Thursday, July 21, 2016

California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system

The District Attorney of Sacramento County has this new commentary urging citizens of her state to vote for reform rather than repeal of the death penalty.  The piece is headlined "California’s broken death penalty system can be fixed," and here are excerpts:

In 1978, California enacted today’s California death penalty statute, the so-called Briggs Initiative. Now, Ron Briggs supports repealing the statute his “family wrote,” but his argument reads more like a surrender to death penalty abolitionists (“Death penalty is destructive to California”; Forum, July 10).  Instead of waving a white flag, Briggs should endorse Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, as a worthy successor to his family’s work.  This initiative deals with the concerns Briggs raises about California’s death penalty system.

The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution.  Otherwise, there could have been at least 15 sentences carried out during the past decade.  It’s outrageous that victims’ families were forced to sue the state to draft these regulations. Proposition 66 will prevent biased and unsympathetic politicians and government bureaucrats from interfering with this process.

Proposition 66 also addresses concerns about how death row inmates occupy their time, requiring them to work or lose their privileges.  If they owe restitution, it will come out of their wages. The proposal makes other significant reforms as well.  It addresses the backlog of cases at the state level by expanding the pool of qualified counsel for death row inmates.  The initiative expedites review of prisoners’ complaints by returning their cases to the original trial court and prompts the Judicial Council to develop standards for the completion of appeals in state court in five years. Victims’ families will have the right to sue to force them to meet deadlines.

Briggs believes abolition will benefit victims’ survivors by closing cases and sparing them further “wounds.”  That is offensive and presumptuous. In our experience, most survivors want “justice” for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open.

Briggs naively touts life without parole as a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. He forgets that the last murderer executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was sentenced to death for the murder of three people, which he planned while already serving a life sentence for murder.  Life imprisonment was not enough to protect the public from Allen....

Finally, Briggs is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect.  Briggs risks lives on the unproven idea that the death penalty does not deter murder and that life sentences will protect public safety. Rather than capitulating to abolitionist arguments, he should support his families’ legacy and endorse Proposition 66.

Prior related posts:

July 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Defense builds case for unconstitutionality of death penalty in federal court in Vermont

Those who follow the federal death penalty closely surely have heard of the long-running case from Vermont involving Donald Fell.  Fell was involved in the murder of three persons way back in 2000, and the feds have been trying to secure and preserve a death sentence for the last dozen years.  After an original death sentence reversed on appeal, Fell is getting a new opportunity to build a record in the District Court concerning his claims that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  This recent local article, headlined "Fell's defense: The federal death penalty is 'irrational'," reports on these recent developments.  Here are excerpts:

The final witness for the defense in the Donald Fell death penalty hearing in Rutland testified on the results of more than 20 years of research he’s gathered for the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council Project.

Based on that data, Kevin McNally, the project’s director and an attorney in Kentucky, said that the “federal death penalty is driven by irrational or illegal considerations,” including race, gender, geography, or luck. “It’s akin to being struck by lightning,” McNally said.

McNally cited the Donald Fell case as a prime example of the role luck and timing can play in capital cases and the authorization of the death penalty....

Fell was convicted in the brutal killing of Terry King, a North Clarendon grandmother, and sentenced to death in 2005. The verdict was overturned due to juror misconduct and a retrial is scheduled for early next year.  The two-week long hearings in Rutland could lead to a historic Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty....

The lack of a uniform standard for seeking the death penalty is one of many factors that has eroded public trust in capital punishment, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who also testified on Friday.  Although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, Dieter said, growing numbers have expressed concern about the way it is applied....

Counsel for the U.S. government questioned whether the Death Penalty Information Center was a neutral source of information as Dieter characterized it.  Attorney Sonia Jimenez read the titles of several reports published by the center: “Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty”; “The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All”; and “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.”

Asked if he was opposed to the death penalty, Dieter said he took a fact-based approach. “It’s not a philosophical issue for me,” he said. “It’s not a moral issue.”

“The present system is broken,” he continued. “Can it be fixed? Maybe it can’t be fixed.”

The government will present its case next week in Rutland District Court.

