Tuesday, February 06, 2018

ABA House of Delegates enacts resolution urging prohibition of death penalty's application to those under 21

Images (5)As reported in this ABA Journal posting, the "ABA House of Delegates on Monday asked all death penalty jurisdictions to ban capital punishment for any offender who committed their crime at the age of 21 or younger." Here is more:

In the report accompanying the resolution, the chairs of the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice wrote: “In light of this evolution of both the scientific and legal understanding surrounding young criminal defendants and broader changes to the death penalty landscape, it is now time for the ABA to revise its dated position and support the exclusion of individuals who were 21 years old or younger at the time of their crime.”

The language of Resolution 111 makes clear that the ABA is not taking a position “supporting or opposing the death penalty.”

In a motion to amend, Robert L. Weinberg, a past president of the District of Columbia Bar and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, proposed removing that language. He brought up a CLE session held earlier during this midyear meeting by Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “We stand almost alone among the progressive democracies in adhering to capital punishment,” he said....

Michael Byowitz, the Board of Governors’ liaison to the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, rose to speak in opposition to Weinberg’s amendment.... Byowitz said marginal efforts chipping away at the use of the death penalty are the most effective ways of addressing the problem. “We will be ignored if we are perceived in many of the councils that matter as against the death penalty,” he said. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”...

The amendment was defeated in a divided vote. Resolution 111 was passed overwhelmingly.

The full Resolution and Report can be accessed at this link.  The report runs a dozen pages and concludes this way:

In the decades since the ABA adopted its policy opposing capital punishment for individuals under the age of 18, legal, scientific and societial developments strip the continued application of the death penalty against individuals in late adolescence of its moral or constitutional justification.  The rationale supporting the bans on executing either juveniles, as advanced in Roper v. Simmons, or individuals with intellectual disabilities, as set forth in Atkins v. Virginia, also apply to offenders who are 21 years old or younger when they commit their crimes.  Thus, this policy proposes a practical limitation based on age that is supported by science, tracks many other areas of our civil and criminal law, and will succeed in making the administration of the death penalty fairer and more proportional to both the crimes and the offenders.

In adopting this revised position, the ABA still acknowledges the need to impose serious and severe punishment on these individuals when they take the life of another person.  Yet at the same time, this policy makes clear our recognition that individuals in late adolescence, in light of their ongoing neurological development, are not among the worst of the worst offenders, for whom the death penalty must be reserved.

February 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, February 02, 2018

Are Governors considering capital clemency inclined to give great weight to capital jurors calling for a commutation?

In my sentencing class, we have been talking about all the different players in the sentencing drama, and those stories often come into especially sharp relief as we move into our capital punishment unit.  And, coincidentally, after an execution in Texas last night, Ohio has the next scheduled execution in the US so that my students can have a front-row seat concerning all the players that become involved in the sentencing drama as a death sentence gets ever closer to being carried out.

Against that backdrop, the question in the title of this post arises as a result of the news, reported at the end of this article: Ohio "Governor Kasich has faced calls in recent weeks to spare Tibbetts because attorneys say he suffered from opioid addiction.  On Thursday, a former juror in Tibbetts’ capital murder trial wrote a letter urging Kasich to grant him a reprieve.  The juror said he has since seen mitigating evidence that he had never seen at trial and he would not have recommended the death penalty if he heard about Tibbetts’ history of abuse and addiction."

The full text of the intricate four-page letter from juror Ross Allen Geiger to Ohio Gov Kasich is available at this link.  It makes for an interesting read, and here an excerpt:

All of these things lead me to one conclusion and that is that the system was and seems to be today very flawed in this case.  The State of Ohio (through Hamilton County) called on me to fulfill a civic duty one that included an unenviable task of possibly recommending death for another man.  I fulfilled this duty faithfully. Governor, if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn’t we get it right?  Shouldn’t the officers of the court (primarily the defense attorneys) treat the life or death phase with great attention to detail and the respect it deserves?

In conclusion, Tibbets is guilty and has forfeited forever his right to freedom.  If the death penalty is reserved for the “worst of the worst”, that is murderers that truly have no potential for redemption, then I ask you to grant mercy to Tibbets.  Based on what I know today I would not have recommended the death penalty....

February 2, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Texas completes its thirs execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, headlined "John Battaglia jokes with his ex-wife before being executed for killing their girls while she listened in horror," a death sentence was carried out tonight in Texas. Here are the details:

John David Battaglia went out with a joke and a grin. Battaglia, 62, offered no apologies and showed no remorse for killing his daughters at his Deep Ellum loft in 2001.

He seemed jovial, strapped to a gurney while witnesses arrived to watch his execution at the state's Huntsville Unit. As they filed in, he looked around and asked, "How many people are there? Oh, that's a lot."

The one-time accountant even said hello to his ex-wife, Mary Jean Pearle, who was there to watch him die. "Well, hi, Mary Jean. I'll see y'all later. Bye," he said. "Go ahead, please."

He closed his eyes for several moments, and shortly after the lethal injection was administered, he looked at the chaplain at his feet, smiled and asked, "Am I still alive?" Battaglia grinned and then sighed. "Oh, here, I feel it," he said. It took about 22 minutes for him to be pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m.

Battaglia was the third man executed this year in the nation, all in Texas, and the second killer from Dallas put to death this week. His execution brought an end to a lengthy legal battle to spare his life. He was twice granted a stay so his mental competency could be evaluated, and his attorneys filed last-ditch efforts Thursday to delay the execution.

