even so, the reduction in new death sentences may augur a future where seven executions a year isn't celebrated as a noteworthy dip, but questioned as a macabre reality. "The courts are finally being more careful with these cases," Gardner told me. "We've seen the number of death sentences plummet, and I think that trend will continue."

December 16, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra chews up all death sentences in Delaware via new retroactivity ruling

6a00d83451574769e201b8d1a7e505970c-320wiRegularly readers know I use the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases. Today the post-Hurst hydra took another big bite out the the death penalty in the First State as reported in this AP article:

A Delaware Supreme Court ruling earlier this year declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional is retroactive, meaning an inmate convicted of killing a police officer must be resentenced to life in prison, the justices said in a follow-up decision Thursday.

The ruling came in an appeal by Derrick Powell, who was convicted of killing Georgetown police Officer Chad Spicer in 2009, but it likely means that 11 other former death-row inmates also will be spared from execution.

In August, a majority of the justices said Delaware's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed judges too much discretion in sentencing and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.

That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida's death sentencing law, which also gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional. Alabama is the only other state that allows judges to override jury decisions on whether an offender should get life in prison or the death penalty.

In its 15-page decision Thursday, the Delaware court said its August ruling invalidating the state's death penalty law was a "watershed procedural ruling" that must be applied retroactively.

The full opinion in Powell v. Delaware is available at this link.

December 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Unsurprisingly, Dylann Roof gets convicted on all counts by federal jury

As this extended USA Today article reports, a federal "jury in the trial of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof on Thursday found Roof guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes after two hours of deliberations." Here is more:

The verdict came about an hour after they asked to look at a video of his confession, expressing interest in his statements that he didn't know how many people he had shot. The jury of eight white females, one white male, two black females and one black male was sent out initially a little after 1 pm, then recalled to clarify a legal instruction by the judge....

Closing arguments in the guilt phase of the trial ended late Thursday morning. Dylann Roof's chief defense lawyer told the jury that the most important question in the 2015 murders of nine black parishioners is why and he pointed to Roof's internet exploration of racial crimes as an explanation. "That is the why as far as the evidence shows," David Bruck told the jury.

But government prosecutors told the jury there was no mystery to Roof's motivation, which they said stemmed from racial hatred so immense that he was willing to shoot innocent people as they prayed in a church and lay wounded on the floor.

Roof's lawyers called no witnesses when testimony ended this week and Roof has indicated he will take over his defense in the sentencing phase if he is found guilty. Bruck did not contest the evidence in his closing arguments and even offered praise for the FBI's probe in the case. He focused instead on what motivated Roof, sowing seeds of doubt about his intent, an argument that might be useful if jurors deliberate his sentence....

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sustained multiple objections from prosecutors during Bruck's closing, as he did during the opening of the trial when prosecutors felt Bruck was attempting to take jurors to the penalty phase of the trial before Roof's guilt was decided. One of the objections came after Bruck attempted to discuss Roof's mental status, a discussion that Gergel said should take place during a penalty phase.

The penalty phase of this trial is due to take place in January.

December 15, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Interesting accounting of who is putting up capital to try to end capital punishment

Follow-the-MoneyThe publication Inside Philanthropy has this interesting new article headlined "Capital Against Capital Punishment: Who's Fighting the Death Penalty?". Here are excerpts:

This year’s election results don’t bode too well for opponents of the death penalty.  A year after they abolished it, Nebraska voters decided to reinstate capital punishment.  Oklahoma voters approved “any method of execution” not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.  And California, the nation’s most populous state, struck down a repeal measure, instead approving a measure to make executions easier.

But will this capital punishment comeback last?  A cadre of dedicated funders, including Atlantic Philanthropies, Open Society Foundations, the Proteus Fund and others wants to make sure it doesn’t.  These death penalty opponents are playing a long game and some have been at it for years.  Angry populist elections come and go, but progress against the death penalty has been ongoing.  Death sentences handed out in the U.S. have dropped almost tenfold since 1996, and actual executions per year have declined by about 75 percent.  A full 42 percent of the American public opposes the death penalty, a 44-year high.

While capital punishment enjoys its day in the sun (and in approving comments from President-elect Donald Trump), several big funders are working behind the scenes to chip away at the penalty’s long-standing popular support.  One major player (if not the major player) is Atlantic Philanthropies, which recently granted $3.25 million to Cornell Law School to establish the Cornell Center on Death Penalty Worldwide.

The first center of its kind in the U.S., the Cornell Center will work on the policy, research and advocacy side to advance international human rights norms that favor abolition. Indeed, most executions occur in a small number of countries: the United States, and top human rights violators like China, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Those fighting the death penalty have three main strategic goals.  The first involves changing public perception of executions from a necessary measure to a cruel and unusual punishment. Second, advocates focus on the states, supporting grassroots efforts to repeal.  Finally, the end goal for many advocates is a nationwide ban handed down from the Supreme Court. Often, this work involves direct political appeals and lobbying, backed through 501(c)(4) organizations.  While appeals to human rights are effective to a point, philanthropic efforts against the death penalty are also now quite focused on the practical problems of this punishment: why executions aren’t just wrong, but ineffective and costly to boot.

Leading the charge are groups like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Equal Justice USA, both recipients of large Atlantic grants in the years since 2006. While fighting the death penalty isn’t one of its major funding priorities, the Ford Foundation has also contributed at least $500,000 to the National Coalition.