In this post over at PrawfsBlawg, Michael J.Z. Mannheimer provides some additional context and highlights his distinct interest in the case:

The defense filed the usual battery of motions for a capital case, arguing among other things that the death penalty has become cruel and unusual punishment.  Curiously, the court issued an order this past February calling for a hearing on the issue.  Citing Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting), the court expressed an interest in the suggestion there that the risk of wrongful execution, the geographic disparities in the implementation of the death penalty, the long delays before execution, and the purported arbitrariness in meting out the death penalty all added up to its unconstitutionality.  However, the court seemed unsatisfied with deciding these issues without a factual record complete with testifying experts, and wrote that the purpose of a hearing “is to develop the fullest possible expression of both sides' factual and empirical arguments.”  In particular, while capital defendants typically repeat the same empirical assertions in their briefs, a hearing would provide the Government the opportunity to “cross-examine[] the sources of social and statistical information cited by the defense” and “offer[] its own empirical evidence in response.”...

Irrespective of how the court rules, it appears that the court is attempting to get as complete a factual record as possible in order to tee the unconstitutionality issue up for appeal.  My interest in this particular case stems from the fact that this is a federal capital prosecution for crimes occurring in a non-death penalty State (well, here, two separate non-death penalty States).  I have appeared in the case as an amicus and have filed an amicus brief on my own behalf making the argument, based on my prior scholarship, that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause forbids the imposition of the federal death penalty under these circumstances.  Presumably, the court will ultimately address that issue as well, unless it is mooted by a broader ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional full stop.

July 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"Why Capital Punishment Is No Punishment at All"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative article by Jason Iuliano just recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Capital punishment has generated an incredible amount of public debate.  Is the practice constitutional?  Does it deter crime?  Is it humane?  Supporters and opponents of capital punishment disagree on all of these issues and many more. There is perhaps only one thing that unites these two camps: the belief that the death penalty is society’s most severe punishment.

In this Article, I argue that this belief is mistaken. Capital punishment is not at the top of the punishment hierarchy.  In fact, it is no punishment at all.  My argument builds from a basic conception of punishment endorsed by the Supreme Court: for something to qualify as a punishment, it must be bad, in some way, for the person who is punished.  By drawing upon the philosophical literature regarding death, I show that this is not the case.  Contrary to our intuitions, the death penalty is not bad, in any way, for a condemned criminal.

This conclusion should not be understood to suggest that death is never bad. In most circumstances, death is bad.  There are, however, situations in which it is not, and capital punishment, as employed in the United States penal system, is one such situation.  By showing that capital punishment is not bad for the condemned criminal, I provide a strong constitutional objection to the practice.

July 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Spotlighting that the death penalty, practically speaking, is now really dying

BuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner has this lengthy and timely article highlighting some notable capital realities circa 2016. The piece carries this full headline: "Practically Speaking, The Death Penalty Is Disappearing In The United States: Although nearly 3,000 people are on death row in America, there has not been an execution in the country for two months — and few executions are expected in the coming months."  Here is the start of a piece that merits a full read:

It has been two months since any state in the United States has carried out an execution. This marks the longest time between executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court effectively halted them in the fall of 2007 through spring 2008 while considering a case about the constitutionality of lethal injection.

This time, the situation is very different. Although there are pending court cases about the death penalty’s application, the source of the two-month stoppage in executions isn’t the Supreme Court. It’s a variety of state-specific issues, ranging from the aftermath of Supreme Court rulings that come down earlier this year to drug availability to fallout from botched executions.

The pause on executions — since it is state-specific — won’t last forever.  The stoppage could end as soon as Thursday if an execution scheduled for Georgia goes ahead as planned.  It isn’t, however, only that there have been no executions in the past two months.  This year, there have been fewer executions overall — just 14 in the first half of the year — than in years past.  It’s extremely unlikely, moreover, that the number will be higher in the second half of the year.

There are, in fact, only three states — Georgia, Missouri, and Texas — that have executed anyone since January of this year. What’s more, these states appear to be the only ones that could hold an execution today — despite the nearly 3,000 people on death row across the country.  The only other state where executions still seem to be a possibility this year is Arkansas, and that is only so if the state obtains a new supply of execution drugs — which is by no means a sure thing.