Battaglia received national attention in May 2001 after he gunned down his 9-year-old daughter, Faith, and 6-year-old Liberty at his Deep Ellum loft while their mother listened helplessly on the phone. At the time, he was on probation for hitting his ex-wife, the girls' mother, and she had been trying to have him arrested for violating that probation.

"Mommy, why do you want Daddy to have to go to jail?" Faith was told to ask her mother, moments before the girl begged for her life. "No, Daddy. Don't do it."

Last week, his attorneys filed a request for a stay of execution to the U.S. Supreme Court saying that Battaglia did not fully understand why he was being put to death. "Although he is aware of the state's rationale for his execution, he does not have a rational understanding of it," appellate attorneys Michael Mowla and Gregory Gardner wrote.

Battaglia, himself, said in a 2014 interview with The Dallas Morning News that he didn't recall committing the crime and still considered the girls his "best little friends."... In his Texas appeals, his attorneys wrote that Battaglia was "convinced that his trial and conviction were a sham" and that his death sentence was all part of a conspiracy involving "the KKK, child molesters and homosexual lawyers."...

A state judge and the state appeals court, however, described Battaglia as highly intelligent, competent and not mentally ill. They argued he was faking mental illness to avoid execution. Testimony at a hearing showed Battaglia used the prison library to research capital case rulings on mental competence and discussed with his father the "chess game" of avoiding execution....

Pearle, the killer's ex-wife and the mother of his victims, was at the Huntsville Unit on Thursday to witness his execution — almost 17 years after she listened to Faith and Liberty die and pleaded for them to run away from their father. On Thursday, she leaned in as close as she could to the window separating the witnesses from the death chamber. Pearle watched as Battaglia's breathing grew heavy and then stopped. "I've seen enough of him," Pearle said as she walked away.

February 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Texas carries out its second execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, a "Dallas man who was already on parole for the murder of his estranged wife when he stabbed and strangled his ex-girlfriend in 1999 begged for forgiveness and thanked God with his final breaths before his Tuesday night execution." Here is more:

"I've asked God to forgive me.  Please find it in your hearts to forgive me," William Earl Rayford said before he died by lethal injection at 8:48 p.m.  The 64-year-old asked his victim's family for forgiveness and promised to keep them in his prayers, according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman....

The execution, which took 13 minutes to carry out, was delayed more than two hours in light of a pair of pending Supreme Court appeals, including claims that racially biased testimony tainted his sentencing.

With another execution on the calendar for Thursday, this week could be the first time in five years the Lone Star State has seen back-to-back executions so close together.  The next death date on the calendar is for John David Battaglia, who was convicted of killing his two daughters in 2001 while narrating the slayings to his estranged wife on the other end of the phone.  The scheduled execution comes two weeks after Texas carried out the nation's first execution of 2018 with the lethal injection of Houston-area serial killer Anthony Shore.

Rayford was first sent to death row 17 years ago, following the gruesome slaying of Carol Hall. The crime eerily echoed a 1986 killing that netted him a 23-year prison sentence....

In the years since his arrival on death row, Rayford, who is black, has launched appeals centering on claims of bad lawyering, brain damage and a suicide attempt that his lawyers argued showed remorse and hinted that he may not be a future danger.  This week, in a flurry of last-minute filings in the Supreme Court — including one late Tuesday — Rayford's lawyers argued that racially charged testimony during the punishment phase of trial "irreparably stained" the case....  But late Tuesday — after the execution had been delayed for more than two hours — the court rejected both of Rayford's bids for reprieve....

Last year, Texas led the nation in executions with seven condemned men put to death. The Lone Star State is the only state to execute a prisoner so far this year. Rayford's execution was the second nationwide this year.

January 30, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 26, 2018

SCOTUS (surprisingly?) stays scheduled Alabama execution

As reported in this local article, headlined "Execution called off for Alabama inmate Vernon Madison," the Supreme Court last night got in the way of a state's effort to carry out a death sentence for a man first convicted of killing a police office back in 1985(!). Here are some details and background:

Vernon Madison, one of the longest serving inmates on Alabama's Death Row, was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Thursday, but 30 minutes before the scheduled execution the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay. The stay was later granted, and Madison's execution called off.

Madison, 67, has been on death row for over 30 years after being convicted in April 1985 of killing Mobile police Cpl. Julius Schulte. He was set to die by lethal injection at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore Thursday night, but escaped execution for the second time via a court order.

Madison was 34 when he was charged Schulte's death, who was responding to a domestic disturbance call. Madison also was charged with shooting the woman he lived with at the time, 37-year-old Cheryl Ann Greene. She survived her injuries....

Madison's first trial took place in September 1985. He was convicted, but a state appellate court sent the case back for a violation involving race-based jury selection. His second trial took place in 1990. Prosecutors presented a similar case, and defense attorneys again argued that Madison suffered from a mental illness. They did not dispute the fact that Madison shot Schulte, but said he did not know that Schulte - dressed in plain clothes and driving an unmarked police cruiser - was a police officer.

He was again convicted, and a jury recommended a death sentence by a 10-2 vote. An appellate court again sent the case back to Mobile County for a retrial, this time based on improper testimony from an expert witness for the prosecution.

His third and final trial took place in April 1994. He was convicted, and the jury recommended a life sentence after both Madison and his mother, Aldonia McMillan, asked for mercy. Mobile County Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae sentenced Madison to death-- this time overriding the jury's recommendation.