All told, Atlantic Philanthropies has invested $60 million over the past decade to end the American death penalty. And although the foundation plans to discontinue its grantmaking this year (no doubt a worrisome fact for the abolition movement), it has already fertilized a whole bunch of anti-execution organizations that will continue raising funds. Among Atlantic’s biggest beneficiaries on this issue, besides the two mentioned above, are the Proteus Action League, the Advocacy Fund, Texas Defender Service, and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

In addition to its regular grantmaking, Atlantic Philanthropies backs direct lobbying, ballot initiatives and voter mobilization efforts against the penalty through its 501(c)(4), the Atlantic Advocacy Fund.  But Atlantic’s greatest contribution to the fight (at least in terms of dollar support) has been its support for the Proteus Fund, via the 501(c)(4) Proteus Action League.

A longtime supporter of progressive policy efforts, the Proteus Fund channels money from donors to organizations where it can make the most impact.  Proteus’s Themis Fund is dedicated solely to combating the death penalty.  Aside from Atlantic Philanthropies, additional supporters include the Open Society Foundations, Tides Foundation, Butler Family Fund, Fund for Nonviolence, and the Wallace Global Fund....

The Proteus Fund isn’t the only funding intermediary taking on capital punishment.  Through its Death Penalty Mobilization Fund, the Tides Foundation has awarded over $6 million in grants since 2000.  Besides Atlantic Philanthropies, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations is another regular source of money for those fighting the penalty. Since the early 2000s, Open Society has granted regular sums ranging from five to six figures to prominent anti-penalty organizations.  Those grantees include the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Tides Foundation, the Death Penalty Information Center, Death penalty Focus, and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

The Fund for Nonviolence, true to its name, is another anti-penalty stalwart. Through its Justice With Dignity grants program, it has disbursed modest but regular funding to many of the organizations we’ve already named.  As elsewhere, many of this funder’s grants are region-specific, supporting local efforts to push back against the penalty. The Wallace Global Fund is another progressive funder with a hand in anti-death penalty work.  Its funds several big-name advocacy organizations like the National Coalition, Themis at the Proteus Fund, and the Equal Justice Initiative.  The numbers here are modest as well, in the high five figures. Rounding out our list, we have the Oak Foundation, whose contributions to the fight have been substantial.  While Oak has offices in the U.S., it is an international funder and its death penalty work is also international, through a commonwealth nations initiative called the Death Penalty Project.

December 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Federal District Judge says federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner" but still rejects broadside constitutional challenge

United States District Judge Geoffrey Crawford issued a lengthy opinion today in the long-running federal capital case of US v. Fell, No. 5:01-cr-12-01 (D. Vt. Dec. 13, 2016).  A helpful reader sent me the full 57-page opinion, which I have uploaded below and which gets started this way:

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726.  The case concerned challenges under the Eighth Amendment to execution by lethal injection of four defendants sentenced to die by state courts in Oklahoma.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissent calling "for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."  Id. at 2755.  The dissent identified a series of systemic shortcomings in the administration of the death penalty in the United States, especially as it is applied by the states.  It divided these into four categories: "(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty's penological purpose [and] (4) most places in the United States have abandoned its use." Id. at 2756.

In response, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas wrote two strongly worded concurring opinions which defended the death penalty as the legitimate exercise of democratic authority.  Both justices pointed to the shocking cruelty of the crimes which led to the death sentences in these and other death penalty cases.  Both questioned the authority of the judiciary to interpose its own philosophical concerns about the death penalty.  And both identified utilitarian purposes such as deterrence which may justify executions.

The dissent and concurring opinions in Glossip offer a particularly vivid account of the long-running dispute over the constitutionality of the death penalty within the Supreme Court.   A federal trial judge is without authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court.  The current state of the law is that the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for murder committed by adults not disqualified for reasons of intellectual disability who have received a trial which meets the standards set by Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).  Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself.

But a trial court has its own contribution to make to the debate.  The court can hold a hearing and permit witnesses to testify.  In Glossip, Justice Breyer raised a series of questions about whether the death penalty is imposed fairly or in an incurably arbitrary manner.  The questions he raised are troubling.  They are essentially empirical. They require consideration of what has actually happened in the United States since the restoration of the death penalty following the Gregg decision.

Over the course of two weeks last summer this court sought to develop a factual record based on live testimony and supporting exhibits sufficient to answer the question of whether the constitutional requirements for a death penalty statute set out in Gregg have been met in practice.  As the court's findings indicate, the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591, et seq. ("FDPA"), falls short of the standard required in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and in Gregg for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty. Like the state statutes enacted after Furman, the FDPA operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles.

The trial court's obligation does not end with a review of the facts.  The court is required to address the legal issues raised by the parties.  That resolution may be no more than an acknowledgment that the law has been settled on a particular question.  Alternatively, the new factual record may require a fresh look at the manner in which existing principles are applied to a factual record which continues to develop.  The court has sought to undertake this new look in a manner consistent with existing authority which comes principally from the Supreme Court.

To get right to the point, the court has sought to follow the method expressed in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) in considering the proportionality of the death penalty.  The court has also considered the separate argument that application of the death penalty has become arbitrary.

The disproportionality challenge falls short because of the absence of proof of a national consensus to abolish the death penalty.  As the law stands now, proof of consensus is a prerequisite for finding the death penalty unconstitutional as applied to particular crimes or particular types of defendants.  By assessing public opinion, especially as it is expressed through legislation in the states, the Supreme Court finds a basis for determining evolving standards of decency for the nation as a whole.  If the requirement of consensus applies to the limited challenges brought in cases like Atkins, then it must also apply to the claim of disproportionality which the defense levels against the imposition of the death penalty in all cases.

The court has also considered the problem of arbitrary application of the death penalty to small numbers of defendants whose crimes are indistinguishable from the far greater number who receive life sentences.  The court has followed existing law in declining to rule that "arbitrariness" is an independent constitutional violation.

Download Fell order denying Motion to Strike 12-13-16

December 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)