Before the 2007-08 gap in executions, the next most recent time when there was such a gap was nearly 25 years ago, when there were no executions held between Nov. 12, 1991, and Jan. 22, 1992.  Even then, the stoppage is not entirely comparable to the current one because there often have been shorter periods with no executions surrounding the holiday season.  Gaps prior to then were more common, but they were due to the fact the states were still passing and implementing their execution process in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision approving execution statutes after a nationwide ruling against the death penalty laws four years earlier.

In short, this is an unprecedented moment in the modern era of the death penalty.  Why, in the absence of any overarching federal prohibition on executions, is this so?

July 11, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34)

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Notable sparring over sequence of capital trials for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof

In this post not long after the racist mass murderer committed by Dylann Storm Roof, I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution by both the feds and South Carolina in this post. Now that, a year later, this prospect has become a reality, the logistical dynamics are presenting interesting legal issues. And this new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Death Penalty Freeze Puts Charleston Church Shooting Trials in Conflict: State prosecutors say likelihood of execution gives their case precedence," explores some of this novel capital ground:

The alleged shooter of a South Carolina church congregation is scheduled to appear in state court next week amid a dispute over whether a state or federal case against him should go to trial first.

State prosecutors said in June their case against Dylann Roof should happen first because, in part, it is more likely to result in the death penalty. There is currently an effective moratorium on executions in the federal prison system, due to an internal review of the drugs used to execute prisoners.

South Carolina prosecutors charged Mr. Roof, 22 years old, with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder last year for the June 2015 slaying of nine parishioners at an African-American church, and Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she would pursue the death penalty. Federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Roof within weeks of the state indictment, are also seeking a death sentence.

Mr. Roof has pleaded not guilty but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the state or federal governments dropped requests for the death penalty. A lawyer for Mr. Roof didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The federal trial is scheduled to begin in November, while the state trial is slated for January. A hearing in state court is set for Wednesday to discuss the scheduling issues.

The dueling prosecutions have raised complicated procedural issues. Ms. Wilson said in court papers that because Mr. Roof is in the state’s custody, if he were sentenced to death in the federal trial, but received a life sentence in the state trial, the state would likely never relinquish custody of him, defeating any chance of an execution.

Ms. Wilson also argued that because the federal government last executed a prisoner in 2003, the state couldn’t trust that a death penalty verdict in the federal trial will actually result in an execution. “Because of the apparent unwillingness of the United States to implement a sentence of death, the state submits that the outcome of the federal trial has little to no relevance to the defendant’s ultimate fate,” Ms Wilson wrote. “For that reason, it disserves the victims to ask them to endure two trials, but the United States nonetheless has imposed its contrary will.”

Lawyers for Mr. Roof argued in court papers filed Wednesday that issues surrounding scheduling could be easily resolved if prosecutors would remove their request for the death penalty and accept Mr. Roof’s plea. “It was predictable that the unprecedented decision of both the state and federal governments to seek the execution of the same man at the same time would lead to scheduling problems,” defense attorneys wrote.

Federal prosecutors haven’t responded to the requests for the state trial to go first. In a letter to victims’ families Wednesday, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Beth Drake wrote, “While it may appear in court pleadings that the state and federal court are both working towards a speedy trial, at the end of the day, we are all after the same thing—justice.”

Mr. Roof’s attorneys have moved to dismiss the federal case, saying it ignores the division between state and federal jurisdictions.

A few prior related posts:

July 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"Implementing Proportionality"

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

Over the last fourteen years, the Supreme Court has issued five decisions that impose substantive constraints on our harshest punishments -- forbidding the execution of those with “mental retardation” in Atkins v. Virginia, of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, and of those convicted of child sexual assault in Kennedy v. Louisiana, and forbidding the sentence of life without parole for juveniles who had not killed in Graham v. Florida and for all juveniles when it is imposed mandatorily in Miller v. Alabama.  Because the offenders in question were categorically less culpable, the proscribed punishment was disproportionately severe, the Court held.  