In April 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that says juries, not judges, have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty. That law officially ended Alabama's judicial override policy, as Alabama was the last state to allow it.

Late Wednesday, Madison's attorneys filed two more petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court-- an application for a stay of execution, and a petition for a writ of certiorari focused on the issue of judicial override. Madison's attorneys argued that since he was sent to death under the judicial override statue, he is entitled to a stay and a review of his case. Attorneys filed similar motions to the Alabama Supreme Court, but they denied the request earlier Wednesday. "Because a death sentence is no longer permissible in cases where the jury has returned a sentence of life, Mr. Madison filed a challenge to his death sentence and scheduled execution in the Alabama Supreme Court. He contended that this execution would be arbitrary and capricious and constitute a violation of the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment," the petition states. "The judicial override in this case resulted in a death sentence that is arbitrary, disproportionate, and unconstitutional..." Madison was first scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in May 2016, but there was a temporary delay. Hours after that execution's scheduled time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stay of execution. The AG's Office filed responses in opposition to those petitions. In November 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision, paving the way for Madison to be executed.

Last month, Madison's attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative filed a petition in Mobile County court to stay Madison's execution, but after a hearing the judge in that case denied the request for a stay of execution. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the EJI and one of Madison's attorneys, then filed two new petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court: One for a stay of execution, and one asking the court to review the case. The AG's Office also filed responses to those requests....

Around 5:30 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of execution, but the stay was granted at 8:10 p.m. Madison will not be executed Thursday night, and the AG's office must request a new execution date from the state supreme court.

The Supreme Court's order states the stay is in place until the justices decide whether they will grant Madison's writ of certiorari, or if they will review the case. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch would deny the application for stay, the order said.

Without seeing all the filings, it is hard for me to tell at this stage whether this stay could be a big deal for death penalty jurisprudence generally. But it is obviously a big deal for any and everyone connected to this defendant, his victims and perhaps all capital lawyers in Alabama.

UPDATE: A commentor and a tweet alerted me to this report from Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed News headlined "The Supreme Court Stopped Alabama From Executing A Man Over Competency Questions." Here is how this piece accounts for the stay:

The Supreme Court on Thursday night halted the scheduled execution of Vernon Madison, who was set to face lethal injection in Alabama for the 1985 murder of a police officer.

The stay of execution was granted by the court while the justices consider whether to take up Madison's case in which his lawyers argue he is no longer competent to face execution, noting this he has been diagnosed with vascular dementia and "is unable to recollect the sequence of events from the offense, to his arrest, to his trial and can no longer connect the underlying offense to his punishment." Alabama's lawyers opposed the request.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch noted that they would have allowed the execution to proceed. At least five justices had to vote to grant the stay of execution, but justices do not have to announce their vote on stay applications like Madison's stay request, so the exact vote tally — and the votes of the other justices — is not known publicly.

I have changed the title of this post to reflect my own uncertainty about the stay's terms.

January 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"How IQ Tests Are Perverted to Justify the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary.  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court has slowly been carving out exemptions to the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities.  In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that people with intellectual disabilities could not be executed, but left it up to the states to determine who is or is not eligible for that protection.  In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the court ruled that a state can't use a simple IQ cut-off.  Then, in last year's Moore v. Texas, the court ruled that states must consider the best psychiatric and medical information about disability when determining disabled status.  Still, IQ testing continues to play a major role, with a threshold of around 70 serving as the cutoff score, below which a person cannot legally be executed.

Here's where "ethnic adjustments" come in.  The practice, as documented by attorney Robert Sanger in a 2015 article in the American University Law Review [available here], adjusts IQ scores upward for people of color convicted of capital crimes.  According to Sanger, prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have all used ethnic adjustments to successfully impose the death penalty on people who otherwise might have been deemed exempt.  In his article, Sanger works methodically through case after case, noting in particular the role played by expert witnesses for the prosecution, who testify to the racial biases of IQ testing. In most cases, these experts have never met the person convicted of the capital crime or assessed that person for disability, even as their testimony clears the way for execution.

At the end of his article, Sanger writes, "The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound.  In fact, when looked at more closely, it is a wonder how the practice has gone largely unchallenged over the last few years."  When I spoke to him over the phone, Sanger confirmed to me that no clear constitutional challenge to the practice has emerged to his knowledge, and certainly not at the United States Supreme Court, or in California, where he practices law.

January 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Documentary film about capital punishment, "The Penalty," starts screening in Ohio

Ohio+Tour+The+PenaltyI had heard some time ago that a documentary film was being made that included former student of mine, Allen Bohnert, who has spent the last decade defending persons on Ohio's death row as they approach execution dates. That film, called The Penalty, is complete and is now about to start a week-long Ohio series of showings.

An extended preview of the film is available at this link, and here are parts of the film's official description from its website:

Three extraordinary people embark on journeys of recovery, discovery and rebellion and find themselves centre stage in the biggest capital punishment crisis in modern memory.

The Penalty is a feature documentary film following three people with extraordinary experiences of America's modern death penalty and goes behind the scenes of capital punishment's most recent headlines....

America’s most divisive issue — capital punishment — is running into some trouble. With drug supplies for lethal injections drying up and public support at an all-time-low, the struggle to keep executing is taking its toll.

The Penalty follows three people caught in the crosshairs of capital punishment and the political landscape that could decide their fate.  Going behind the scenes of some of the biggest headlines in the history of America's death penalty, the film follows the lethal injection protocol crisis that resulted in a botched execution; the rehabilitation of a man who spent 15 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and the family of a young woman — brutally murdered — split by the state's pursuit of the ultimate punishment.

And here are details about this week's Ohio screenings (with links from the original):

We're very excited to announce that in 2018 we'll be taking The Penalty on tour around the US, starting with a week long tour of Ohio from the 22nd-28th of January. 

Ohio currently has over 25 executions scheduled up to 2022 with the next one scheduled for just a few weeks time on February 13th. After the last attempted execution ended in disarray, there couldn't be a better time to take this film around the state. 

We've teamed up with Ohioans to Stop Executions and The Inter-community Justice and Peace Centre to put on 9 FREE SCREENINGS around the state. Each screening will be followed by a talkback session with the film's co-director Will Francome and special guests, plus the opportunity to take action. 

For those of you in Ohio, or who have friends or family in the state, go to this link to reserve your free tickets. 

If you're not in Ohio - don't fear - there will be more screenings this year, with multiple state tours and one-off screenings. 

January 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Texas completes first execution of 2018

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "'Tourniquet Killer' executed in Texas for 1992 strangling," the first execution of the year was completed in Texas this evening. Here is the story:

Texas carried out the nation's first execution of 2018 Thursday evening, giving lethal injection to a man who became known as Houston's "Tourniquet Killer" because of his signature murder technique on four female victims. Anthony Allen Shore was put to death for one of those slayings, the 1992 killing of a 21-year-old woman whose body was dumped in the drive-thru of a Houston Dairy Queen.

In his final statement, Shore, 55, was apologetic and his voice cracked with emotion. "No amount of words or apology could ever undo what I've done," Shore said while strapped to the death chamber gurney. "I wish I could undo the past, but it is what it is."

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital began, Shore said the drug burned. "Oooh-ee! I can feel that," he said before slipping into unconsciousness. He was pronounced dead 13 minutes later at 6:28 p.m. CST.

"Anthony Allen Shore's reign of terror is officially over," Andy Kahan, the city of Houston crime victims' advocate, said, speaking for the families of Shore's victims. "There's a reason we have the death penalty in the state of Texas and Anthony Shore is on the top of the list. This has been a long, arduous journey that has taken over 20 years for victims' families."

Shore's lawyers argued in appeals he suffered brain damage early in life that went undiscovered by his trial attorneys and affected Shore's decision to disregard their advice when he told his trial judge he wanted the death penalty. A federal appeals court last year turned down his appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case and the six-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected a clemency petition.

In 1998, Shore received eight years' probation and became a registered sex offender for sexually assaulting two relatives. Five years later, Shore was arrested for the 1992 slaying of Maria del Carmen Estrada after a tiny particle recovered from under her fingernail was matched to his DNA. "I didn't set out to kill her," he told police in a taped interview played at his 2004 trial. "That was not my intent. But it got out of hand."...

He also confessed to killing three others, a 9-year-old and two teenagers. All four of his victims were Hispanic and at least three had been raped. Jurors also heard from three women who testified he raped them.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who as an assistant prosecutor worked the then-unsolved Estrada case, said crime scene photos showed Estrada was tortured and had suffered as a stick was used to tighten a cord around her neck. "I know this case, I know his work and the death penalty is appropriate," she said. "A jury in this case gave Shore death. ... I think he's reached the end of the road and now it's up to government to complete the job."

Besides Estrada, Shore confessed to the slayings of Laurie Tremblay, 15, found beside a trash bin outside a Houston restaurant in 1986; Diana Rebollar, 9, abducted while walking to a neighborhood grocery store in 1994; and Dana Sanchez, 16, who disappeared in 1995 while hitchhiking to her boyfriend's home in Houston....

In 2017, 23 convicted killers were put to death in the U.S., seven of them in Texas, more than another state. Three more inmates are scheduled to die in Texas in the coming weeks.

January 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Noticing the rise in LWOP as death sentencing declines in Texas

This lengthy article from the Houston Chronicle, headlined "Harris County leads Texas in life without parole sentences as death penalty recedes," provides an astute review of the sentencing impact of a decline of death sentencing.  Here are excerpts (with the closing sentences prompting some commentary):

Once known as the "capital of capital punishment," Harris County is now doling out more life without parole sentences than any other county in the state.

In the 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the life without parole or "LWOP" bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences — nearly 25 percent of the state's total, according to data through mid-December obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"It's concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there's no free lunch," said Houston defense attorney Patrick McCann. "We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That's a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences."

The county's reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as the Houston area — and Texas as a whole — has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. And although part of that downturn stems from the possibility of life without parole, some experts see possible drawbacks....

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, described life without parole as a "saving grace" for victims' families. "Like it or not, there's some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life," he said. "In a utopian world it'd be great if we didn't have to have it but that's not reality."

While Harris County grabs the lion's share of the state's life without parole sentences, Dallas County came in right behind with 120, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data through Dec. 18. Tarrant County had 69 of the state's 1,067 total such sentences, while Bexar County had 47 and Hidalgo had 26....

Just over 17 percent of the state's population lives in Harris County, according to Texas Department of State Health Services population projections for 2016. That makes for an LWOP rate of 6 sentences per 100,000 residents, which is higher than in all but two counties with populations over 100,000.

In comparison to murder figures, the relatively large number of life without parole sentences looks less surprising. According to an analysis of DPS data, in 2016 Harris County accounted for 27.7 percent of the state's murders and 22.7 percent of the murders cleared.