In many respects, these decisions reinvigorated the Court’s substantive proportionality jurisprudence, which had been virtually dormant for two decades.  Yet, three of the five decisions simply have not yielded in practice what they promised in principle.  The implementation of Atkins, Graham and Miller has been so protracted, litigious and encumbered by procedural obstacles that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates nominally impacted by the decisions, only a fraction has been relieved of their sentences.  In the meantime, inmates with IQs of 61 have been executed, and others have died waiting to hear whether the Court’s decisions apply retroactively.

This Article argues that, despite its transformative potential, the Court’s contemporary proportionality jurisprudence has been diminished in scope and potency in the course of its implementation -- a dynamic that has been called “slippage.”  In many respects, the “slippage” of these mandates can be attributed to the decisions themselves, which are deregulatory and, in concert with the Court’s broader efforts to limit federal court jurisdiction over state criminal justice processes, tie the scope of relief to the political whims and majoritarian preferences of the States.  On some issues, the procedural docility of these decisions has proven so problematic that the Court has twice within the last two years had to intervene, striking portions of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in 2014 and, just weeks ago, declaring in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller does in fact apply retroactively.  

While the Court’s reluctance to regulate the implementation of its proportionality mandates may be rationalized as necessary deference to the principles of federalism and finality, these justifications are far less compelling in the Eighth Amendment context.  The very establishment of federal habeas, executive clemency, and Supreme Court review suggests that the Framers themselves recognized that there are normative points when interests in federalism and finality simply must yield.  By contrast, the risk of offending constitutional norms through slippage may be at their most pronounced since one of the Eighth Amendment’s primary purposes is to protect the politically powerless from government overreach.  I conclude that, if the Court is serious about implementing in practice the substantive constraints on punishment it has imposed over the last fourteen years, it must accompany its substantive mandates with a minimum threshold of procedural prescription.

July 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

New Philippines Prez wasting no time executing deadly "tough on crime" plans

In this post a couple of months ago, I noted then Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte was talking about bringing back capital punishment for drug users(!) and about give police shoot-to-kill powers to go after mobsters and drug dealers.  As now reported in this Newsweek article, President Duterte has followed up his talk with action his first week on the job.  The article is headlined "30 'Drug Dealers' Executed in Duterte's First Four Days as President," and here are the remarkable details:

The Philippines’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, appears to be living up to his nickname after less than a week in office. Police in the island country have said that some 30 suspected drug dealers have been killed since Duterte — dubbed The Punisher for his hardline stance on drugs — was sworn into office Thursday.

Formerly the mayor of the southern town of Davao, Duterte, 71, was elected in May following an explosive campaign in which he vowed to kill thousands of criminals and “fatten the fish” in Manila Bay in the capital Manila by dumping their bodies there. Following his oath, Duterte urged his supporters to do away with drug traffickers, reportedly saying: “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

The police chief for the Manila region, Oscar Albayalde, said that five drug dealers were killed following a gun battle with police Sunday, Reuters reported. Three other people were killed in other parts of Manila Sunday, while 22 were killed outside the capital. Police also made a seizure of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine — known locally as shabu — worth around 900 million Philippine pesos ($19 million), according to national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.

In total, more than 100 people have died — most suspected drug dealers, rapists and car thieves — in police operations since the election on May 9.

Prior related post:

July 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Draft DNC party platform calls for abolition of death penalty ... which means?

In this post last week, I wondered whether it really mattered what the traditional political parties had to say about criminal justice issues in their party platforms.  But this latest platform news as reported by CNN from the Democratic National Committee will surely matter to those who are eager to see abolition of the death penalty in the United States:

Democrats are calling for an end to capital punishment.  The latest draft of the party's platform, released Friday, says the death penalty "has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place in the United States of America."

The inclusion of the provision represents a victory of sorts for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- a longtime opponent of the punishment who has said he is remaining in the presidential race in order to fight for progressive causes.  Sanders offered mild praise for the platform Friday evening, tweeting, "The Democratic Platform includes some accomplishments that will begin to move this country in the right direction."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has supported the death penalty in the past, albeit on a limited basis, suggesting that there could be cases for "very limited use" of the punishment in "horrific" terrorist crimes.  She was confronted over the issue during a CNN-TV One town hall event in May by an exonerated former death row inmate who spent 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

For a host of reasons, I would be very surprised to hear Hillary Clinton now express opposition to the death penalty for the likes of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or even Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof. Thus, it would seem the DNC is charting a path toward adopting a party platform that will not be fully embraced by its Prez nominee. And that, in turn, means .... I have no idea.

July 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, July 01, 2016

California initiative to reform death penalty in state qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)

As helpfully explained by Kent Scheidegger via this post at Crime & Consequences, an "initiative to fix problems that have obstructed the enforcement of the death penalty in California has qualified for the ballot." The group supporting the effort is called Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings, and its website has all the details of its reform efforts. Kent's post provides this additional context and information:

Four years ago, the friends of murderers came within four percent of repealing the death penalty because they had the money to qualify an initiative while the forces of justice did not. Many people believed that the choice was therefore one between repeal and the status quo of a penalty that is never enforced.

Not this time. The status quo will be history come November, and the people have a clear choice between "end it" and "mend it."

If both initiatives pass, the one that gets the greater number of "yes" votes will prevail.

The greatest problem, once again, will be the great disparity in funding. Softness on crime is the cause of deep-pocketed elitists who do not suffer the consequences of crime, while the base for toughness on crime consists mainly of regular folks of modest means who do. The other side will be able to run deceptive ads, and we will have limited ability to counter them with truthful rebuttal through paid advertising.  Hopefully we will be able to get the truth out through other means.

Among the interesting aspects of this story to watch in the coming months is whether various prominent California (or national) officials will officially support/endorse the mend or the end proposal. I suspect most will try to avoid talking about the issue, but I am hopeful the press and advocates will press prominent politicans to express a position.

Prior related post:

July 1, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

New report highlights huge role of a handful of local prosecutors on the size of death rows

20160628_FPP-ShareableThis notable new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project highlights the consequential role of just a handful of local prosecutors on the modern US death penalty.  The report, titled "America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive The Death Penalty," gets started this way (with footnotes removed):

Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not commit.  Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.” “Revenge,” he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”  Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.

Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States,” Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.”  There are more than 3,100 counties, 2,400 head prosecutors, and thousands of line prosecutors in America — yet only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?

This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors.  Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina.  These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost.  For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36% of his death penalty prosecutions, said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” The remaining two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death sentences against a staggering 108 and 201 people, respectively, during their terms.

Of these five prosecutors, only one — Donnie Myers — remains in office, and he plans to retire at the end of the year. One of the most remarkable findings from our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions — a pattern that has only become clear in the years since their departures.

We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming members of this notorious group.  These runners-up have egregious records in their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.

Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued beyond the tenure of these prosecutors.  Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death sentences than in years past.  Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death sentences, the fewest in recent history.  This number represents an 84.4% drop from the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts.  However, in the increasingly small number of the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors dominate death-sentencing statistics.

In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.  Taken together, the profiles featured in this report demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.

June 30, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Updates on considerable success of "guerilla war" over executions and access to lethal injection drugs

In the Glossip litigation, Justice Alito famously complained that capital lawyers contesting execution protocols were part of a broader "guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." Against that backdrop, two recent articles about execution drugs provide an interesting snapshot of the remarkable success that opponents of the death penalty have achieved in this so-called "guerilla war":

June 27, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Religious Objections to the Death Penalty after Hobby Lobby"

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Delaware Supreme Court struggles to tame the post-Hurst hydra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The poll found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Thursday, June 09, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Monday, June 06, 2016

SCOTUS grants cert two notable Texas capital cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 05, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTUS order list inclludes a couple notable criminal appeal summary reversals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Saturday, May 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior recent related posts:

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

Two notable new article examing capital prosecutions of intellectually disabled defendants

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Reviewing the state and future of lethal injection as execution method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related post:

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

Monday, May 09, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Louisiana’s Color­-Coded Death Penalty"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 07, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 06, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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