And while Harris County accounts for a disproportionate number of total executions nationwide — more than any other county or entire state, except the rest of Texas — it has generated only a small fraction of the total life without parole sentences across the country, based on TDCJ figures and a 2017 Sentencing Project report.

"Where the corporate culture has changed is the willingness to seek death," McCann said, referring to local prosecutors. "Cases that ten years ago would have been death even with LWOP are now charged as non-death," McCann said. "But that doesn't mean that they've stopped charging the LWOP cases."

To some extent, Texas' relatively low LWOP use compared to national numbers may stem from the fact that prosecutors have only had the option for life without parole since 2005. Before that, the harshest choices were death — or the possibility of release after 40 years....

Texas became the last death penalty state to adopt the option, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition. Initially it only applied to capital murder, but later the law was expanded to include crimes like repeated sexual assault of a child.

From the statute's inception, Harris County was one of its biggest users. "It's not surprising because Harris County is also the driver of the death penalty numbers and most juvenile commitments as well," Henneke said. "Across the board Harris County is the incarceration county."...

Unlike with death-sentenced cases, there's no automatic appointment of post-conviction appellate counsel and no punishment phase of the trial, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper. "Life without parole was an unintentional gift to major urban prosecutors' offices," McCann said. "It makes it very easy to dispose of a large number of violent and often youthful offenders without any more thought than one would need to toss away a piece garbage."

The last few passages highlight what has long been my enduring concern as abolitionist have pushed for LWOP sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. Though the extreme LWOP sentence may at first be only available for the worst murders, once on the books it can and often does creep to be applicable to a range of other crimes. And capital cases come with super due-process, much of which is constitutionally requires; LWOP can be imposed, as this article puts it, "quicker and cheaper." While I understand why abolitionists celebrate the use of LWOP in order to engineer a decline in capital cases, I also lament the various ways abolitionist advocacy for LWOP alternatives have contributed to modern mass incarceration and further entrenched carceral commitments and contentments.

January 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Notable report of AG Sessions seeking more federal death sentences, but what about carrying out those long ago imposed?

The Wall Street Journal has this notable article today headlined "U.S. to Seek Death Penalty More Often for Violent Crimes; Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal prosecutors to seek capital punishment in two murder cases and is said to be weighing it in others, including Manhattan terror attack." Here are excerpts (with two particular lines emphasized):

The Justice Department has agreed to seek the federal death penalty in at least two murder cases, in what officials say is the first sign of a heightened effort under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use capital punishment to further crack down on violent crime.

In a decision made public Monday, Mr. Sessions authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Billy Arnold, who is charged with killing two rival gang members in Detroit.  The decision followed the first death-penalty authorization under Mr. Sessions, made public Dec. 19, when he cleared prosecutors in Orlando to seek a death sentence against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who is charged with fatally shooting his estranged wife in 2016.

The Justice Department is also considering seeking death sentences against Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people in November by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike lane, and against two defendants in the 2016 slaying of two teenage girls by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, outside of New York City, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mr. Sessions views the death penalty as a “valuable tool in the tool belt,” according to a senior Justice Department official. The official said the death penalty isn’t only a deterrent, but also a “punishment for the most heinous crimes prohibited under federal law.” The Justice Department under President Donald Trump expects to authorize more death penalty cases than the previous administration did, the official said....

The last federal execution was in 2003. Since 1963, three federal defendants have been executed. The federal government has secured 25 death sentences since 2007, down from 45 death sentences between 1996 and 2006....

Only 2% of death-penalty cases are sentenced in federal court. Several types of murder cases fall under federal jurisdiction, including those involving drug trafficking, racketeering or — in Mr. Madison’s case — interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking.

The Obama administration sought the federal death penalty in at least four dozen cases, fewer than the Bush administration, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, a federally funded program to assist death penalty lawyers. The cases authorized under the previous administration included ones involving terrorism, the killing of children or law-enforcement officers, and murders by prisoners already serving life sentences.

But in recent years, a Justice Department review of the drugs used to execute prisoners prompted an effective moratorium on federal executions.

Mr. Sessions appears to be seeking the death penalty against a broader set of violent crimes. Former Justice Department officials under President Barack Obama said they typically wouldn’t have authorized capital punishment in a case like Mr. Arnold’s, which involves gang-on-gang violence. Murder cases with “victims who were themselves involved in criminal activity” are the ones where death penalty decisions tend to fluctuate by administration, said David Bitkower, a former Justice Department official under Mr. Obama who prosecuted two death-penalty gang cases.

Eric Holder, who served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015, personally opposed the death penalty. Loretta Lynch, Mr. Holder’s successor, called capital punishment “an effective penalty” at her confirmation hearing.

Mr. Sessions has put combating violent crime at the center of his agenda, encouraging prosecutors to pursue longer prison sentences and approving the hiring of dozens of new violent-crimes prosecutors.

The moves come as the death penalty on the state and federal level has been in decline. State executions are hovering near 26-year lows, partly due to dwindling supplies of lethal drugs and growing legal scrutiny from courts....

Former prosecutors say an increase in death-penalty cases could be time-consuming and expensive for both government and defense lawyers. Appeals in death penalty cases can take decades.

There are 61 prisoners on federal death row, compared with more than 2,800 in the states.

The de facto federal moratorium on executions got started more than a decade ago in the run up to the Supreme Court's first review of the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols in Baze.   After Baze resolved the basic constitutionality of lethal injection protocols, and especially after Glossip back in 2015 had the Supreme Court making pretty clear that jurisdictions could lawfully use a number of potential lethal injection drugs, the justification for continuing the de facto federal moratorium on executions became shaky at best.  Consequently, if AG Sessions is really serious about the death penalty as a "valuable tool in the tool belt," he needs to make an effort to make sure that the tool is actually fully operational.  Sending folks to US death row when there are no executions going forward is really just another way to impose LWOP while perpetuating a functional legal fiction.

Notably, this helpful list of all 61 federal death row prisoners from the Death Penalty Information Center reveals that 10 condemned have been languishing on federal death row for two decades or longer, and most have been there more than a decade.  Especially given that Justice Breyer has often argued that long stays on death row violate the Eighth Amendment, AG Sessions might even suggest he is duty bound to try to speed up the federal execution process in order to avoid possible constitutional violations.

January 10, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 08, 2018

SCOTUS back to work with remarkable split habeas ruling giving capital defendant another (long-shot?) chance to obtain relief

At the end of this long Supreme Court order list, comprised primarily of a long list of cases in which certiorari has been denied, comes a fascinating little per curiam opinion in Tharpe v. Seller, No. 17–6075 (S. Ct. jan 8, 2018) (available here).  The ruling is a rare summary SCOTUS win for a capital habeas defendant, and the short majority opinion provides only a small glimpse into the case (though a clear view of what motivated a majority of Justices to want to intervene).  Here are excerpts from the opinion (with cites removed):

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 60(b)(6). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him....

Our review of the record compels a different conclusion.  The state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race.  And that factual determination is binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.  Here, however, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”  Gattie’s remarkable affidavit — which he never retracted — presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.  At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong.  The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, authored a lengthy dissent to the majority's short ruling. It starts and ends this way:

If bad facts make bad law, then “unusual facts” inspire unusual decisions.  Ante, at 3.  In its brief per curiam opinion, the Court misreads a lower court’s opinion to find an error that is not there, and then refuses to entertain alternative grounds for affirmance. The Court does this to accomplish little more than a do-over in the Court of Appeals: As it concedes, petitioner Keith Tharpe faces a “high bar” on remand to obtain even a certificate of appealability (COA).  Ante, at 2.

One might wonder why the Court engages in this pointless exercise.  The only possible explanation is its concern with the “unusual facts” of this case, specifically a juror affidavit that expresses racist opinions about blacks.  The opinions in the affidavit are certainly odious.  But their odiousness does not excuse us from doing our job correctly, or allow us to pretend that the lower courts have not done theirs.

The responsibility of courts is to decide cases, both usual and unusual, by neutrally applying the law.  The law reflects society’s considered judgments about the balance of competing interests, and we must respect those judgments.  In bending the rules here to show its concern for a black capital inmate, the Court must think it is showing its concern for racial justice.  It is not.  Its summary vacatur will not stop Tharpe’s execution or erase the “unusual fac[t]” of the affidavit.  It will only delay justice for Jaquelin Freeman, who was also black, who is ignored by the majority, and who was murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. I respectfully dissent....

Today’s decision can be explained only by the “unusual fac[t]” of Gattie’s first affidavit.  Ibid.  The Court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that affidavit, and must want to do something about it.  But the Court’s decision is no profile in moral courage.  By remanding this case to the Court of Appeals for a useless do-over, the Court is not doing Tharpe any favors.  And its unusual disposition of his case callously delays justice for Jaquelin Freeman, the black woman who was brutally murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. Because this Court should not be in the business of ceremonial handwringing, I respectfully dissent.

This is quite the way to start Supreme Court activity in 2018, a year that seems certain to have at least the usual share of SCOTUS fireworks. (I am also inspired by Justice Thomas's closing thought to imagine a new tagline for this blog: "Engaged in ceremonial handwringing since 2004.")

January 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Friday, January 05, 2018

"What to Know About the Death Penalty in 2018"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Marshall Project piece that astutely previews what the year ahead might hold in the arena of capital punishment.  Here is how the piece starts and its preview themes:

Only a little more than a year ago, many opponents of the death penalty were cautiously optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court — perhaps with a Clinton appointee or two — might strike down the punishment for good. Then came President Donald Trump, who tweeted “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” about one criminal suspect and recently called for the execution of anyone who kills a police officer. He picked an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, known for his efforts to pursue executions in Alabama, and a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whose first major decision was to deny a prisoner’s request for a stay of execution.

But does all that matter? The number of executions and new death sentences have been trending downward for years. Support for capital punishment in the U.S. is at about 55 percent, its lowest point in more than four decades. Trump’s first year saw a slight rise in death sentences and executions, but those are the product of counties and states; the president and attorney general have little say beyond the occasional federal case. What can we expect at the beginning of 2018? Is the death penalty almost gone, or will the president’s support rejuvenate it?

To answer those questions, there will be four places to watch:

The Counties

It’s up to local, elected district attorneys to decide whether to ask a jury for the death penalty. In the 1990s, many prosecutors campaigned on their successes sending men to death row. But much has changed....

The States

It takes a DA and a jury to send someone to death row, but it takes a massive state bureaucracy to kill him. Courts must uphold the convictions, prison officials must secure lethal injection drugs, and governors and attorneys general must clear political and legal obstacles....

The Supreme Court

Trump could leave a massive legacy at the Supreme Court, especially if Justice Anthony Kennedy follows through on his plan to retire....

The U.S. Attorney General

The federal government has successfully sought capital punishment 76 times since 1988. It will become clear in 2018 whether Sessions will try to impose capital punishment in some current cases.

January 5, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

NY Times again forcefully calls for Supreme Court to end the use of the death penalty

The New York Times editorial page has long advocated for the abolition of the death penalty, and it started the new year with another long and forceful editorial on this front.  Headlined "Capital Punishment Deserves a Quick Death," here are excerpts:

As the nation enters 2018, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear at least one case asking it to strike down the death penalty, once and for all, for violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

Whether the justices take that or another case, the facts they face will be the same: The death penalty is a savage, racially biased, arbitrary and pointless punishment that becomes rarer and more geographically isolated with every year. In 2017 the total number of people sitting on death rows across America fell for the 17th straight year. In Harris County, Tex., the nation’s undisputed leader in state-sanctioned killing, the year passed without a single execution or death sentence — the first time that’s happened in more than 40 years.

Still, Texas was one of just two states — Arkansas is the other — responsible for almost half of 2017’s executions. And nearly one in three of the nation’s 39 new death sentences last year were handed down in three counties: Riverside in California, Clark in Nevada and Maricopa in Arizona.

It would be tempting to conclude from this litany, which is drawn from an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center, that capital punishment is being reserved for the most horrific crimes committed by the most incorrigible offenders. But it would be wrong. The death penalty is not and has never been about the severity of any given crime. Mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, childhood abuse or neglect, abysmal lawyers, minimal judicial review, a white victim — these factors are far more closely associated with who ends up getting executed. Of the 23 people put to death in 2017, all but three had at least one of these factors, according to the report. Eight were younger than 21 at the time of their crime....

The rest of the developed world agreed to reject this cruel and pointless practice long ago. How can it be ended here, for good?

Leaving it up to individual states is not the solution. It’s true that 19 states and the District of Columbia have already banned capital punishment, four have suspended it and eight others haven’t executed anyone in more than a decade. Some particularly awful state policies have also been eliminated in the past couple of years, like a Florida law that permitted non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences, and an Alabama rule empowering judges to override a jury’s vote for life, even a unanimous one, and impose death.

And yet at the same time, states have passed laws intended to speed up the capital appeals process, despite the growing evidence of legal errors and prosecutorial misconduct that can be hidden for years or longer. Other states have gone to great lengths to hide their lethal-injection protocols from public scrutiny, even as executions with untested drugs have gone awry and pharmaceutical companies have objected to the use of their products to kill people.

Last summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that the death penalty would eventually end with a whimper. “The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” Justice Ginsburg said at a law school event. “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”

That’s a dispiriting take. The death penalty holdouts may be few and far between, but they are fiercely committed, and they won’t stop killing people unless they’re forced to. Relying on the vague idea of attrition absolves the court of its responsibility to be the ultimate arbiter and guardian of the Constitution — and specifically of the Eighth Amendment. The court has already relied on that provision to ban the execution of juvenile offenders, the intellectually disabled and those convicted of crimes against people other than murder.

There’s no reason not to take the final step. The justices have all the information they need right now to bring America in line with most of the rest of the world and end the death penalty for good.

January 2, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Noting some notable SCOTUS petitions

Via How Appealing, I noticed these two notable stories about notable certiorari petitions on notable sentencing issues.  The first linked story concerns a petition in a capital case that has been widely discussed, but that I doubt will be granted; the second linked story concerns a petition in a non-capital juve case that raises an issue that has been festering in lower courts ever since the Supreme Court's Graham ruling in 2010:

December 24, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Noting executions uncompleted in 2017

This recent Houston Chronicle story, headlined "71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017," provides another perspective on US execution data for the year winding down. Here are some details:

Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country.  That's one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation's killingest state. Nearly a third of the year's 23 executions took place in Texas....

"The process is better than it was a decade ago," said Robert Dunham of DPIC. "And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures."

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said.  The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners' execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.

Prior recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Lamenting that the "law descends into a ghoulish inferno" as it contemplates the execution of a condemned Alabama murderer

LawProf Bernard Harcourt has this lengthy new op-ed in the New York Times under the headline "The Ghoulish Pursuit of Executing a Terminally Ill Inmate."  Both the substance and style of the commentary is compelling, and here are excerpts:

When judges schedule a lethal injection for a terminally ill prisoner whose struggle against lymphatic cancer and extensive medical history has left him without any easily accessible veins, our law descends into a ghoulish inferno.  It is a dreadful place where our most august jurists ruminate over catheter gauges and needle sizes, and ponder whether to slice deep into the groin or puncture internal jugular veins. History will not judge us favorably.

Last week, only a few hours after the stunning electoral victory of a Democratic candidate in the Alabama senatorial race, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court signed a death warrant in the case of a 60-year-old man who has been languishing on death row for 30 years and fighting cranial cancer since 2014.

I had barely managed to absorb the news from Alabama’s election when I got the call at noon the next day. I recognized the Alabama area code but thought it was a reporter seeking a comment on the election.  Instead, a clerk from the Alabama Supreme Court dryly notified me that the justices had just set an execution date for my longtime client, Doyle Lee Hamm.

Mr. Hamm has been on Alabama’s death row since 1987, after being convicted of murdering a motel clerk, Patrick Cunningham, during a robbery.  For over three years now, he has been battling a fierce lymphatic and cranial cancer.  In February 2014, Mr. Hamm was found to have a large malignant tumor behind his left eye, filling the socket where the nerves from his brain went into his eye.  The doctors found B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer of the lymph nodes, with a large mass protruding through the holes of his skull. They also discovered “numerous abnormal lymph nodes” in the abdomen, lungs and chest....

His medical treatment and history has left him without any usable peripheral veins.  Back in late September, an anesthesiologist from Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Mark Heath, conducted an extensive physical examination to determine whether there were any veins suitable to deliver a lethal injection.  Dr. Heath found no usable veins. He also found that Mr. Doyle’s lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.  In Dr. Heath’s expert opinion, “the state is not equipped to achieve venous access in Mr. Hamm’s case.”

Yet, without even addressing the risks associated with attempting venous access for a man who will be 61 years old with no usable veins in his arms or legs, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court set an execution date.  Some other judges — perhaps on the federal bench — now will have to deal with the bloody mess.  And a bloody mess it would be.

Those other judges will have to pore over medical reports and sonograms — as a federal judge did in the case of David Nelson, another Alabama death row inmate, in 2006, before he died of cancer — to decide whether they can insert an 18-gauge catheter into Mr. Hamm’s femoral vein in his groin, or scalpel him open to find a subclavian vein, or poke around his neck to find his internal jugular vein; whether the thickness of the catheter would preclude pricking a vein in his hand where a butterfly needle can no longer enter; and how to navigate around malignant lymph nodes while trying to achieve percutaneous access to his central veins....

This is justice today. Court opinions filled with ghastly details about how we prick and poke, and slice and cut, and poison other human beings. Opinions that, someday soon, we will look back on with embarrassment and horror.  Our justice is so engrossed with how we kill that it does not even stop to question the humanity of executing a frail, terminally ill prisoner.

In Doyle Hamm’s case, the lack of peripheral veins and lymphatic inflammations create the unconstitutional risk of a cruel and unnecessarily painful execution.  But the constitutional violation is only half of it.  It is justice itself that is in peril.

You may recall the machine that Franz Kafka brilliantly described in the haunting pages of “The Penal Colony.” That machine tattooed the penal sentence on the condemned man’s body, over hours and hours, before sucking the life out of him.  Our machinery of death today makes Kafka’s imaginative machine seem almost quaint.  Ours not only tattoos the condemned man’s body with needles and scalpels but also irremediably taints our justice for years to come.

Stories like these continue to reinforce my belief that states seriously interested in continuing with the death penalty ought to be seriously involved in exploring execution alternatives to lethal injection.

Meanwhile for more background on this particular lawyer's work to prevent his client from being executed, one should check out this New Yorker post  headlined, "The Decades-Long Defense of an Alabama Death-Row Prisoner Enters a Final Phase."

December 20, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Notable account of notable application of death penalty in China

This article from The Guardian, headlined "Thousands in China watch as 10 people sentenced to death in sport stadium," highlights that criminal procedure and drug enforcement in another large nation can look a lot different than they do in the United States.  Here are the details:

A court in China has sentenced 10 people to death, mostly for drug-related crimes, in front of thousands of onlookers before taking them away for execution.

The 10 people were executed immediately after the sentencing in Lufeng in southern Guangdong province, just 160km (100 miles) from Hong Kong, according to state-run media. Seven of the 10 executed were convicted of drug-related crimes, while others were found guilty of murder and robbery.

Four days before the event, local residents were invited to attend the sentencing in an official notice circulated on social media.  The accused were brought to the stadium on the back of police trucks with their sirens blaring, each person flanked by four officers wearing sunglasses.

They were brought one by one to a small platform set up on what is usually a running track to have their sentences read, according to video of the trial.  Thousands watched the spectacle, with some reports saying students in their school uniforms attended. People stood on their seats while others crowded onto the centre of the field, some with their mobile phones raised to record the event, others chatting or smoking.

China executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, although the exact figure is not published and considered a state secret.  Last year the country carried out about 2,000 death sentences, according to estimates by the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights NGO based in the United States.  China maintains the death penalty for a host of non-violent offences, such as drug trafficking and economic crimes.

However, public trials in China are rare.  The country’s justice system notoriously favours prosecutors and Chinese courts have a 99.9% conviction rate. The trend to reintroduce open-air sentencing trials is reminiscent of the early days of the People’s Republic, when capitalists and landowners were publicly denounced.

The most recent public sentencing and subsequent executions were not a first for Lufeng. Eight people were sentenced to death for drug crimes and summarily executed five months ago in a similar public trial, according to state media.

The town was the site of a large drug bust in 2014, when 3,000 police descended on Lufeng and arrested 182 people. Police confiscated three tonnes of crystal meth, and authorities at the time said the area was responsible for producing a third of China’s meth.

December 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Looking at latest notable Texas death penalty realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Will any state really start conducting executions with opioids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Lots of juicy SCOTUS relists for sentencing fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 04, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977

 

Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985

 

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

 

Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997

 

George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005

 

Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013

 

Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017

 

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

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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"The Law of Abolition"

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Furman and Finitude"

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent prior related post:

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Voting intrigue in SCOTUS capital case dissent on latest order list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Florida and Texas carry out executions on same night

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Spotlighting challenges facing federal prosecutors in capital pursuit of Sayfullo Saipov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 03, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

"Trump labels US justice system 'laughing stock' "

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What Constitutes 'Consideration' of Mitigating Evidence?"

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gallup reports reduced levels of support for death penalty in US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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